Head of anti-graft body offers to resign amid Guatemalan crisis

Ivan Velasquez says he will step aside if President Morales backs away from his decision to shut down CICIG.

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    Ivan Velasquez, head of the International Commission against Impunity, speaks during an interview with Reuters in Guatemala City [File: Luis Echeverria/Reuters]
    Ivan Velasquez, head of the International Commission against Impunity, speaks during an interview with Reuters in Guatemala City [File: Luis Echeverria/Reuters]

    Guatemala City - The head of an international anti-corruption body has offered to step down if the Guatemalan government keeps in place the beleaguered commission it shut down last week.

    The fate of the UN-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) has been at the heart of a months-long constitutional crisis pitting Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, much of the private sector, and government-allied members of Congress against CICIG, head commissioner Ivan Velasquez, the Constitutional Court, social movements and opposition politicians.

    "If the government of Guatemala guarantees that CICIG can continue until the end of its mandate, I have no issue resigning," Velasquez told Colombian newspaper El Pais in an interview published late on Monday.

    Under the leadership of Velasquez, a former Colombian prosecutor and judge, CICIG investigations have led to the prosecution of many government officials, including former President Otto Perez Molina, who resigned and was arrested in 2015.

    Elected that same year, Morales's initial support for CICIG evaporated after his son and brother were arrested and the president and his party were investigated for illegal campaign financing. Morales has denied all allegations of corruption.

    The Morales administration's campaign against CICIG has largely focused on Velasquez, under whose leadership CICIG began to prosecute high-level government officials. Morales claims Velasquez is biased and that the commission with him at the helm has been manipulated. 

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    Morales attempted to bar Velasquez from the country in 2017 and 2018. The Constitutional Court reversed the measures, but Morales and his government have begun openly defying rulings from the country's highest court.

    On January 7, Morales announced his government's immediate unilateral withdrawal from the CICIG agreement with the UN and gave the commission's international staff 24 hours to leave the country, instead of working until the commission's current mandate ends in September. The Constitutional Court ruled against the move, to little avail.

    The government's actions represent a serious threat to judicial independence, according to opposition politician Sandra Moran, a longtime activist and the first openly gay member of Congress.

    "The president's actions and behaviour have been creating an atmosphere of great tension," Moran told Al Jazeera.

    'We're governed by the corrupt'

    The government's latest attacks on CICIG and parallel attempts to remove Constitutional Court judges have sparked renewed protests. Thousands of Guatemalans took to the streets around the country this week. Tuesday's national day of action, the second consecutive nationwide day of protests was organised by CODECA, a campesino or "peasant farmer" organisation. 

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    "We're being governed by the corrupt," Thelma Cabrera, a national CODECA leader, told Al Jazeera Tuesday in the Guatemala City central plaza as the day's protest march came to an end.

    "It's important that as the people we go out and demonstrate our support for CICIG," she said.

    Thousands of Guatemalans have rallied in support of CICIG over the last few days [Sandra Cuffe/Al Jazeera] 

    The crisis continues to unfold just as the first wave of a new caravan of Honduran migrants and refugees began crossing Tuesday into Guatemala.

    US President Donald Trump has repeatedly condemned the new caravan and the Central American exodus in general, but maintains good relations with the governments of both Honduras and Guatemala, despite political crises in both countries. After nearly a decade of strong support for CICIG, the US has been taking a more ambiguous position, citing support for anti-corruption efforts generally but not explicitly for CICIG.

    "The Trump Administration is trying to block migrants fleeing Guatemala from entering the .. while at the same time cozying up to the corrupt regime that's fueling the country's crisis. Why? The government has spent over $2 million on D.C. lobbyists," US Democratic Congresswomen Ilhan Omar said in a tweet on Tuesday. 

    CICIG commissioner Velasquez also pointed to Guatemalan lobbying efforts in the US as a factor in the anti-CICIG campaign that picked up steam in 2016, after Morales took office.

    "A very aggressive smear and misinformation campaign began on social media and through lobbying in the United States by business people," Velasquez told El Pais.

    The Guatemalan government has not yet publicly responded to Velasquez's offer to resign.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News