Unproven, implausible allegations about Russian meddling in Guatemala’s judicial system threaten one of the most innovative and successful efforts to curb grand corruption now underway. The Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, a hybrid UN-Guatemalan investigative agency known by its Spanish initials CICIG, has made enormous progress taming grand corruption, drug trafficking, the wholesale murder of indigenous people, and other crimes committed by an insular elite who, until the advent of CICIG, operated without fear of prosecution. CICIG’s success rests on its independence from Guatemala’s corrupt elite, both in the investigators it hires, often from other Spanish-speaking countries with no ties to anyone in Guatemala, and its funding, a significant portion of which is provided by the U.S. Congress. Thanks to these conditions, it has presented Guatemalan prosecutors with air-tight cases against former presidents, vice-presidents, ministers, and senior military and civil servants.
CICIG’s American funding is now in doubt thanks to a story those most in danger from CICIG sold Wall Street Journal opinion writer Mary O’ Grady. O’Grady wrote in March that CICIG took money from Russian interests to push the prosecution of Russian dissidents who emigrated to Guatemala. O’Grady’s story caught the attention of several in Congress who now question whether the U.S. should continue supporting CICIG. Thankfully, the story has not gone unanswered. A wave of stories knocking it down and noting its origin among the very elite in CICIG’s cross-hairs has appeared in, among other outlets, the Economist (here), the Washington Post (here), and the Guatemalan media (here and here [Spanish]. The American Bar Association (here) sharply questioned the premises underpinning O’Grady’s claims.
The latest support for CICIG comes from a former Guatemalan vice president and several former foreign ministers and ambassadors in a letter to the U.S. Congress. The letter itself is a welcome sign that a new elite is rising that is not afraid to counter the old corrupt elite. In it they write forcefully of CICIG’s critical importance to the well-being of Guatemala’s citizens:
“We the undersigned are former ministers of foreign affairs and ambassadors to the United States who have served under several Guatemalan administrations. We are writing to express our strong support for the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) and to urge the United States Congress to continue its funding for the commission’s work.
“CICIG was created in 2006 at the request of the Guatemalan government and with the support of the United Nations (several of the undersigned were directly involved in this process). Since then, CICIG has played a crucial role in strengthening the rule of law in our country. In conjunction with the Guatemalan Public Prosecutor’s office, CICIG has helped investigate and bring to justice cases of corruption and criminality including narcotrafficking, graft, extortion, tax evasion, money laundering and other financial crimes. This collaboration has exposed deeply entrenched criminal networks that have penetrated the highest levels of government. CICIG’s unique mandate to work side by side with Guatemalan authorities has at the same time helped build domestic capacity to investigate and prosecute crime.
“The recent case of Igor Bitkov and his family has been raised in connection with CICIG and its work in Guatemala. The Bitkov case emerged as a result of a larger investigation—supported by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement—into a criminal network involved in the sale of false passports and immigration documents. While CICIG played a role in the investigation, the subsequent prosecution was carried out by Guatemalan judicial authorities under Guatemalan law. It is important to note that the unusually harsh sentence imposed on the Bitkovs for holding false identity papers was recently overturned by Guatemala’s highest court (the Bitkovs are currently awaiting a new trial).
“CICIG continues to enjoy wide support within Guatemalan society; one recent poll showed it is the country’s most trusted institution. We believe CICIG’s continued operation in Guatemala is particularly important at this critical juncture, when public expectations have been raised about the possibility of overcoming impunity and achieving justice and transparency. Meeting such expectations is also critical to addressing the root causes of irregular migration and to help secure the United States’ southern border.
“For more than a decade, the U.S. Congress has provided strong, bipartisan support that has been critical for ensuring CICIG’s success. We fear that withholding this support now could seriously undermine the fight against impunity in Guatemala and benefit the forces of corruption and organized crime that are seeking to undo the progress we have made in strengthening the rule of law in our country.”
Eduardo Stein, Former Vice President of the Republic Former Minister of Foreign Affairs
Edgar Gutiérrez, Former Minister of Foreign Affairs Former Secretary of Strategic Analysis, Presidency of the Republic
Edmond Mulet, Former Ambassador to the United States Former Chief of Staff to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon
Gert Rosenthal, Former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Former Ambassador to the United Nations
Fernando Carrera Castro, Former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Former Ambassador to the United Nations
Francisco Villagrán de León, Former Ambassador to the United States, the United Nations, Canada, Germany, Norway and the Organization of American States
Great work getting the story out there in this blog. Sadly, this happens. Not the withdrawal of funding but the very media we so desperately rely on to expose and help combat corruption turns inwards and seeks to destroy corruption fighters. Is it the price we pay for freedom of the press? I had direct experience of similar. My team of very successful corruption fighters tackling the illicit money flows through London had James Ibori and importantly his corrupt (now convicted) lawyer Bhadresh Gohil up against the ropes. They employed corrupt ex-cops and set about discrediting us. The Guardian – a newspaper I have read for years – splashed across their front page how Scotland Yard anti-corruption cops were themselves corrupt. BBC news did the same. Two innocent officers went through hell. They have, following years of investigation, been totally exonerated. Powerful, well-resourced, often well-educated corrupt elites will do anything to evade justice. I hope this Guatemalan project continues, I desperately hope it does and survives what is sadly the visscitudes of being brave enough to tackle grand corruption.