Tackling Grand Corruption: Guatemala’s Successful Experiment

As guest blogger Mathiew Tromme wrote last week, Guatemala appears to be on the cusp of a major political transformation as a result of recent revelations of high-level corruption.   Citizens once fearful of expressing discontent with their government have taken to the streets in massive numbers both in the capital and the provinces.  The Vice President and several ministers have been forced to resign, and the continued tenure of the President is now in doubt should he not consent to major changes in the way the nation is governed.

Much of the credit for the revelations sparking this transformation goes to a small agency little known outside Guatemala, an unusual hybrid domestic-international organization accountable to the U.N. Secretary General with a mission to investigate crimes committed by politically powerful Guatemalans.  Quite possibly the most innovative experiment in governance in modern times, it has the independent investigatory power of an international tribunal, but unlike other tribunals the prosecution and trial of its cases are the responsibility of the Guatemalan judiciary.  Its success in developing cases against senior military and civilian leaders, working with prosecutors to see charges are filed, and pushing the courts to decide the cases fairly has been nothing short of remarkable.  Other nations up against ingrained grand corruption would do well to consider establishing a similar entity.

The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, known as CICIG after its name in Spanish (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala), was created in the aftermath of Guatemala’s long and brutal civil war.  In reaching a peace agreement, the parties had sought a way to curb the large, well-armed criminal gangs that were a legacy of that war and that, thanks to their connections to members of Guatemala’s elite, operated with impunity.  After the failure of earlier attempts, the Guatemalan government signed an agreement with the United Nations in 2006 creating CICIG with a mandate to “support, strengthen and assist” Guatemalan institutions in identifying, investigating, prosecuting, and dismantling domestic illegal security apparatuses and clandestine security organizations and eradicating the criminal gangs responsible for the widespread crime in the country’s justice system.  Although the Guatemalan legislature balked at ceding such powers to an entity that it could not control, under pressure from the United States and other members of the international community, it approved the agreement in 2007 and CICIG began operations in 2008.

CICIG’s successes in its seven plus years of existence are recorded on its bilingual web site. These include investigations leading to cases against the head of the Public Prosecutor’s Office of Crimes against Life and Personal Integrity for abuse of authority and dereliction of duty, a former president for embezzlement, and any number of senior police and security officers for corruption and human right violations.  The most unusual was its investigation of the suicide of an opposition lawyer.  The lawyer had arranged it in a way to look as if he had been murdered by Guatemala’s president, and CICIG’s revelations of the bizarre tale, later recounted in the New Yorker magazine, ended a political crisis that threatened a coup or worse.

Although its fame in Guatemala rests on its pursuit of criminals once thought above the law, CICIG has not ignored those parts of its mandate requiring it to help strengthen Guatemala’s criminal justice system.  As the International Crisis Group explained in a 2011 report, its achievements include “decisive support for civil society in achieving selection of an un-compromised attorney general in December 2010, the adoption of norms for the election of Supreme Court judges and generation of public awareness and debate concerning impunity and organized crime. CICIG directly influenced institutional arrangements within the MP [the public prosecutor’s office], thus leading to the creation in 2008 of a special prosecutor’s office (Unidad Especial de la Fiscalía de Apoyo a la CICIG) that assists its own work, and it also pushed through a limited number of important legal reforms.”

To be sure, CICIG is not a permanent solution to impunity.  At some point, the government of Guatemala will have to re-assume full responsibility for investigating crimes by its elite.  CICIG’s first head, Carlos Castresana Fernández, was very clear on this point.  As he explained in a lecture at Harvard Law School: “What the CICIG can do in the medium and long term is create a reference of justice in order for the people to know they can live with justice.”

CICIG would not exist nor would it have succeeded absent two critical factors.  First and foremost was the willingness of successive governments to out-source a critical, and sensitive, government responsibility.  That willingness was in part the result of Guatemala’s small but vibrant civil society but it is unlikely civil society could have persuaded the nation’s elites to agree to CICIG’s creation on its own.  The financial inducements and political pressure from the international community to first establish and then maintain CICIG has been critical.  A second factor has been CICIG’s leadership. It has been fortunate in having high quality individuals at the top.  Castresanas Fernández was succeeded by a former Attorney General of Costa Rica who in turn was succeeded in 2013 by the current head, a well-respected Colombian judge and prosecutor.    All three have brought a sense of mission, personal courage, and political skill along with first-rate legal skills to the position.

CICIG is surely a radical departure from the normal way states are governed.  But for countries that continue to suffer the ravages of grand corruption, the normal ways of governing are failing their citizens.  Surely, it is time for them to consider experimenting with CICIGs of their own making.

2 thoughts on “Tackling Grand Corruption: Guatemala’s Successful Experiment

  1. Pingback: Sharing Responsibility for Managing the Public Fisc: Another Way to Borrow Integrity | GAB | The Global Anticorruption Blog

  2. Pingback: Putting the Yemeni Humpty-Dumpty Together Again « LobeLog

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