Guatemala Turns Against Corruption Fighters, and U.S. Turns Away

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Latin American leaders respond to political corruption scandals in unpredictable ways. Brazilian President Getulio Vargas committed suicide. Ecuador’s Abdala Bucaram fled to Panama. Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales has added an authoritarian flourish to the genre: He sent tanks into the streets.

This was a case of fiat foretold. For the last two years, Morales has waged a battle with the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, a United Nations-sponsored investigative group that has fingered Morales’s family members for shady dealings and named Morales himself in a widening investigation into illegal campaign financing. The commission, known by its shorthand CICIG, accused him of taking dirty campaign money during the presidential campaign in 2015, and recommended that the Supreme Court authorize Congress to strip him of immunity from prosecution.

These were not the actions of some cowboy prosecutors. The anti-graft commission has been backed by the G-13, which includes some of the world’s most powerful democracies, who pay for the panel and have spoken up when officials push back. That’s what the U.S. State Department did just a year ago, when Morales threatened to shut down the panel.

What’s disturbing is that the renewed government offensive against the investigators was not just rash, but wholly in character. Instead of addressing the charges against him, Morales accused his accusers. On Aug. 31, he dispatched the national police and armored cars to CICIG headquarters. He gave the investigators a year to wrap up their work and leave, and last week barred commission president Ivan Velasquez, a Colombian national who was traveling at the time, from reentering Guatemala. Velasquez, he said, “is a person who attacks public order and the security of the country.”

The official backlash was a throwback to the days of authoritarian caudillos and generalissimos that Latin Americans thought were receding behind them. More and more, Latin voters outraged by corruption and abuses of power by elected leaders are saying that there is no democracy without the rule of law.

Indeed, the anticorruption wave has brought the political class to account in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Panama, Peru — and belatedly, to Guatemala as well. The first UN investigators arrived in the mid-1990s to help Guatemalans make sure that clandestine security and criminal groups active during the country’s 36-year-old dirty war didn’t go unpunished. Yet because many of the dirty warriors segued to dirty politics when the shooting stopped, the commissioners were tasked with jump-starting independent national probes into graft and money laundering.

With their help, Guatemalan prosecutors brought an aging dictator to trial for human rights abuses, and then made history by ousting a sitting president, himself a retired general, for involvement in a tentacular customs scam.

Enter Jimmy Morales, a former television comedian, who rode the public indignation into office on the slogan “not corrupt, not a thief.” By turning on the graft busters, Morales is flouting the national zeitgeist and defying Guatemala’s international donors and allies.

Group of 13 members Germany and Norway have decried the government’s decision to end the anti-corruption commission’s mandate. “Canada remains committed to supporting the rule of law and accountable governance in the country. The people of Guatemala deserve nothing less,” Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said.

U.S. Democratic lawmakers called out Morales’s assault on the graft investigators. And yet beyond a tepid off-point tweet by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo praising Guatemala’s antidrug policies, followed by a noncommital bromide from the State Department, the Trump Administration has fallen silent, or worse. Republican Senator Rand Paul even took to Twitter on Monday to decry “wasteful spending of U.S. tax dollars abroad” — a coded wink at the Morales government’s demand to shut down the commission.

Champions for clean government were nonplussed. “Why is the U.S. backing down?” said Eric Olson, deputy director of the Wilson Center's Latin American Program. “The U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley has made fighting corruption a priority? This is a total disaster.” The fallout can be felt thousands of kilometers to the north, where Guatemalans fleeing the gathering turbulence at home make up an increasingly larger share of illegal migrants pouring over the border into the U.S.

One possible explanation for U.S. diffidence is diplomatic quid pro quo. Following Washington’s lead, Guatemala recently transferred its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and unlike regional neighbors El Salvador, Panama and Dominican Republic has bucked pressures to cut ties to Taiwan in favor of China. Tellingly, officials in Taipei hailed the Morales government’s own anticorruption efforts “for the public good as per institutionality and international law.”

The effort to turn off the lights at CICIG isn’t the only threat to accountability in Guatemala. Government allies are pushing legislation that would give lawmakers sweeping powers to oversee investigations of public officials, from the president to human rights prosecutors, before any charges reach the courts. Currently, the Supreme Court vets those charges. The danger, critics say, is that congress could then preempt the justice system and block graft probes.

Protesters fearing just that hit the streets on Tuesday in support of the anti-graft investigators.

Guatemala’s political opponents fear the proposed reforms to the rules on immunity amount to a “technical coup d’etat.”

“Judicial immunity was created during Guatemala’s transition to democracy to bar frivolous lawsuits that could put governability at risk. Now that idea has been totally inverted” Transparency International’s Alejandro Urizar told me.

By giving lawmakers the prerogative to decide who gets investigated, Guatemala is “politicizing the justice system,” he said. “That move can help protect the corrupt by making it easier to punish investigators and honest officials.” Of course, the same game can also come back to bite Guatemala’s vested interests, but only if government adversaries ever gain the upper hand in congress. “We’re convinced that the only way to reform the system is to shake up the balance of political forces, with strong, conscientious parities,” Urizar said.

Wielding intimidation and favors, Morales so far has kept the political establishment in tow. On Monday, he posted a video of his meeting with Guatemala’s provincial governors, thanking them for their support in his quarrel with the anti-graft commission. 

For anyone doubting their allegiances, the governors finished with the demand that the individual U.N. investigators hand over all receipts and income tax records.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Mac Margolis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin and South America. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.