The CICIG Crisis in Guatemala: How the Trump Administration Is Undermining US Anticorruption Leadership

Back when Donald Trump was first elected, a lot of people—me included—worried about the implications of his presidency for US leadership in the global fight against corruption. Some of the dire predictions have not (yet) come to pass; for example, so far US enforcement of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) does not seem to have abated despite Trump’s well-documented and ill-informed hostility to that statute. But even if US enforcement of the FCPA has proceeded without much discernible effect (so far), there are other, less easily measurable respects in which the Trump Administration’s foreign policy, and its own cavalier disregard for ethics, may be undermining US leadership on anticorruption issues, and consequently undermining anticorruption efforts and bolstering those who would seek to undermine such efforts.

As just noted, much of this effect is diffuse and hard to observe directly, but there are a few examples where the Trump Administration and its allies are undermining the global fight against corruption is more evident. Perhaps the most striking and disheartening is the situation unfolding in Guatemala, ably documented in a compelling piece by Colum Lynch on Foreign Policy’s FP Blog earlier this month. Long story short: The Trump Administration and its allies in Congress appear to be supporting, or at least tacitly accepting, the efforts of Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales to shut down Guatemala’s UN-sponsored anti-impunity commission, known by its Spanish acronym CICIG, which has proved instrumental in fighting high-level corruption in Guatemala, and forced the resignation of President Morales’s predecessor, Otto Perez Molina. President Morales campaigned on an anticorruption platform, but he now wants to shut CICIG down, apparently because it’s investigating his own family members and associates. And the US, which had supported CICIG in the past and pressured President Molina to renew its mandate when he was inclined to terminate it to protect himself, seems to be backing Morales rather than CICIG.

I won’t go into all the details here, as the story is ably laid out in Mr. Lynch’s excellent piece. I’ll just highlight some themes that emerge from the reporting that Mr. Lynch and others have done, which illustrate connections—some direct, some indirect—between the Trump Administration’s approach to government and the dissipation of US leadership on anticorruption issues, as illustrated by the CICIG debacle.

