IN HIS old television sitcom, Jimmy Morales used to dress up as a prisoner. In one sketch, he told his cellmate that the country’s high-ranking public officials were all atheists. “None of them can imagine a better life than this one,” he said, rubbing his fingers together as cash registers and laughter rang in the background.
Such quips about Guatemala’s endemic graft helped propel Mr Morales to the presidency in 2015. A businessman and comedian, he ran on the slogan “neither corrupt nor a thief”. But three years later, the joke seems to be on the voters. Rather than cleaning up government, he is on the brink of undermining Guatemala’s long struggle to establish the rule of law.
In January 2017 the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG)—a UN body that aids local prosecutors with corruption cases—accused the president’s son and brother of filing fake invoices for the use of public funds. Later that year CICIG presented evidence that Mr Morales’s party accepted more than $1m in illegal donations for the 2015 election. The president denies all wrongdoing. But he would already have been charged had congress agreed to strip him of his immunity from prosecution, which it has twice declined to do.
On August 31st Mr Morales struck back, announcing that he will not renew CICIG’s mandate. The commission will have one year to wrap up its work. In addition, while Iván Velásquez, CICIG’s Colombian head, was on a trip abroad, the president barred him from returning to Guatemala. Around 40 CICIG staffers are waiting for visa renewals. And just in case the government’s message was unclear, it punctuated its decision by sending armoured cars to prowl around CICIG’s headquarters.
An actual “deep state”
CICIG is a unique institution set up to deal with a grave problem. Even by Latin American standards, the Guatemalan justice system is weak. The country suffered the region’s bloodiest civil war, which killed some 200,000 people in 1960-96. In a campaign against insurgent groups, its army slaughtered indigenous civilians, for which it has been accused of genocide.
Once the conflict ended, politicians and generals afraid of being held to account launched shadow campaigns of harassment and violence against human-rights activists. They also derailed criminal investigations through bribes and threats aimed at judges, prosecutors and witnesses.
The resulting climate of impunity led to what Amnesty International, in a report published in 2002, called a “corporate mafia state”. It consisted of an “unholy alliance” between criminal gangs, the business elite, politicians and the security services. Murders of environmental and land-reform advocates became commonplace, and were rarely, if ever, solved.
Recognising that those seeking to root out corruption were outgunned by those participating in it, in 2007 the Guatemalan government invited the UN to set up CICIG. Since then its investigators have identified more than 60 criminal organisations belonging to the so-called “parallel state”, and have assisted in bringing cases against 680 people. No fish has been too big. In 2015 CICIG’s revelation of a corruption network in the tax-collection agency led to the removal and imprisonment of the then president, Otto Pérez Molina.
CICIG’s mandate also calls for it to bolster Guatemala’s own prosecutors. The commission has beefed up protection for witnesses, expanded the use of wiretaps, trained local sleuths in tracing cross-border transactions and helped different agencies collaborate to get more cases to court. Its successes have made it a role model. In 2016 neighbouring Honduras set up its own international anti-impunity body.
Unsurprisingly, CICIG has a long list of enemies. The commission should have been easy to abolish. It must disband if its mandate is not renewed every two years. As CICIG’s investigators circled Mr Pérez Molina in January 2015, he said the body would soon “come to an end”. Yet he wound up extending its mandate that April—four months before he was ousted.
CICIG has fended off such threats thanks to two sources of strength: foreign backing and domestic public opinion. Guatemala’s cash-strapped treasury depends on bountiful aid from America’s government, and remittances from abroad make up 11% of GDP. Under Barack Obama the United States staunchly supported CICIG. In 2015 Joe Biden, his vice-president, warned that a planned aid package would probably require renewing CICIG’s mandate. Mr Pérez Molina listened.
A change of tune in Washington may explain why Mr Morales has dared to tread where his predecessor did not. In May Marco Rubio, an American senator, blocked a $6m grant to CICIG to protest against Guatemala’s imprisonment, for using false passports, of a Russian family who say they were persecuted by Vladimir Putin’s government. They were later freed, but the episode made clear that America’s support for CICIG was now wobbly.
Mr Morales has reinforced this trend by courting Donald Trump. In 2017 a group of Guatemalan political parties signed an $80,000-a-month lobbying contract with Barnes & Thornburg, a law firm whose boss has often worked for prominent Republicans. One week after neighbouring El Salvador drew America’s ire by recognising China instead of Taiwan, Guatemala reaffirmed its support for Taiwan. Mr Morales was also the second world leader after Mr Trump to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and moved his country’s embassy there. His efforts seem to have paid off. The United States conspicuously neglected to condemn his decision to let CICIG’s mandate lapse.
With one of the pillars supporting CICIG knocked down, the government is now seeking to topple the other: public opinion. Turning CICIG’s words against it, Sandra Jovel, the foreign minister, calls the commission a “parallel structure” of its own. She says that the UN has established a “super-national entity that dictates to governments how to exercise their duties”.
For anyone familiar with CICIG’s charter, such arguments are flimsy. The commission operates at the pleasure of the government. Only local authorities can prosecute cases; CICIG merely assists them. The body has proposed or endorsed 34 legal reforms, but it is up to congress whether to accept them. And the commission’s international nature is central to its mission. Only investigators with experience around the world can hope to take on globe-spanning criminal networks.
CICIG was never intended to remain in Guatemala indefinitely. The true measure of its legacy will be whether Guatemala’s own justice system has developed enough to prosecute corruption successfully itself. In theory, local authorities might simply be ready for the challenge at last.
However, Mr Morales’s other policies suggest he hopes to kneecap the judiciary, not empower it. Since March several senior police officers have been removed from their posts without obvious cause, as have 25 local police chiefs and 100 officers. Many of their successors have ties to the army, where the “parallel state” began.
The legislature seems to be on board. Lawmakers have their own reasons to oppose CICIG: 20% of them are under investigation. A bill now under review would enable congress to strip the constitutional court’s five justices of their immunity from prosecution. That could pave the way for charges to be filed against its three pro-CICIG judges, who blocked Mr Morales from having Mr Velásquez expelled in 2017. Such fears may be premature. But CICIG is nervous: one member fears the justices “could be arrested within weeks”.
The best hope for CICIG’s survival lies in the presidential election next June. In one recent poll, 70% of respondents said they wanted the commission to stay. On September 11th indigenous protesters demonstrated in front of Congress, calling for CICIG to remain. In another recent survey measuring confidence in institutions, CICIG came fourth, behind the fire service and the Catholic and evangelical churches. Mr Morales landed near the bottom.
Moreover, the opposition may have a strong recruit. Thelma Aldana, a former attorney-general, led some of CICIG’s best-known prosecutions, and has publicly flirted with a run for president. Polls show that she would have a good chance of winning.
Mr Morales can always change his mind. However, he still might manage to cripple CICIG without kicking it out. One plausible scenario is a deal that would keep it in place, but with “reforms” to make it less fearsome. In any such negotiation, however, Mr Morales’s bottom line is likely to be CICIG’s case against him personally. Ultimately, it is Guatemala’s elected politicians who will determine whether Mr Morales faces trial. Only if they turn against him will the courts decide whether he joins Mr Pérez Molina behind bars.