The Growing Trouble in Guatemala

trouble guatemala

The Growing Trouble in Guatemala

By Mary Anastasia O’Grady, The Wall Street Journal, September 18, 2017

A barrage of condemnation from Washington descended on Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales in August when he tried to kick the lead prosecutor from the United Nations International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, known by the Spanish abbreviation CICIG—the only U.N. system of outsourced justice in the world—out of his country. Mr. Morales declared Iván Velásquez persona non grata two days after the prosecutor, who is Colombian, requested that Mr. Morales’s immunity from prosecution be lifted so he could be investigated for allegations that his 2015 campaign accepted illegal contributions.

Republican and Democratic leaders on the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee said Mr. Morales was wrong, as did the State Department. It’s unusual that all three parties—classifying President Trump as neither GOP nor Democrat—agree on anything. What’s even more striking is that a majority of Guatemalans seem to be in agreement with the American political class that Mr. Morales was out of line.

It is rare that U.S. policy and Guatemalan opinion coincide. But hold the applause. CICIG is an effort at nation building, and on that score Guatemalans view it as a failed experiment. Their country is no closer to a rule of law than it was a decade ago when then-President Oscar Berger invited CICIG to set up shop in the largest nation of Central America’s notoriously crime-ridden Northern Triangle.

Mr. Morales is a former comedian who ran for the highest office in Guatemala on a pledge to clean up its politics. He says he is innocent of CICIG’s charges and that if there were illegal contributions, he did not know about them.

That’s entirely possible. But his attempt to boot the prosecutor hasn’t advanced his defense with the public. It didn’t work either. The constitutional court overrode his decree. Mr. Velásquez remains.

On Wednesday Guatemala’s Congress brought more shame on the political class when it passed a reform that would retroactively eliminate leadership responsibility for breaking campaign finance laws and apply criminal penalties only to the person who recorded the transaction. This would not only clear Mr. Morales but nullify CICIG charges against the leadership of two other political parties. A corresponding bill in the reform lowered prison sentences drastically for a wide array of crimes. With many congressman from the largest political parties under criminal investigation, the motive was clear.

All four major newspapers cried foul on Thursday. Civil society—from the business community to academia—and even the Guatemalan inspector general demanded that Mr. Morales use his veto power to kill the bill. Late Thursday the constitutional court suspended the new laws and late Friday, under public pressure, Congress withdrew them.

CICIG has had mixed reviews since its formation in 2006. The first two lead prosecutors—one Spanish, one Costa Rican—came and went without much success in uncovering political rot. They even came under popular suspicion that they allowed their own politics to interfere with their mandate.

Under Mr. Velásquez’s leadership, working with Attorney General Thelma Aldana, CICIG collected enough evidence in 2015 to indict then-Vice President Roxana Baldetti and then-President Otto Pérez Molina on charges of bribery and graft. That opened the door for the election of Mr. Morales, and generated public respect for Mr. Velásquez.

Mr. Morales’s woes are not a left-right issue. But he has spawned a political crisis that will fuel efforts by radical elements to destabilize the country, with the eventual goal of bringing down the government. Militants know that Hugo Chávez was able to demolish Venezuelan institutions by exploiting national frustration with corruption at a time when oil prices were low due to a strong dollar and the economy was wobbling.

Only serious reform can cure what ails Guatemala. CICIG may be meeting its specific mandate to hunt crooked politicians, but it is not a long-term solution. First, because the U.N. has its own corruption problems and it also leans left. To imagine that its work in Guatemala will not be politicized is to ignore history. Second, because the country needs to shape its own institutions and shore up the rule of law.

Last year a package of constitutional reforms was put on the table in the Guatemalan Congress with the goal of increasing the independence and professionalism of the judiciary and reducing its administrative burdens. But it died without adequate debate, most likely because special interests that benefit from a weak justice system saw it as a threat to the status quo.

So the country remains in legal limbo. Property invasions and violence to block hydroelectric projects violate the rule of law. Criminal gangs spur large migrations. Investors flee. The nation may be grateful to CICIG in this moment, but it is no substitute for the functioning justice system that honest Guatemalans deserve.

Write to O’Grady@wsj.com.