Analysis Jimmy Morales and the CICIG: A Brief reflection on the situation in Guatemala


Eduardo Fernández Luiña is International Relations Analyst

The International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) has been since its origins, back in 2007, a controversial body, able to awaken the interest of specialists in the fight against corruption inside and outside the Central American country.

On September 1, President Jimmy Morales said in a problematic and uncertain statement that CICIG would end its mandate in 2019. All of this because the State of Guatemala no longer wishes to extend its mission in the country for two more years.  Up to this date, and if everything remains the same, CICIG will end its mandate after ten years of service and 5 extensions, all of them requested by the Government of Guatemala, as indicated in the document that create the organization.

Morales’ decision is legally valid. Of course, it seems logic that the President – the head of the executive power of a state – can end a commitment of international nature when he deems it necessary. In international politics, it seems evident that opting out is (and must remain) an option. In political terms, however, the situation is very different. The public rejection of the Commissioner by the executive branch, the threats regarding the renewal of his work visa and the refusal to facilitate his entry into the country – Comissioner Iván Velásquez has traveled to the United States – arguing reasons of public order and security have terribly rarified the political atmosphere that exists in the country, polarizing society in a dangerous way.

CICIG has been harshly criticized by opponents of the organization both inside and outside Guatemala. In Latin America there are countless individual and collective actors dedicated to rejecting such ‘hybrid’ organizations. The sates of the region do not want strong organizations, with political influence and that enjoy exogenous financing to the political system they intend to help. However, there are three noticeable types of critics.  Firstly, those who academically and technically reject CICIG’s performance. Then there are others that, as a result of a clumsy and unthinking nationalism, simply delegitimize the task that this international organization – not Guatemalan – has carried out during its living years. And finally, some of CICIG’s victims. There are individuals who are suffering unfair punishments –in many times worse than the crime they are accused of – as a result of an obscene abuse of pretrial detention.

CICIG is clearly not perfect. It is obvious that there are perverse incentives in the design of the institution - as in the design of any other organization. CICIG is an organization created to disappear if it achieves its mission. Therefore, many assume - quite rightly, because this could happen - that in order to survive, the organization itself is the one most interested in not fulfilling its mission. Basically, its mission is to train the Guatemalan authorities - the Public Ministry and the Judiciary - in the fight against impunity and corruption. Have they achieved their goal after ten years? Clearly not. Could they achieve it in the near future? It seems difficult.

And all of the above because the Guatemalan state has been controlled for decades by a series of extractive elites that have parasitized the nation, favoring illicit enrichment and the concentration and centralization of power by certain actors. In Guatemala today, an unprecedented political battle is taking place and both sides are tightening the thumbscrews and polarizing society.

The latest news is the resolution passed by the Board of Directors of the Congress, which limits (at the Board's discretion, of course) access to information managed as well as emanating from the legislative chamber. This is an opaque and anti-transparency measure that should be of deep concern to Guatemalan civil society.

CICIG generated the political influence that national entities dedicated to fighting corruption did not possess. And this is quite difficult to transfer. Politics, again, is more important here than the strict legal procedure.

Obviously, in a state governed by the rule of law, the presumption of innocence must be assumed. We are not claiming that all the inmates resulting from CICIG’s work are guilty, since the foregoing – delivering a sentence – is the task of the judges. But we must recognize that, without a doubt, the people who have benefited the most from the end of CICIG's mandate today are those who are in prison. These are the people who want their cases not to progress, including the former Vice-President of the Republic and the former President. Those people who are waiting, sleeping, aware that if CICIG leaves, they will have a chance.

 CICIG had the courage - and at the same time the imprudence - to fight everyone. CICIG had the courage (and at the same time the imprudence) to fight with everyone. It fought with the executive power, fought the legislative power and the party system, fought with the business structure of the country... All this made it win countless enemies, among which was the president of the Republic himself, Jimmy Morales. 

To defend the existence of CICIG is not to be on the sidelines, being aware of the errors that CICIG has in its design. I am consistent, and it is clear to me that CICIG has pressured the judicial authorities so that certain individuals are in prison without proper evidence of the commission of a crime. Moreover, in other situations, the organization has been influential in order to keep individuals in prison for crimes of low value and minor political relevance. If CICIG remains in force, it would be imperative to correct this situation as soon as possible. Mistakes, the bad practices that were the day-to-day politics in Guatemala, cannot be made. Before CICIG, pre-trial detention was already being overused in Guatemala. Unfortunately, that has not changed with the arrival of the Commission and should change.

No one can deny though that the Commission has contributed to the division of powers in the country. No one can deny that those who went unpunished now think twice. No one can deny that, without a doubt, the greatest explosion of civil society that the country has seen took place as a result of CICIG's action. This one led to the imprisonment of Vice President Roxana Baldetti and, in September 2015, of President Otto Pérez Molina himself. CICIG helped to divide power by providing political influence to a Public Ministry and a Judicial Branch that were dispossessed and subject to political power. And it has been able to do so because CICIG is precisely an exogenous organism to the system. An organ that does not depend (neither financially nor in terms of management) on the general architecture of the Guatemalan State.

The latter is what most critics of CICIG do not want to acknowledge. Politics matters. Can the Guatemalan system heal itself? It seems difficult when many of the actors involved in the politics of that exciting country find themselves walking on thin ice. Some of them because they are hit with corruption cases they want to hide.  Others, because they are simply afraid of disappearing, of being marginalized by the system and of having no future. The situation is complicated and the best thing - if common sense prevails - would be to renegotiate the agreement, rather than finalizing the mandate, thereby hindering the relationship with the United Nations. In such renegotiation the achievement of concrete objectives would prevail, since what is sought is the training of local authorities so that they can face up to the problems associated with corruption, organized crime and impunity in the country.

On the other hand and due to the polarization generated, it seems necessary to end the mandate of the current Commissioner if what we are looking for is to retake the tranquility and constructive criticism in both poles. The institution matters, not the person. We must opt for a profile that does not displease either one or the other.  If CICIG has made one thing clear, it is that the leadership of the Commissioner is of great relevance in determining the success or failure of the institution and the legitimacy it possesses in the eyes of the citizenry. Definitely, both a change in direction and a redefinition of the mandate seem to be sine qua non conditions for the continuity of CICIG in the country.

But all of the above cannot lead to misleading. The existence of exogenous entities authorized by local authorities can contribute to improving the institutional quality of a given country. It can help in the fight against corruption and undoubtedly help to build a better democracy in Guatemala and in those countries that have low institutional quality. It is a positive resource that should be naturally supported.

Neither the explosion of civil society nor high-impact cases such as 'La Línea' or the 'co-optation of the State' case would have come to light if CICIG did not exist. For this reason, because the positive results are more numerous than the negative ones, it seems common sense to bet for a further extension until 2021.

CICIG is a watchdog organization, an institution outside the system that in a certain sense contributes to its organization. The design problems it possesses cannot contribute to its destruction but rather to its transformation. Only in this way, by building, transforming and not destroying, will the Guatemalan State be able to soften the authoritarian image that it sent to the world last September 1. Oliver Burkeman once wrote in The Guardian that "moderates are the really tough guys”. If we want to reduce the existing polarization in the country and contribute to an improvement of Guatemalan democracy, we must be able to recognize the strengths and weaknesses that underlie both poles of the political spectrum. CICIG's critics are partly right, and so are its advocates. Therefore, if we really want to fight impunity and defeat corruption, we need to build bridges that partially silence one another, thanks to the achievement of empirical results. That will be the challenge, if the opportunity is given, of the new CICIG.

Translated by David Outeda

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