Hanging on to justice in Guatemala

This article is written with Manfredo Marroquín, President of Accion Ciudadana, Transparency International’s chapter in Guatemala

In Guatemala there is a high profile battle between the politically powerful, the Supreme Court and an independent judge that could determine if the progress the country is making in its battle against corruption will continue. In the latest skirmish, unfortunately, there has been a setback.

As we write, the Guatemalan Parliament has voted not to lift the immunity of the President Jimmy Morales. He is facing an investigation into allegations of misuse of campaign funds for his presidential campaign.

This latest move follows a public fight between the president and Ivan Velásquez, the head of the anti-corruption commission that works under a UN mandate, known as CICIG. Morales had tried to expel him from the country but the Constitutional Court ended up putting an injunction on that order.

The president will be riding high now that parliament has rallied to protect him from investigation. For now he has said he is not going to insist on Velásquez expulsion. But the threat of weakening CICIG will have repercussions.

This is not simply a confrontation that pits a national leader against an international body. Indeed, when Guatemalans learned of their president’s attempt to expel Velásquez, they took to the streets to protest. They understand what is at stake. CICIG investigated political leaders who siphoned off money from the public coffers and who were once considered untouchable and put them behind bars for corruption.

The work of CICIG in Guatemala has shown that there are ways to target endemic corruption. It has shown that impunity can be challenged. Its independence must be protected.

In fact, there are many reasons to believe that the CICIG approach – bringing in independent outsiders to offer advice and expertise -- could become a model for how to fight corruption in countries with an endemic problem. It has already spawned a similar approach in neighboring Honduras.

But if a president can derail CICIG’s work at the stroke of a pen by threatening to expel its leader – even if it still wants to keep the organisation itself -- there will be little hope for future of this model of justice in Guatemala or elsewhere because its independence will be lost.

Breaking the cycle of corruption

Guatemala was always considered a country crippled by corruption, beholden to elites from both the political and criminal classes. Its people remained poor; its murder rate perpetually frightening; corruption considered endemic. No one in the country believed it could change from within.

So Guatemala tried something new. In order to introduce credibility into a judicial system that was seen as compromised by politics, it allied its General Prosecutor with independent external experts who worked under the auspices of the United Nations. Some judges have played an important role and it is to be hoped that more will support CICIG in the future.

It took six years for the idea to become operational but in 2008 CICIG started its work. It’s promoted dozens of relevant investigations, put hundreds of corrupt agents -- including a former president and vice president -- behind bars and won the respect of Guatemalans. This will be lost if the current President can undo CICIG’s mandate and role.

The Supreme Court in Guatemala voted to allow Parliament to decide if President Morales should have his political immunity lifted so he can ask questions about $800,000 of suspect political party financing. And Parliament failed to deliver, not surprisingly as they closed ranks on one who is now their own.

Article 44 of Guatemala’s Constitution states that the social interest prevails over personal interests. When the Public Prosecutor and the CICIG sought an investigation into alleged illicit funding, it is clear that, by making a direct intervention into the work of the CICIG, President Morales was indeed putting his personal interests first and violating the constitution.

As we watch the drama unfold in Guatemala we need to remember three key things. Democracy and fighting corruption depend on strong institutions that are independent. No one person – a president, a businessman or a member of parliament – is above the law. Strong institutions are what the people want and need. That is why they took to the streets in protest when the President tried to subvert a fledgling system that is beginning to give them hope.

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