Why Guatemala’s Experiment with Fighting Grand Corruption Was Not a Failure

The July 23 firing of Juan Francisco Sandoval, Guatemala’s top corruption prosecutor, seemed to put paid to the nation’s extraordinary experiment in fighting grand corruption.  Sandoval’s office was established to prosecute cases developed by the Commission Against Impunity, or CICIG after its Spanish initials. CICIG was a U.N. entity the Guatemalan government accepted as the price for international assistance after the civil war ended. It was tasked with investigating gross human rights abuses and grand corruption; recognizing how powerful Guatemalan elites were and how weak the judiciary was, it was staffed by non-Guatemalan investigators and prosecutors.

As Matthew described here, in 2019 an unholy alliance of Guatemalan elites and Trump cronies succeeded in pulling U.S. support for CICIG, allowing the elites to kill it off. With its demise, all that stood in the way of their looting the country was Sandoval’s office.  

The original plan had been for CICIG to both investigate and prosecute cases themselves.  But after the Guatemalan Supreme Court ruled that only the public prosecution office (Ministerio Publico) could prosecute, CICIG’s first head, Carlos Castresana, worked out arrangement with the then Attorney General to assign ten young, “clean,” newly recruited lawyers to an office that would be responsible for CICIG’s cases.  Given how far the elites’ tentacles reached into Guatemala’s middle class, Castresana doubted “clean” recruits could be found.  Or if they were clean, they would stay that way if faced with the notorious choice between plata o pluma, taking a bribe to drop the case or being killed. One of the great parts of the CICIG story, and as far as I can tell one still untold, is how those like Sandoval, from a new generation of Guatemalans, rose to the challenge.

The creation of CICIG and its early successes developing cases against powerful military and civilian leaders that Sandoval’s office successfully prosecuted provided a hopeful example of what an alliance between the international community and a nation’s citizenry could achieve. Its end, and now Sandoval’s firing, show the limits of the approach.  At the same time, it shows the effort is worth emulating.  Sandoval’s firing prompted international and condemnation and will lead to sanctions likely to create divisions between at least some in the business class and the politicians.  The governing body of the judiciary has demanded an explanation for his termination, and his initial replacement stepped down after less than days in office (here). Sandoval and like-minded lawyers and public servants aren’t going away, and many are now moving up the ranks in the judiciary and prosecution service.  

In a fine article for PlazaPublica, former U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala Stephen McFarland explains what the U.S. and others in the international community can do in light of Sandoval’s firing to combat corruption in Guatemala.  That whatever they do, they have in-country allies like Sandoval is why the CICIG experiment should not be treated as a one-off failure.  

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