MS Risk Blog

Guatemala’s President Jimmy Morales and his fight against CICIG

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After having been a supporter of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), Guatemala’s President Jimmy Morales has during 2017 and 2018 gradually turned against them, with the conflict escalating drastically during December and January 2019. When CICIG, an UN-mandated group tasked with investigating illegal influence and corruption in the country, started investigations on President Morales in January 2017, his former support of the group turned sour. With the escalation of attacks on CICIG by President Morales, he is not only upsetting the domestic population, but also the international community. President Morales is now likely facing a lose-lose situation, where he either submits himself to the CICIG’s investigation and risk impeachment and trial, or keeps his bid to terminate CICIG, likely to lead to nationwide, violent protests and condemnations from the international community. Escalations in protests could lead to an uptick in Guatemalan migrants heading towards Mexico and the US. And if Morales successfully removes CICIG, the level of corruption in Guatemala is likely to increase.

CICIG’s official mission is to investigate criminal efforts to infiltrate the government and undermine the democratic rule in Guatemala. Previously, the justice system in Guatemala was weak, and corruption was extremely deeply rooted. An Amnesty International report from 2002 called the climate a “corporate mafia state”. CICIG was requested by the Guatemalan government to help with the problem. They started their work in 2007 and has since then been responsible for cases against more than 680 people. In November 2018, they claimed to have won 310 convictions and taken down 60 criminal networks. Even though CICIG has got a long list of enemies, it is backed by both the international community and domestic public opinion. This backing is likely the reason why the group has been able to survive and succeed for so long.

The question of CICIG’s continued existence has largely developed into a legal battle on an institutional level. On paper, it is quite easy to get rid of CICIG, as their mandate to operate has got to be renewed every two years. If it is not, the commission has to be disbanded. In August 2018, Jimmy Morales announced that the mandate would not be renewed, and the commission was to be dissolved by September 2019. At the beginning of January 2019, Morales escalated the bid, giving the investigators in the commission 24 hours to leave the country. A battle between governmental institutions ignited after the announcement as the expulsion was blocked by Guatemala’s Constitutional Court. The Guatemalan Congress, mostly consisting of Morales-loyalists, subsequently tried to impeach several judges in the Constitutional Court. They claimed that the judges had overstepped their authority by ruling in foreign affairs issues. It is likely that Morales’ decision to terminate CICIG was based on the fact that they started investigations into Morales and his party at the beginning of 2017, which was a real threat to the president. The extent of CICIG’s powers was demonstrated when they targeted Morales’ predecessor Otto Perez Molina, who was forced to step down and stand trial after CICIG’s investigation revealed evidence of corruption. He was subsequently jailed and is still awaiting trial.

Morales’ bid against CICIG could lead to an uptick in migrants heading towards the US. His actions have sparked nationwide protests, as thousands have taken to the streets to express their discontent with the President. These protests risk escalation and could lead to a more severe situation in Guatemala if Morales does not back down. The issue does, therefore, not stop with Guatemala. Guatemalans are one of the most prevalent migrant group making its way to the US, and if Morales’ bid leads to a security crisis in Guatemala, it is highly likely to bolster the number of people fleeing the country. Further, if CICIG is successfully removed, the judicial apparatus in Guatemala is weakened, likely leading to higher levels of corruption. This will also, besides the obvious domestic issues, probably lead to a higher number of migrants fleeing Guatemala, in the mid-term.

CICIG has, because of its success, been akin to a role model for neighbouring countries who are also fighting widespread corruption. In 2016, Honduras launched MACCIH (Support Mission against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras), as inspired by CICIG. El Salvador has also initiated an UN-backed anti-corruption programme, albeit with fewer powers than CICIG. What is happening with CICIG and Morales has revealed a glaring weakness in the resilience of the programme and can be used as a lesson for similar future endeavours. However, it can also set a precedent of Presidents shutting down inconvenient investigations. How the international community, and indeed the domestic public, responds might decide what we learn from this.

The downfall of democracy in Nicaragua during the protests in 2018, and the protesting resulting in the fall of Guatemala’s ex-President Otto Perez Molina, can help guide us through possible outcomes of Morales’ battle with CICIG and the protests that have ensued. In Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega announced social security reforms that sparked a massive upheaval in April 2018. Despite Ortega’s cancellation of the reform five days later, the opposition had grown too strong, and calls for Ortega’s resignation had begun. Protests intensified, but Ortega’s government stood firm. Since July 2018, crackdowns on the protesters increased. Protesting was declared illegal in September, several media offices were raided and human rights organisations in the country got their licences revoked in December 2018. Nicaragua has, due to the protests and Ortega’s responses, seen a breakdown in democracy and is now facing severe international sanctions and increased violence and turmoil. In Guatemala, with the protests against former President Otto Perez Molina in 2015, protests, although being massive, did not turn into a severe nationwide crisis. Molina, even though he at first refused to resign, let the judicial apparatus do its thing. He eventually resigned after a warrant was issued against him. In the light of these cases, the current situation in Guatemala can take several turns. If Morales’ doubles down and keeps pushing for the termination of CICIG, he risks extended, violent domestic turmoil. However, if he stops his bid against CICIG, and let CICIG do its work, he might face trial but save the country from extended protests.

How the situation plays out will have consequences not only in Guatemala, but internationally as well. Besides severe domestic consequences, If Jimmy Morales does not back down, there is likely to be a hike in migration, mainly towards Mexico and the US. However, CICIG serves as a kind of example of corruption commissions in Latin America, and despite the horrific costs the present situation might lead to, there will be lessons to learn. How Morales’ acts in this lose-lose situation is likely to determine the state of security and corruption in Guatemala in both the short-term and the long-term.