  • First, the Trump Administration’s foreign policy is characterized by an ideological opposition to internationalism and international institutions—especially though not exclusively anything connected to the US—coupled with an emphasis on loyalist-ideologues and a denigration of the expertise of career diplomats and regional or issue-area experts. This theme comes through quite clearly in Mr. Lynch’s piece on CICIG: Despite traditionally bipartisan support for CICIG and a clear sense from the US diplomats on the ground, as well as State Department subject-matter experts, that CICIG was having a significant positive effect, Trump Administration officials—including Vice President Mike Pence former Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley—undercut the career officials and pushed a strong pro-sovereignty anti-CICIG line, motivated in part by an instinctive suspicion of anything connected with the UN. Most egregiously, a former senior State Department official named Mari Stull—who had no relevant international experience, but rather was a former lobbyist for agribusiness and grocery stores, as well as an activist with a conservative political action committee opposed to US support for international organizations, and whose main responsibilities at State appeared to be compiling a blacklist of “disloyal” (i.e., non-Trumpist) State Department employees—pushed senior State Department officials to let Morales do what he wanted with CICIG, in the name of “sovereignty.” This problem is likely not limited to the Guatemala situation: The fight against corruption requires international cooperation, strong international institutions, and often international involvement in what we might otherwise think of as “domestic affairs,” especially in countries where systematic impunity has been a persistent problem. Indeed, a couple of years ago many—including many in the US government—were not only hailing CICIG’s success but touting it as a model for other nations, such as El Salvador and Honduras. And of course fighting corruption effectively requires expert knowledge of each particular country’s situation, institutions, and history. This is not to say that internationalism is always the best solution, nor that our existing international institutions aren’t in need of reform. And it’s certainly not to deny the importance of political oversight of unelected diplomats and bureaucrats. But a simplistic “sovereignty good, international organizations bad” orientation, coupled with the unqualified elevation of ideological loyalty over competence and pragmatism, is a recipe for failure when it comes to leading the fight against global corruption.
  • Second, the Administration’s alienation of traditional US allies and its proclivity to engage in provocative, controversial, often symbolic moves without having first cultivated broad support, makes the US more desperate for support from any quarter, and hence more willing to overlook the corrupt conduct of leaders willing to back the US in its more controversial foreign policy moves. This phenomenon is evident in the reporting on the Guatemala situation: The Morales government managed to curry favor with the Trump administration by, among other things, immediately following the Trump Administration’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and to recognize Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate president. Now, it happens that, despite my general antipathy for the Trump Administration, I think (probably controversially) that both of these US foreign policy decisions are defensible, perhaps correct. But the US failed to cultivate support among its traditional allies, and the Trump Administration’s generally unilateralist, antagonistic posture left the Administration seemingly hungry for any sort of international support—which give the Morales Administration an opportunity to ally itself with the Trump Administration, thus dampening the latter’s willingness to focus on the former’s corruption problems. Now, it’s often the case in international diplomacy that countries face tough trade-offs, and may refrain from criticizing certain governments for their domestic conduct, including corruption concerns, in order to secure their cooperation on a broader foreign policy or national security agenda. This was pervasively true during the Cold War, and during the current fight against international terrorism, and I do not take the absolutist position that the US should adopt a “zero tolerance” policy toward corrupt regimes in its foreign relations. But through its clumsy unilateralism and fixation on symbolic issues, the Trump Administration has put itself in a position where these sorts of compromises are both more common and less necessary. Corrupt regimes that want to convince the US to turn a blind eye toward their corruption don’t necessarily need to be crucial partners on a vital national security issue; they just need to back up the US administration when it does something that alienates most of the other Western democracies.
  • Third, and related to the previous point, there’s another way in which corrupt foreign administrations can avoid pressure from the US on their graft problems, and that’s by aligning themselves with the administration ideologically. the Trump Administration’s strong ideological orientation, and tendency to see foreign politics through the lens of US domestic political cleavages, seems instinctively sympathetic to conservative (and, better yet, evangelical Christian) leaders—or, more broadly, enemies of “the left”—and are thus willing to overlook serious corruption allegations against those ideological allies. That theme emerges clearly in Mr. Lynch’s reporting on Guatemala, and we may be seeing something similar in Brazil, Hungary, and elsewhere. I’m not so naïve as to believe that US policy ever was, or ever could be, non-partisan or non-ideological. But in the past, it seemed like foreign corruption was an issue that was at least somewhat less partisan, especially in countries where the domestic political cleavages, at least to a knowledgeable observer, don’t correspond neatly to US political cleavages. But the Trump Administration’s emphasis on political ideology, coupled with a resurgence of scaremongering about “socialism” and “collectivism,” provides a convenient escape for corrupt foreign administrations that can plausibly position themselves as right-wing enemies of socialism—even as corrupt left-wing governments may find themselves more likely the target of US rhetoric about the evils of graft.
  • Fourth, though the use and abuse of lobbying, and funneling money to lobbying firms known to be close to key decision-makers, is hardly unique to the Trump Administration, the current administration and its allies in Congress seem especially susceptible to this sort of influence-purchasing, including by the well-heeled allies of corrupt elites. As Mr. Lynch’s story documents, a number of Guatemalan politicians aligned with the current government, as well as a shady anti-CICIG organization with unknown backers, signed lucrative lobbying contracts with a couple of Republican-connected US lobbying firms—one of which is co-run by a top fundraiser for Vice President Mike Pence, the other of which used to employ Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani and which is a major contributor to Senator Mark Rubio, who has emerged as a major CICIG critic. Again, I want to be careful not to overstate the point here, because the practice of foreign governments and organizations hiring US lobbying firms with close ties to US politicians—of both parties–has a long and disreputable history. Yet there’s also suggestive evidence that attitudes toward the use of money and personal connections to influence decision-making has become much more, shall we say, relaxed under the current administration. The perception that the administration and its allies in Congress are more susceptible to this sort of influence likely increases the confidence of corrupt leaders, like President Morales, that they won’t face serious consequences for undermining anticorruption institutions in their countries.

