In 2007 the International Commission Against Corruption and Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) became the first international anti-graft agency to exercise legal power inside a country. Over the next decade the UN-backed commission accomplished what Guatemala’s frail justice system alone could not. It broke up rackets between criminals and politicians. In 2015 its investigations prompted the resignation and jailing of the president, Otto Pérez Molina. That helped Jimmy Morales, a comedian who ran on an anti-corruption platform, win the next election. “We are a government fighting against corruption, and what better way to do that than with CICIG?” he mused shortly before he took office.
Mr Morales changed his tune in 2017 after CICIG uncovered evidence that he and his party, the National Convergence Front, had accepted more than $1m in illegal donations for his election campaign (he denies wrongdoing). CICIG also provided evidence that has led to the trial of Mr Morales’s son, José, and his brother, Samuel, on charges that they stole public money by filing fake invoices.
In August 2018 Mr Morales said he would not renew CICIG’s two-year mandate, which will expire in September this year. On January 5th he barred Yilen Osorio, a CICIG investigator with diplomatic immunity, from re-entering the country. He was detained for 36 hours at Guatemala’s main airport. On January 7th Mr Morales upped the ante, demanding that CICIG disband and giving its foreign workers 24 hours to leave.
Two days later the constitutional court blocked the order, saying Mr Morales does not have the power to withdraw from international treaties at such short notice. This sets up a confrontation between two branches of government that will shape politics at least through the presidential election scheduled for this June, in which Mr Morales is not permitted to run. In this fight he can count on support from congressmen, a tenth of whom have been investigated for criminal activities, and from the supreme court, the highest tribunal for non-constitutional matters.
Mr Morales may have more than one reason for wanting to get rid of CICIG. He will lose his immunity to prosecution after he steps down as president next January. He may feel safer if CICIG is not around to supply evidence. By shutting CICIG down now, he will also prevent it from scrutinising spending in the next election. And he might make it harder for the next president to bring CICIG back.
Some observers speculate that Mr Morales is targeting the constitutional court as much as he is CICIG. The court has repeatedly frustrated his attempts to thwart CICIG. Last year, it overturned an order barring the commission’s head, Iván Velásquez, from re-entering the country after a trip. The court angered business in September by suspending construction of the San Rafael silver mine in southern Guatemala until the mining company consults local indigenous groups. If he gets rid of CICIG and tames the constitutional court, Mr Morales will face few checks on his power.
The government is conducting a public-relations campaign against the court. On January 7th Sandra Jovel, the foreign minister, described its ruling in favour of Mr Osorio as “illegal”. On January 9th the supreme court, which has been deferential to the president, forwarded to congress a request to strip three constitutional-court judges of immunity to prosecution. Their justification is that last year the judges improperly interfered in foreign policy by vetoing Mr Morales’s attempt to expel the Swedish ambassador, who had lamented corruption in Guatemala. A prosecutor has drawn up the three judges, alleging that their decisions in favour of CICIG were illegal.
Congress will be able to strip the constitutional judges of their immunity as soon as next week. That will have little effect unless the the attorney-general, María Consuelo Porras, presses the charges that have been drawn up against them. She has given no indication yet that she plans to do that. The process would take months, says Fernando Carrera, a former foreign minister.
In the meantime, Mr Morales will treat the constitutional court’s decisions as illegitimate and may even disobey them. CICIG’s foreign workers have left the country. Its Guatemalan employees are lying low. The lawyer representing CICIG in the trial of the president’s son and brother did not show up to court on January 9th.
Guatemala’s constitutional crisis raises the stakes in the forthcoming election. Many of the president’s critics hope that Thelma Aldana, who as attorney-general from 2014 to 2018 co-operated closely with CICIG, will enter the race with a campaign based on supporting CICIG and the rule of law. Guatemalans are fed up with corruption. Some 70% express confidence in CICIG. “If I were a candidate I would want to be on the right side of that issue,” says Eric Olson of the Wilson Centre, a think-tank in Washington, DC.
Angry Guatemalans are already beginning to demonstrate on the streets in the commission’s defence. If these protests grow, worries Claudia Escobar, a former judge, Mr Morales will exploit the disorder to postpone the elections. That would be a serious blow to democracy.