CICIG’s Success in Guatemala: Independence Is Not Enough

Few contemporary developments in the struggle against impunity for high-level corruption are as extraordinary—and encouraging—as recent events in Guatemala, culminating last month in the resignation, and subsequent indictment, of President Otto Perez Molina in connection with a corruption ring in the customs service (known as the “La Linea” scheme). Perez, the first Guatemalan president ever to resign, has been on the impunity radar ever since the end of Guatemala’s 30-year civil war in 1996. These latest accusations against him are just a step, though perhaps the most successful step, in the sustained campaign to hold him accountable for various transgressions.

Before he was elected, Perez was the military general responsible for a remote region in Guatemala that saw some of the bloodiest massacres of the civil war. New evidence corroborates what many in Guatemala already strongly suspected – that he not only knew about but actually ordered the raids, murders, and torture that occurred under his watch. Perez—the military’s representative during negotiation of the 1996 Peace Accords—is also implicated in the murder of a Catholic bishop which occurred days after the Bishop published a report about the military’s culpability for genocidal war crimes.

Compared to these other alleged crimes, the customs fraud that triggered Perez’s resignation may seem, if not benign, then at least relatively mild. That is not to diminish the significance of the “La Linea” scheme: Hundreds of thousands of dollars (at least) that could have been spent to improve the welfare of Guatemalan citizens instead wound up in the pockets of corrupt leaders. But it does seem peculiar that a man who not only evaded prosecution but also became president amid allegations of genocide is now facing justice not for these violent crimes but rather for stealing money. (That said, additional charges related to his war crimes could and perhaps must still be filed against Perez. Yet it remains the case that it was the corruption scandal, not the war crimes allegations, that ultimately forced his resignation.) Why has this campaign to force Perez to answer for his crimes been successful, where past attempts have failed?

A big part of the story behind Perez’s arrest has been bottom-up public pressure in the form of street protests and mass demonstrations—the so-called “Guatemalan Spring.” Yet much of the credit also goes to an unusual institution: the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala, or CICIG). As Rick explained in an earlier post, CICIG is a UN investigative body—funded mostly by the United States—that exists to support the Guatemalan government’s efforts to dismantle relics of the internal armed conflict that contribute to rampant impunity within the nation. CICIG’s success against Perez has led to calls for its replication in other Central American nations. Earlier this week, the Organization of American States announced plans to create a CICIG-like entity to tackle corruption in Honduras.

Unlike the proposed Honduran version, CICIG was not originally conceived as an anticorruption body; its original objective was more about fighting organized violent crime (and indeed, the word “corruption” does not appear once in CICIG’s original mandate). But impunity—CICIG’s titular enemy—has a broad scope, allowing latitude for CICIG’s leadership to develop strategy. Previous CICIG commissioner and former judge Francisco Dall’Anese focused largely on transitional justice and domestic capacity-building, in line with CICIG’s original mandate. Success in this realm was mixed, with CICIG enjoying a better reputation internationally than within Guatemala, despite some prominent trials. By contrast, current CICIG Commissioner Ivan Velasquez—who began his career in a campaign to uncover human rights abuses in Colombia—has developed CICIG into more of an independent, investigative force. CICIG’s move toward corruption has boosted its reputation both at home and abroad. (Guatemalans today trust CICIG more than any other public institution including the Catholic Church.)

Indeed, a major reason that Perez will answer for his corruption-related crimes seems to be that CICIG, though originally created to address impunity issues associated with organized violence during and after the civil war, is somehow “better” at corruption under Velasquez than at transitional justice under Dall’Anese. Why is this? The answer is not just about its leadership’s personal preferences and expertise. Dall’Anese is no stranger to anticorruption cases against presidents, and Velasquez made his name fighting organized, violent crime in Colombia. Many, including Velasquez himself, have credited CICIG’s success in the Perez investigation to CICIG’s independence. But independence, while clearly important, is only part of the story. After all, CICIG operated independently when investigating war crimes as well. The full explanation for CICIG’s greater success in pursuing corruption cases has to do with the investigative tools available to it.