The larger point here, and perhaps the only way in which this post adds anything to Mr. Lynch’s piece, is that the Guatemala story isn’t just about Guatemala. It’s about how the Trump Administration’s ideological, unilateralist approach to foreign policy, coupled with its greater-than-average susceptibility to the influence of money and connections, is threatening the United States’ position as a global leader in the fight against corruption.

Before concluding, it’s worth mentioning one additional factor in play in the Guatemala story, one that doesn’t fit quite as neatly into the broader narrative I just laid out, even though it’s connected to the Trump Administration, albeit indirectly. The orchestrated attacks on CICIG in the US have included an attack, supported by anti-Putin billionaire Bill Browder and several members of Congress, that alleges CICIG is a tool of the Putin regime that has been used to persecute Russian dissidents. This claim emerges out of CICIG’s investigation of a wealthy Russian family that fled Russia to Guatemala after a conflict with the Putin regime (a conflict that involved credible allegations of some truly dreadful behavior by the Russian authorities, including not just economic expropriation but physical and sexual violence). The problem was that, after fleeing to Guatemala, the family (allegedly) illegally purchased fake passports and other false identity documents, leading to a CICIG-led prosecution that resulted in harsh (some would say excessively harsh) prison sentences. I don’t know enough about the case to have a view on whether the prosecution was justified. But allegations that CICIG is a tool of the Russian government seem far-fetched. Russia strenuously opposed the creation of CICIG in the first place (apparently out of a concern that it might set a precedent that could be used against pro-Russian elites in countries of the former Soviet bloc), and Russia has never provided any funding or other sort of support for CICIG. And in fact the United States cooperated with CICIG in the prosecution of the Russian family at the center of the controversy. But the controversy swirling around Trump’s Russia ties, and the legitimate concerns about Russian interference in foreign governments, have created an environment where accusations of Russian interference get more traction in Congress, including among Republicans, than they might under other circumstances.

Again, though, the larger point here is that what’s going on with CICIG seems to me to be just the most obvious, glaring example of what I suspect is a more pervasive problem. Under the current administration, corrupt foreign leaders (at least if they’re the right kind of corrupt foreign leader, double meaning intended) can be more confident that the the US will not only look the other way, but will tacitly or even overtly support their efforts to undermine anticorruption institutions in their countries. And it makes clear just how much US leadership matters on these issues, and how much it’s missed.

5 thoughts on “The CICIG Crisis in Guatemala: How the Trump Administration Is Undermining US Anticorruption Leadership

  1. Very interesting post, Professor! I would love to know more about your thoughts on whether we could expect mid-term effects of this in American politics. Although domestic investigations of corruption and critiques from national citizens may reduce due to their leaders’ efforts to undermine anticorruption efforts. I believe the international community could still be vigilant and attentive to the rise of corruption in countries whose leaders are supported by Trump. Do you see this increasing the pressure over Trump’s administration to the point that it’ll be forced to change its approach or do you see the administration echoing the “fake news” narrative usually adopted by those foreign corrupt leaders when face with corruption allegations? Moreover, in the absence of the US leadership in anticorruption, do you expect other nation to fill this gap and claim leadership, maybe antagonizing the US?

    • Good questions, and I wish I had good answers. I’m fairly pessimistic on the US reclaiming its active leadership on anticorruption issues while the current administration is in the White House, the midterm election results notwithstanding. In the Guatemala case specifically, I fear it’s not really on the radar screen of most members of Congress, Democrat or Republican, and in that particular case (and perhaps in others like it), it’s more the administration’s tepid response that’s emboldening corrupt leaders, rather than some specific policy that Congress could do something about. It’s not like Congress can do nothing, but the executive branch in the US has fairly wide latitude in foreign affairs.

      As for some other country assuming the leadership mantle, I don’t really see it. David Cameron wanted to make anticorruption one of his signature foreign policy issues, but that possibility was consumed in the flames of Brexit, along with his prime ministership. Germany is preoccupied with European affairs and concerns about Russia, etc. At least in the short term I don’t see a real substitute for US leadership, at least at the global level.

