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GUATEMALA
A unique approach to tackling corruption and impunity
Louisa Reynolds
11/20/2015
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CICIG has made impressive achievements in dismantling corruption networks and bring to justice two former presidents.

On Aug. 22, protesters who had gathered outside the presidential palace to demand former President Otto Pérez Molina’s (2012-2015) immediate resignation chanted “Iván amigo, el pueblo está contigo” (Iván, you are our friend; the people support you), in reference to Colombian lawyer Iván Velásquez, head of the UN-supported International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). Many carried banners with the hashtag #CICIGSí (Yes to CICIG).

Since the CICIG uncovered a massive customs fraud ring known as “La Línea” (The Line) on Apr. 16, its popularity has soared to the point that a survey published on Nov. 1 by Prensa Libre newspaper shows that 95 percent of Guatemalans approve its work.

“La Linea” was a huge network in which businesses allegedly paid kickbacks to customs officials in exchange for charging just 40 percent of standard import tariffs. It involved low-level customs officials, mid-ranking bureaucrats and went all the way up to the director of the tax administration. Incriminating wiretap recordings presented by prosecutors in court suggest that “La Línea” was masterminded by Pérez Molina himself as well as his vice president, Roxana Baldetti, who allegedly received 50 percent of the bribes collected by corrupt customs officials.

The revelations prompted an unprecedented wave of nation-wide protests demanding Pérez Molina’s and Baldetti’s resignation. While Pérez Molina’s popularity plummeted and his party imploded, uncovering the “La Línea” case won CICIG widespread support from civil society, to the extent that the CACIF (the Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial and Financial Associations), the powerful private sector lobby which had previously opposed the renewal of CICIG’s mandate, which was due to expire last September, made an unexpected u-turn and swung behind the commission, calling for “a national crusade against corruption”. Under intense pressure, Pérez Molina’s sinking administration was forced to ask the U.N. to renew CICIG’s mandate for another two-year period.

Pérez Molina, a retired army general, managed to cling to power for four months and was finally forced to step down on Sept. 1 after the second of two impeachment attempts in Congress managed to strip him of his prosecutorial immunity. The former president and his vice president, as well as a cohort of top government officials, are currently being held in prison while awaiting trial.

Nobody is untouchable
Created in 2007 in response to intense pressure from civil society, CICIG investigates organized crime and trains local prosecutors. In a country plagued by drug trafficking and gang violence, where around 95 percent of crimes go unpunished, the commission has achieved the unthinkable: its investigations have put two former presidents behind bars – Alfonso Portillo, who was extradited to the U.S. in 2013 and found guilty of attempting to launder bribes paid by the Taiwanese government through U.S. banks, and now Pérez Molina.

Its impressive track record also includes prosecuting drug kingpins and a former police chief accused of running a death squad as well as solving the murder of high profile lawyer Rodrigo Rosenberg, a lawyer who engineered his own assassination in order to destabilize the administration of President Álvaro Colom (2008-2012), Pérez Molina’s predecessor.

“CICIG showed people in Guatemala that yes you can. You have Portillo convicted and now you have Perez Molina. The strongest message is that nobody is untouchable”, Maureen Meyer, senior associate for Mexico and Migrant Rights at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), told Latinamerica Press.

One of the key factors driving prosecutors’ success in these cases has been a series of legal reforms put forward by CICIG that have given the Attorney General’s Office the necessary instruments to investigate criminal networks, such as the use of wire tapping, which played a key role in the “La Línea” case, allowing the use of “confidential informants” or members of criminal organizations to receive legal benefits in exchange for information that could lead to the dismantling of those groups, and the implementation of a witness protection program.

“The reason CICIG was so important in Guatemala was that there was a general acknowledgement that some kind of outside support was needed to reform the institutions because they were so weak and corrupted that they couldn’t heal themselves. Up until now it’s done a lot of positive things in terms of strengthening the capacity of the Attorney General’s Office”, Eric Olson, associate director of the Latin America program at the Wilson Center, told Latinamerica Press.

Institutional strengthening
But despite the progress achieved over the past eight years, it remains to be seen whether the Guatemalan justice system will be able to investigate and prosecute corruption at the highest level once CICIG’s mandate finally comes to an end in Sept. 2017.

“The country’s own institutions need to commit to this”, Velásquez told Latinamerica Press. In coming years, says Velásquez, Guatemala needs to prioritize allocating more resources to the Attorney General’s Office so that it can improve coverage beyond Guatemala City (public services in rural areas are notoriously lacking) and implement legal reforms that change the way Supreme Court and Court of Appeals judges are currently elected. Despite efforts to make the appointment of judges more transparent, the process has proven to be highly flawed and judges continue to be appointed based on their political connections rather than merit.

After the “La Línea” case hit the headlines, neighboring countries such as Honduras and Mexico have called for the creation of similar commissions that can assist them with their own struggles against corruption and impunity.
Velásquez says that a similar commission could be “a good source of support for any country that needs to bolster its justice system and that faces challenges in terms of judicial independence” but he underscored that every country needs to find a solution tailored to its specific needs and political context.
—Latinamerica Press.


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In a press conference, Iván Velásquez, head of CICIG, reveal the findings regarding the “La Linea” customs fraud network. (Photo: CICIG)
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