More tragedy than comedy: Jimmy Morales’s war on Guatemala’s graft-busters

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“NEITHER corrupt nor a thief.” With that slogan Jimmy Morales, a comedian with almost no record in politics, won Guatemala’s presidential election in October 2015. It is easy to see why that line, and that biography, persuaded voters. The election came just after the country’s president and vice-president had been jailed on charges that they masterminded a scheme to bilk the customs authority of its revenues. That turned out to be one of several scams in which they allegedly took part. The detective work that led to their downfall was carried out by a UN-backed “commission against impunity” (CICIG) and Guatemala’s chief prosecutor. It came after months of protests by tens of thousands of Guatemalans.

Mr Morales has let them down. CICIG is investigating claims that his party took illegal donations, including from drug-traffickers. It has asked congress to strip him of immunity from prosecution. In response he has declared the chief of the commission, Iván Velásquez, persona non grata and attempted to throw him out of the country (see article). The constitutional court blocked that order, but damage has been done. Mr Morales has made himself the enemy of the institution that Guatemalans trust most and has harmed his presidency.

Outsiders should worry, too. Guatemala is one of two countries in Latin America where corruption-fighters are having conspicuous success. The other is Brazil, where prosecutors have brought charges against scores of politicians, including the president, Michel Temer, in the vast Lava Jato (Car Wash) investigations. Across the region, judicial systems are being tested by revelations that Odebrecht, a Brazilian construction company at the centre of Lava Jato, bribed officials in a dozen countries. Their citizens want the sort of accountability thatCICIG has brought to Guatemala. If Mr Morales can shut it down, that will encourage other presidents tempted to stymie the graft-busters. Mr Temer charges his accusers with “sowing disorder”. In Mexico pro-government parties have blocked the appointment of a new anti-corruption prosecutor.

Mr Morales’s defenders argue that the commission is overstepping its mandate and hurting investment by going after businessmen. A foreign agency, they say, has no business enforcing Guatemala’s laws. None of these objections has merit. Under the UN’s agreement with the government, CICIG can help prosecute crimes by “illegal security groups”, which in Guatemala means cabals of politicians, firms and organised-crime outfits. An economy purged of corruption will get more investment, not less. Mr Morales renewed CICIG’s mandate and endorsed the organisation’s work, until it threatened him.

Sense on CICIG

Critics say that it would be better for Guatemala’s own courts and police to enforce the law. They are right, but part of CICIG’s mandate is to strengthen those institutions. It has helped train police and create specialised courts for organised crime. Until such institutions mature, Guatemala’s second-best solution is still needed. Neighbouring Honduras has adopted a version of it, backed by the Organisation of American States.

CICIG now needs stout support, both within and outside Guatemala. Mr Morales should withdraw the expulsion order and co-operate fully with the commission. The private sector should defend Mr Velásquez, rather than merely issue bland endorsements of the fight against corruption. The American government has been robust, but it could do more. It provides nearly $150m a year in aid to Guatemala, some of it conditional on progress in fighting corruption. It should make clear that Mr Morales’s war with CICIG is putting that money at risk. His Latin American peers will be watching.

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Julio Marchi ©

Publisher / Editor at BS News & Media Services
A free thinker, not labelled as anything, not associated with any party, not part of any group or engaged with any religion... A simple guy tired of the nowadays bullshit who decided to promote more serious debates about what is really happening hoping to bring back intelligence to the superficial and shallow news & headlines that unfortunately took over the existing media scene.
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