  2. Professor Stephenson:

    Great piece! It provides a lot of ideas to process. Some reflections on my side:

    1. The Debate Over CICIG´s presence in Guatemala is more complex. The blog assumes that CICIG is fulfilling its mandate in combating corruption, and therefore, should be supported by the US. It ignores the fact that CICIG has no direct mandate to combat corruption, and, therefore, its legitimacy to lead or influence corruption investigations is highly contested.

    In its inception, the main purpose of CICIG was to facilitate and lead investigations related to violations of human rights under the genocide and armed conflict of Guatemala. According to letter a) of Article 1 of the Agreement Between The United Nations and the State of Guatemala on the Establishment of an International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, CICIG´s purpose is to:
    “assist, strengthen and support the institutions of Guatemala in charge of the investigation and prosecution of crimes allegedly committed in furtherance of the activities of illegal security organizations and clandestine security apparatus, and any other crimes related with such groups operating in Guatemala (…), by promoting the dismantlement of such organizations and the penal sanction of the participants of the crimes (…)”

    Further, Article 2 defines what should be understood by illegal security organizations and clandestine security apparatus. Just by reading those definitions, it seems to me clear that there is at least, a plausible legal justification for the idea that CICIG has overreached its mandate. I am not supporting one or other interpretation. I am only saying, that there is margin for a deeper analysis of what is happening with CICIG in Guatemala, instead of simply assuming that Jimmy Morales wants CICIG out because he is being prosecuted – which is probably true, but still…

    2. The article undervalues the importance of national sovereignty. The importance of sovereignty is taken somewhat lightly in the article. Prosecuting heads of state is not a minor business, and of course, it can have a profound impact over the strength and stability of the state, as well as over the elements of state power.

    However, in 2017 former President Alvaro Colom and 16 members of his cabinet were arrested for an alleged corruption case related to a contract for the construction of a metro-bus system in Guatemala City.

    What does that have to do with the mission of CICIG? Not much. Further, what does CICIG have to do involved with other case of forged passports purchased by Russian expats fleeing their country after having some kind of fight with Putin´s regime? Not much.

    Again, I will not say I agree or disagree with one interpretation or the other, but the issue merits further analysis, and a thorough understanding of the scope of the cases that CICIG is investigating. The fact of the matter is that, with CICIG´s decisions, heads of state are being taken down, and a legitimate concern can be raised on the interest of other nations in the final outcome of CICIG´s rulings.

    It adds to this, the fact that the head of CICIG is not a national of Guatemala but a foreigner. What would other countries think of having foreigners leading their special anticorruption agencies, which would in turn prosecute their political leaders? Imagine an Argentinian leading the Brazilian Anticorruption Agency, a Peruvian leading the Colombian one, or a Chilean prosecuting a Bolivian head of state.

    3. Magnitsky Law and Executive Resolutions. The article suggests that the US is losing leadership in the global anticorruption arena. I partly agree with that but I also think that some recent actions of the US could be analyzed more closely, in order to give them the merit they deserve, whatever it is:

    • First, the use of the Magnitsky Law and Executive orders, to freeze assets and include in the OFAC list politicians, leaders or any person related to acts of corruption. This use is expanding, and is having a very important impact in the anticorruption global arena.
    • Second, for the first time in history, the US led a discussion on the impact of corruption over international security, in a meeting of the Security Council. Niki Haley had a preponderant leadership role in that meeting. By taking the discussion to that scenario, the US opened a new argument for multilateral action against the Venezuela.

    4. The Article Overestimates the Stance of the US Related to Corrupt (or Clean) Foreign Politicians. I don´t really think the US has ever cared if a leader is corrupt or not when it comes to building a friendship. National interest and realist considerations are preponderant over others, such as the consideration of the shared (or not) democratic or liberal values of the leader or country at stake (e.g. Ghadafi, Alvaro Uribe, Fujimori).

