The mandate of Guatemala’s International Commission Against Impunity (CICIG from the Spanish) came to an end on 3 September. The commission, an independent that investigated organized crime and corruption, had operated in Guatemala since 2007. When it brought investigations against President Jimmy Morales, he accused it of overreach and refused to renew its mandate. The final report of the CICIG reveals details of extensive state capture and leaves a dark warning of the consequences.  

On Thursday 16 April 2015, media outlets in Guatemala announced something out of the ordinary: the police and the Ministerio Público (Public Ministry), backed by the CICIG, ordered the arrests of several high-ranking public officials for their involvement in a customs and tax corruption case known as La Línea. Even the then president, Otto Pérez Molina, and vice-president, Roxana Baldetti, were implicated and faced arrest. On the same day, Attorney General Thelma Aldana and the CICIG commissioner, Ivan Velasquez, gave a press conference to inform the public of what was happening.

What was most surprising was not the exposure of the network, but that a government ministry had identified it and named suspects from the highest spheres of government, ordering their arrest. For Guatemala, this was unprecedented, as was the transparency surrounding the events. That day became named ‘CICIG Thursday’ – and on subsequent Thursdays, more cases would see the light of day thanks to the commission.

In 2013, under Commissioner Velasquez, the CICIG had begun working with the Public Ministry and Guatemala’s judiciary in a way that was simply unlike previous commissioners’ investigations. With Velasquez at the helm, new indictments became the order of the day, and there was always the fear that you would be the next politician, civil servant or business leader to be named and shamed in the newspapers. In each of the cases the commission probed, the message was clear: corruption in Guatemala was structural, and political and judicial reforms were needed.

But for every action there is a counter-force, and with the same vigour that the CICIG investigated and uncovered the networks of state and private-sector corruption, opposition to it mounted and the commission was shut down by government order. The CICIG had been created through an agreement between the United Nations and the government of Guatemala. Its mandate was extended five times – the last extension, whose term would run until 3 September 2019, had been signed by Morales. At that point, the president was blissfully unaware that, in August 2017, the Public Ministry, with the support of the commission, would seek to rescind his immunity from prosecution for a case related to illegal campaign financing.

Days after being accused by the commission, Morales began efforts to terminate its mandate. Among the actions he undertook were to declare Commissioner Velasquez persona non grata, banning his return to the country, and to refuse work visa renewals for foreign investigators at the commission, effectively crippling the organization. Morales also tried to unilaterally end CICIG’s mandate, notifying the UN that Guatemala was not interested in the commission continuing its work. Some of these attempts were rejected following legal battles. Velasquez was able to return from a work trip to Guatemala, and the president’s unilateral decision to terminate the mandate of the CICIG was not implemented. However, in the end, the commission’s term was not renewed and it ceased to exist from 3 September 2019.

The effect on Guatemalan society was profound and destabilizing, not least because it polarized the nation, already torn apart by corruption, along left or right-wing ideological lines; you were either for one side or the other. While some elements called for protests against the closure, others congratulated the president for his stance.

A legal officer who had worked for the CICIG said, ‘Never had it pained me so much to clear my stuff out of an office.’ Many Guatemalans felt the same way seeing the CICIG decommissioned; the demise of such a valuable organization elicited intense feelings. But, more than that, it gave rise to a collective national consciousness
about the role played by corruption in Guatemalan public life – from the perspective of both victims and perpetrators. One thing the commission had revealed is that the perpetrators are keen to maintain the status quo.

In its final report, the CICIG confirms that there are illicit political-economic networks operating in Guatemala: ‘Illegal structures that operate between the public and private sectors, between the formal and informal and where leading politicians, public officials, members of the judiciary, lawyers, military personnel, business leaders are involved, where opportunistic relationships are established to commit crimes and their impunity is guaranteed.’

The report also reveals that organized crime has co-opted certain political structures to secure protection and impunity. Some will try to discredit or erase the legacy of the commission. The one agency that they could not penetrate has now been eliminated.

There is no hope that the commission will return. The president-elect, Alejandro Giammattei, has publicly said, ‘The CICIG is over.’ Given the events, Guatemalans will have to advocate for comprehensive policy and legal reforms using the commission’s recommendations as a way forward, including strengthening the judicial system; removing obstacles to investigation and criminal prosecution; and a constitutional reform to change how high court and appeal judges are elected. If this does not happen, the illicit political-economic networks operating in the country will face little challenge with a justice system working in their favour.