Guatemala is on the verge of a major crisis

Guatemala’s war on corruption just escalated as the presidency and a UN-backed anti-graft body faced off.

Guatemala Jimmy Morales
A demonstrator holds a sign calling for the resignation of Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales in Guatemala City on August 27 [Reuters/Fabricio Alonzo]

Guatemala, as most of Central America, is known for deep-rooted corruption in its governmental institutions. Yet in 2015, the country made global headlines for its efforts to change this.

It came after massive protests unfolded in response to a variety of high-level corruption scandals, which resulted in the resignation and indictment of former President Otto Perez Molina and his Vice President Roxana Baldetti. These major happenings opened an unparalleled opportunity for the Central American country to transform the political system and eliminate deep-rooted corruption.

At present, however, the political establishment is divided. As further anti-graft efforts have led to more than a hundred former cabinet members facing trial, entire sectors of the elite now oppose meaningful change, including current President Jimmy Morales. In a stunning move, during the early morning hours of August 25, the second anniversary of the national strike, he announced his decision to expel the head of the UN-backed international commission against impunity (CICIG).

Such an extreme measure was considered by many analysts an outright political suicide. The reasons that led the president go through the unthinkable have been building up over the past year.

2015: The campaign against the criminal elites

The year 2015 was a watershed moment in Guatemala’s contemporary political history. The massive protests that unfolded that year were sparked by a series of exposes that revealed an intricate corruption scheme that involved the sitting president, vice president and a cadre of high-level cabinet officials.

The work of local prosecutors in cooperation with the CICIG bore fruit, and an anti-corruption movement was born. Civil society demanded results from the judicial processes and helped push for the removal of members of the corrupt political establishment from office.

OPINION: A different kind of war in America’s ‘backyard’

That same year, general elections took place and Jimmy Morales, a former comedian, was elected to the highest public office. He campaigned on being an outsider and not part of the corrupt political class. Although many thought that was true, it was clearly not the case for members of his political party, Frente de Convergencia Nacional (the National Convergence Front – FCN).

The FCN was founded by former military officials that were allegedly involved in gross human rights violations during Guatemala’s decades-long civil war. From early on, the party has sought the expulsion of the CICIG, as they saw it as a threat to the country’s “sovereignty”. This might explain why, after the election, the FCN was quick to ally itself in Congress with members of the corrupt political establishment allegedly tied to organised crime and the criminal networks that engulf all branches of government.

Jose Manuel Morales, son of Guatemala's president, sits in court during his trial in Guatemala City on August 30 [Reuters/Luis Echeverria]
Jose Manuel Morales, son of Guatemala’s president, sits in court during his trial in Guatemala City on August 30 [Reuters/Luis Echeverria]

Throughout 2016, the anti-corruption movement led by the general prosecutor, in cooperation with the CICIG, continued to pursue a series of investigations against Guatemala’s corrupt elite. It persisted even in the face of failed attempts to introduce reforms to strengthen the judicial system, sabotaged by the supporters and beneficiaries of the status quo with the government and Congress.

In June 2016, a massive illegal party financing scheme was revealed. It involved over 50 high-profile politicians, bankers, and business owners. This rocked the foundations of not only Guatemala’s political class, but also its close links with the business elite, which until then had thought itself beyond the reach of the law.

Now, the anti-corruption probes have reached President Morales himself and his family. His brother and son have been accused of alleged fraud and embezzlement and are facing trial. Furthermore, the CICIG requested Mr Morales’s immunity to be lifted on the grounds of alleged illegal campaign financing. Two days later, Mr Morales declared the commissioner persona non grata on Twitter and ordered him to leave the country immediately. His decision was overruled by the Constitutional Court, but the political crisis is set to continue in the following weeks.

The importance of the rule of law

The unexpected has happened and there is little room for certainty. The situation is constantly changing and there are credible reports that the president is seriously considering disobeying the Constitutional Court ruling. This will plunge Guatemala into a deeper constitutional crisis and the end result of such a scenario is anybody’s guess. The national and international media, civil society, and the international community have decried Mr Morales’s actions. The president’s political allies are, for the most part, members of the corrupt political establishment that seek “stability”, i.e. impunity.  

Leaders of the private sector, on the other hand, are divided. They are worried that the anti-corruption efforts are creating an environment of uncertainty that would discourage possible investors and slow down economic growth. However, business elites must bear in mind that uncertainty and distrust to the country is created by widespread corruption and the corrupt political class. Without rule of law, there is no stability for anyone, let alone investors.

On the other hand, parts of civil society are still falling into the trap of equating every single political opponent to the corrupt establishment. Failing to recognise the nuances between factions of the private sector only plays into the rhetoric of the defenders of the status quo.

Emerging political leaders, the private sector, civil society, and popular movements must recognise that a common agenda benefits everyone except those involved in corruption. Powerful sectors of the elite which, for now, have remained on the sidelines of this process need to unequivocally support the anti-corruption efforts and a minimum set of reforms. This includes the overhaul of the judiciary and the electoral system.

A renovation of the political class is crucial. It is now clear that the current political establishment is only interested in short-term fixes and very few members are interested in a long-term plan for the country.

Yet, these efforts will be fruitless unless local leaders and members of the Guatemalan elite acknowledge that mutual concessions are necessary to consolidate a democratic rule of law.

The success of the fight against corruption depends on it.

Alfredo Ortega Franco is a Guatemalan international human rights lawyer. He specialises in the Inter-American Human Rights Protection System and has worked throughout Central America.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.