    • Thanks for the detailed and thoughtful response. I don’t have time at the moment to give each of your points the full discussion they all deserve, but let me provide some very brief preliminary answers to your most important challenges, following your numbered list:

      1) I don’t disagree that CICIG’s anticorruption prosecutions involve an aggressive reading of CICIG’s mandate. But: (A) That reading, though aggressive, is not implausible. The “clandestine groups” that CICIG has the power to investigate include those that commit illegal acts that affect the full enjoyment of political rights and that are linked directly or indirectly to agents of the state, or otherwise have the capacity to generate impunity for illegal actions. No doubt the drafters of the agreement originally had in mind paramilitary groups, but it’s legally plausible to argue that a criminal conspiracy that involves public officials protecting organized crime groups fits the letter of the CICIG agreement. And even if you find that a stretch: (B) This broader interpretation of CICIG’s mandate appears to have been accepted by the UN, Morales’s predecessors, and most of the Guatemalan people. Moreover: (C) Nobody, apparently you included, thinks that this legalistic argument was actually why Morales has tried to kick out CICIG. So I’m a bit puzzled as to what exactly your objection here is. Is it that Morales was legally correct to kick out CICIG, even if his motives were bad? I’m unconvinced. If we think CICIG was doing a good job (more on this in a moment), and its conduct was at least arguably within the scope of its mandate, then I’m not sure I see a good reason to defend Morales (and the US) here.

      2) You’re right that my post doesn’t give much weight to “national sovereignty” as such, and I’ll stand by that. “Sovereignty” means a whole host of different things in different contexts, and it’s often invoked like some kind of talisman to object to any international involvement in domestic affairs. Sometimes such involvement is bad, sometimes it’s good, and I’m perfectly happy to stick my neck out and say CICIG’s involvement has been, on net, good. If you disagree, that’s fine, but give me the reasons, don’t just say “sovereignty.” Now, in fairness, you don’t do that entirely, but I confess I feel like your elaboration of the objection–mainly pointing to other organized crime rings that CICIG has exposed–mainly restates your first point about how CICIG’s activities may stretch its original mandate (a point I concede but that doesn’t trouble me) and actually seems like more evidence that CICIG is doing a lot of good. As for the point about how CICIG’s head is a foreigner, I agree that this sort of arrangement raises questions, but it’s not nearly as unprecedented as you suggest. (For a prior post of mine with some more examples and some discussion of the hard trade-offs involved, see my previous post here: Oh, and on both of these points, it bears repeating that the foreign involvement here was something that the Guatemalan state agreed to–it wasn’t imposed by force. So we should be careful about how we frame the “sovereignty” objection here. Sovereign states may, as an exercise of their sovereignty, accept constraints or invite foreign intervention in various forms. And we can have a substantive debate about whether or when they should do that.

      3) I agree that in some areas the US government is still doing good, and occasionally innovative, things on the anticorruption front. The Global Magnitsky Act is probably the best example. I’m less enthusiastic about then-Ambassador Haley’s role in the UN Security Council discussion of corruption and conflict, mainly because I don’t tend to think these things actually make that much difference. It’s not like this UN meeting put “corruption and security” on the agenda any more than it already was. And to me, rather than making Haley look better, it makes her look much worse: She talks a good game at the UN about how we can’t ignore corruption, and then turns around and cuts the legs out from under the US diplomats on the ground in Guatemala who are urging the US not to ignore Morales’s corruption. (Oh, and while it’s a side note, I very much doubt that this UNSC discussion actually did play a role in facilitating multilateral action against Venezuela–but if you can point me to a source substantiating that claim, please do!)

      4) As for whether the US has ever cared about whether a leader is corrupt, or whether it’s all just cynical national interest: I certainly don’t want to sound like I think that, pre-Trump, the motives of US leaders in this area were pure and unsullied, so if I gave that impression, please let me correct the record. That said, (A) While I may have overstated how much the US cares about this issue, respectfully I think you might be understating it. For reasons good or less-good, the US really had been taking a leadership role on this issue, at least in some contexts. (B) At least some folks in the US government have, I think, come around to the view that addressing widespread corruption can often be in the US long-term national interests, so there may be less of a conflict here than you suggest. (C) Speaking of conflicts, isn’t there some tension between your point #3–the US actually is doing all sorts of great things to fight high-level corruption–and your point #4–the US doesn’t actually care about fighting high-level corruption? Putting the two pieces of your argument together, it sounds like you might be saying, with respect to Venezuela specifically, the US doesn’t actually care about Maduro’s corruption, but played up that issue so as to create a rationale for taking him out. If that’s what your saying, isn’t it a bit disturbing?

