Guatemala's anti-corruption CICIG body to shut down: What to know

As CICIG's mandate comes to an end this week, here's why the anti-corruption body mattered and what happens next.

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    Guatemala's anti-corruption CICIG body to shut down: What to know
    An activist holds a sing that reads in Spanish 'Thanks CICIG' at the United Nations International Commission Against Impunity headquarters in Guatemala City [Moises Castillo/AP Photo]

    Guatemala City - Guatemalans are concerned that corruption will flourish with a vengeance following the imminent shutdown of an international commission against impunity.

    Saturday marked one year since Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales announced he would not renew the mandate of the United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG).

    Over the past 12 years, CICIG has worked alongside Guatemalan investigators and prosecutors to dismantle criminal networks entwined with state power.

    "CICIG was an innovative experiment," UN representative Laura Flores said earlier this month.

    "It became a landmark on a global scale," she added.

    As CICIG's mandate officially comes to an end on Tuesday, here are five things to know about the UN-backed anti-corruption body:

    1. CICIG was never just about corruption

    CICIG's prominence skyrocketed in 2015 when the commission's investigations into a criminal network involving the tax and customs agency led to the resignation and arrest of then-President Otto Perez Molina, then-Vice President Roxana Baldetti and other officials on fraud, bribery and other charges.

    The roots of the La Linea corruption ring stretched back decades to networks established under military rule in the midst of a 36-year civil war between the military and leftist rebel forces.

    An estimated 200,000 people were killed during the 1960-1996 conflict. A truth commission and courts have concluded state actors committed acts of genocide against indigenous Mayan civilians.

    During the war, military and intelligence forces spawned lasting criminal networks operating as hidden powers behind the scenes of politics and business. They are known in Guatemala as CIACS: illegal groups and clandestine security apparatuses.

    Jimmy Morales
    A woman holds up a sign with portrait of Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales that reads in Spanish 'national shame', during a rally in support of CICIG in Guatemala City [File: Moises Castillo/AP Photo]

    As part of the Peace Accords that ended the armed conflict, the government acknowledged its obligation to combat any manifestation of CIACS. A court ruling halted a 2004 government agreement with the UN to investigate CIACS, but renegotiations led to the creation of CICIG in 2007.

    CICIG is often dubbed an "anti-corruption body", but the prosecution of high-level officials is just one tangible result of a much deeper objective. The commission has also worked on substantial electoral and judicial reforms.

    2. Clandestine apparatuses 'maintain state control'

    CICIG's mandate is ending precisely because the commission has managed to get to the root of the problem in Guatemala, head commissioner Ivan Velasquez said on Wednesday during the presentation of CICIG's final report. 

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    "CIACS have the state in their power," he said, adding that the commission got too close to the central nucleus of the clandestine apparatuses.

    The report, Guatemala: Captured State, reveals how CIACS operate as illegal political-economic networks at all levels and branches of government with power that extends far beyond any one administration.

    CICIG brought forward more than 120 cases, obtained more than 400 convictions, and uncovered more than 70 criminal networks, but its work was far from over.

    "The absence of CICIG opens the door for the actors identified as those responsible for structures dedicated to corruption and impunity, especially with regard to the management of state funds, to feel free to continue to operate," Iduvina Hernandez, director of the Association for the Study and Promotion of Security in Democracy, told Al Jazeera.

    "That freedom can be found in the fact that they are returning to their origin, which is that they are illegal groups and clandestine security apparatuses - structures of repression that exercise power and have ties to organised crime," she said.

    3. The CICIG crisis is not just about CICIG

    In 2017, CICIG began investigating President Morales and the ruling FCN party for alleged illegal campaign financing during 2015 presidential election, when Morales ran on an anti-corruption platform. Morales' son and brother also came under investigation for corruption but were both acquitted this month.

    Morales and his allies began taking action against CICIG and commissioner Velasquez in 2017 and have not stopped since. After Morales announced in 2018 he would not renew CICIG's mandate, the government declared Velasquez a threat to national security and barred him from entering the country.

    Morales accused CICIG of selective and ideologically motivated prosecution, claiming the commission was violating Guatemalan law and sowing "judicial terror" in the country.

    Guatemala Sept 20 protests
    A demonstrator holds up a poster of Guatemala President Jimmy Morales as a prisoner, during a protest against Morales's decision to not renew the mandate of CICIG [File: Luis Echeverria/Reuters] 

    The Constitutional Court ruled against the ban, but the Morales government openly defied the ruling, prompting an ongoing crisis of constitutional order and the rule of law that transcends CICIG.

    Led primarily by targets of criminal investigations, including Morales, the campaign to shut down CICIG has been accompanied by attempts to undermine and even remove critical Guatemalan institutions and officials: the Constitutional Court, the head of the Special Anti-impunity Prosecutor's Office (FECI), and the human rights ombudsman. 

    FECI was created in 2008 to work with CICIG. FECI actually prosecutes the cases; CICIG has been a joint plaintiff.

    After months of uncertainty about FECI's future in the wake of the CICIG shutdown, the attorney general reaffirmed Thursday that FECI will continue with existing and additional staff. The dozens of highly-trained Guatemalans who worked directly for CICIG are reportedly under consideration, but no commitment has been made to incorporate them.

    4. CICIG will not be back anytime soon

    General elections were held in June. Polls have consistently shown more than 70 percent of Guatemalans support CICIG. Thousands have protested Morales' decision to end the mandate, and several presidential contenders pledged to fight for its extension or return, but none of them secured a place in the August 11 presidential runoff election.

    "There is a high level of support for CICIG. But people did not manage to translate that into clear political party positions," Jose Carlos Sanabria, socio-political unit director at the Association for Research and Social Studies, told Al Jazeera of the runoff. 

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    President-elect Alejandro Giammattei proposed a new national commission against corruption. It will comprise three Guatemalans selected following dialogue with various sectors, he said this week, without providing details about its scope or functions.

    Giammattei, who will take office on January 14, also stated that US officials are on board with his proposed commission. The United States government was a key CICIG supporter and funder for its first 10 years, but then essentially gave the Morales administration a tacit green light to shut it down.

    The UN will continue to prioritise support for the justice sector, UN Resident Coordinator in Guatemala Rebeca Arias said on Thursday at the attorney general's news conference addressing the future of FECI.

    5. The future of the judiciary is at stake

    The elections of Giammattei and the next congress are not the only ones to coincide with the CICIG shutdown this year.

    Key judicial appointment processes are currently under way. Supreme Court judges serve five-year terms, designed to differ from four-year executive and legislative branch terms. But this year they line up.

    Special commissions are currently accepting Supreme Court and Appeals Court nominee applications, and the commissions will eventually decide which nominees make it to congress session votes. The appointment process is moving quickly and is expected to be completed by the current, outgoing legislators, many of whom are subjects of CICIG investigations. 

    "The actors identified as CIACS who feel they are free (to) have the opportunity to consolidate the cooptation of the justice system," said Hernandez.

    "With the elections of the courts in these conditions, Guatemala is not so much taking a step backward as it is standing in front of a precipice, taking a step forward," she said.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News