Dall’Anese’s most potent weapon was the plea bargain, which he used (not terribly successfully) to try to reach the masterminds behind the atrocities of Guatemala’s internal armed conflict. (In the end, though, it was the foot soldiers rather than the generals who received the harshest sentences). Velasquez’s anticorruption focus and success flow out of a different asset: wiretaps, on the authority of an anticorruption law passed in 2012. Velasquez redirected Guatemala’s newly enhanced wiretap capacity from drug trafficking and kidnapping cases toward anti-corruption. The authority conferred by the anticorruption law was crucial to the success of the Perez investigation, which involved 80,000 wiretaps and review of 5,000 emails. Digital surveillance authority combined with the nature of Perez’s corruption offenses as ongoing and contemporary allowed CICIG to gather concrete evidence, and not just witness testimony, against Perez for his financial crimes. CICIG’s corresponding inability to collect hard evidence related to wartime atrocities is one major reason that the organization was successful in investigating Perez and his administration for corruption but relatively ineffective at holding Perez or other military leaders accountable for their previous crimes.

Perez, the first former military official to lead Guatemala since its transition to democracy, in many ways exemplifies what those concerned with impunity in Guatemala feared – that those in power during Guatemala’s civil war would continue to rule the country in one way or another even after the 1996 Peace Accords. Perez’s arrest for corruption shows that investigative independence, while a perhaps necessary condition for battling impunity, is not a sufficient condition – independent investigatory bodies like CICIG still require tools and support from domestic governments to get the evidence that can be used to support a prosecution and secure a conviction.

3 thoughts on “CICIG’s Success in Guatemala: Independence Is Not Enough

  1. Thanks for this great, informative post. While reading the news out of Guatemala, I had been wondering how the La Linea scheme was uncovered. I had somehow imagined a lower-level staffer or two coming to CICIG with some explosive information in the dead of night. Of course, it seems unlikely that sort of isolated information would be enough to upset or unseat an entrenched arrangement like this.

    Which tools in particular, if any, do you think are most crucial to the efficacy of independent overseers in general? Can others going forward use the same sort of investigations? It’s possible that different tools might be more useful in uncovering and exposing information to be released to the public, while other investigative methods might be needed to have someone ultimately convicted. My understanding is that President Molina resigned fairly late in the investigation, only after months of street protests, which in turn came after media coverage of the information. Do you have a sense of whether the protests or the investigation (or both) ultimately led to his resignation? I wonder which sort of information use (that is, media coverage, public outcry, or investigation and prosecution) would be most effective in addressing a particular individual or organization’s corruption, or whether there needs to be some combination of different kinds of information use.

    • The question of what actually led to Perez’s resignation is definitely an interesting one, and I can’t say that I have (or there is) one answer. It is likely both the mass protests and the investigation, at least insofar as the two likely perpetuated each other. Another thing to keep in mind is that protests themselves are often created and used like a tool in Guatemala (and I’m sure many other countries as well). I don’t have a sense of how “sincere” the protests for Perez’s resignation were, but there have certainly been instances of protest in Guatemala in the past that were not quite what we might imagine protest to be – instead of citizens taking to the street out of pure concern or frustration with the title issue, people came out due to encouragement in one form or another from political parties or figures (and because the weather wasn’t bad and there were no major sporting events occurring at that time anyway).

      As to the question of what tools are most important for entities like CICIG more generally, in my mind institutional independence and instruments like wiretap authority are both very important. Keep in mind that the La Linea scheme is nothing new. There were whisperings about it, and former Vice President Baldetti’s involvement in it, even before Perez’s election four years ago. CICIG was independent then too, but couldn’t produce enough evidence to prove wrongdoing or involvement. Thanks to the anti-corruption law, it later could and did.

      But even proof may not be sufficient if we measure progress by convictions. The reasons that other Guatemalan leaders have escaped justice for past crimes so far are more about judicial inadequacies than proof. A strong judiciary is, I think, at least as important as independence and investigative capacity, but unfortunately much harder to achieve. In the mean time, we have to hope that the threat of Perez’s fate (arrest and forced resignation) will be enough of a deterrent for future leaders who think about corruption, since the threat of actual criminal consequence seems to be an empty one.

  2. This is a fascinating post–if a slightly depressing one, because I just don’t see how we can translate the corruption-focused tools you highlight into the armed conflict scenario. The latter seems to almost always be investigated after the fact, which makes a investigatory body setting up tools to monitor in real time the unlegal/unjust decisions being made seem unfeasible. It would be great to be wrong, especially since so many crimes related to armed conflict rely on showing intent, a systemic plan, or something of the like. If I’m looking for some sort of silver lining, I guess it’s the Al Capone strategy might still work: even if you can’t take down a potential war criminal on war crimes (or other IHL/ICL crimes), and s/he stays in power, there may still be a more pedestrian route towards at least getting him/her out of power…but ideally, there would be a way to prevent that transition into power and the harm that occurs before the “secondary” charge can be documented and tried.

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