      • Professor,
        Thanks for your thoughts on this. Here I what I would say, in brief:
        1. I agree that the reading of the mandate you advocate for is aggressive. Very much so. It is not the natural interpretation of the treaty. It is a forced, very stretched interpretation of the treaty. Now, I get that this is what many courts or enforcement bodies do. Interpret norms in a way that increase the reach of their mandate. The ICJ, the ECHR, the ICHR, etc., have done it for decades now. CICIG is in my view doing that too. My point is that we should at least admit that, CICIG´s interpretation of its mandate is aggressive, and that that can create legitimate concerns of a State, whose Head is the President – in this case Jimmy Morales.
        On your thoughts on the interpretation that the UN has given to the reach of the mandate of CICIG, I would like to learn why you think the UN is the authorized interpreter of that treaty, and not the two parties that signed it. Disagreements would often occur between parties to a covenant, and I don´t know (I confess my ignorance here), why should we think the UN has the right interpretation. Further, the UN has interpreted hundreds of times the UN Charter, Resolutions, and other provisions, in ways that leave a lot of room to wonder on the validity of its judgments. I would also like to learn how you came to the conclusion that the aggressive-interpretation of the treaty is endorsed by the majority of the people of Guatemala. I would give higher weight here, though, to the decisions of the Constitutional Tribunal of Guatemala, which is the highest court in the interpretation of the Constitution and of International Treaties. I haven´t read their decisions of the matter, but surely there is interesting material to explore there.
        At this point I would like to clarify something: I do not defend the US and even less Morales. His guilt or innocence still needs to be ruled by a competent body, whatever that is. I don´t know if he is or not guilty of anything. If he is guilty, of course, he should be held accountable, as any other president or leader should. My point is very simple: claiming that the US is passive or – at least tolerant – to corruption in Guatemala due to the fact that the American government is unsympathetic to the scope of the work of CICIG, seems to me, an unfair assumption.

        2) On the sovereignty issue, I agree that countries sometimes renounce to part of it. And I also agree: sometimes that is good, sometimes is bad. No discussion on that. My concern here is that the different parties involved have sound legal arguments to dispute the authorized reach of the work of CICIG. I do not think that it is a strong argument to say: “I like an aggressive interpretation of the CICIG Treaty because they are doing a good job.” (I am not quoting you) I would think, however, that the aggressive interpretation of the treaty, is weaker than the other, not that is not plausible. But not for being plausible, or good in its outcome, we should conclude that it is right. That seems to me to be your conclusion, at least.

        3) I don´t think that the US involvement in the anti-corruption efforts worldwide can be categorized as black and white. I think they are grey, or better, both black and white. Like a chess board. Sometimes, the US gets involved and helps the anticorruption efforts move forward. Sometimes, it just plays national interest and does nothing or even it bribes governments. We have seen this quite a bit during centuries of American history. But that is not the point here. I would be more than happy to have a longer discussion on this over a coffee.

        On the UNSC meeting, I do not judge the outcome nor its effectiveness, but simply suggest that that actually happened, and was proof of the US interest in the topic. Nonetheless, please note that I said before that I partly agreed with you on this point, but I would suggest not to discredit such efforts, as you clearly acknowledged with the Magnitsky Law. I also think many others could be mentioned, if we are to be fair.

        4) Fair points. On (C), I don´t think I am contradicting myself. What I think is that American foreign policy, as well as its anti-corruption policy, are full of contradictions. They are, as I noted, sometimes black, sometimes white. As to the intentions of the US behind the Venezuelan case, I cannot really tell what they are. But my intuition tells me that two things are aligned: first, the use of anti-corruption rhetoric as a means to tackle Maduro, combined with, second, a concern for a real threat to international peace derived from the corruption of Maduro and his military, which has created a chaotic situation in the border with Colombia, a key military and strategic ally of the US.

        Thanks for the thoughful exchange!

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