The People Will Not Forget

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A BANNER CLUNG to the wall under the Guatemala City rain: “NOS VERÁN VOLVER” (You will see us return). Activists had hung the sign on August 31, 2019, on the compound housing the office of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala).

In a country where people have little reason to believe in public institutions, more than 72 percent of Guatemalans support CICIG, a United Nations–backed agency charged with combating the influence of organized crime in government. By contrast, outgoing president Jimmy Morales has a dismal 19 percent approval rating.

But on September 3, 2019, Morales would, with United States backing, achieve an objective he had sought for years: the termination of CICIG’s operations along with the job of commissioner Iván Velásquez Gómez. The story behind CICIG’s dissolution poses alarming questions about both Guatemala’s future and the direction of US foreign policy.

But this may also be a story of hope — at least, that’s how Velásquez would have it.

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A reserved jurist usually seen in a suit, a sober gaze above his graying goatee, Velásquez has a disconcerting tendency to express himself in emotional terms. Since September 2017, his Twitter account has pinned the simple message “Yo vine a entregar mi corazón…” (I came to give my heart…), linking to a YouTube video of a classic live performance of composer Fito Páez’s “Yo vengo a ofrecer mi corazón” (I come to offer my heart; 1985). The narrative of the song begins with these words: “¿Quién dijo que todo está perdido?” (Who said that all is lost?).

That simple message, like the statue of Don Quixote de la Mancha in Velásquez’s home office, proclaims the persistence he has repeatedly brought to his defense of seemingly lost causes. That’s not because he hasn’t suffered the costs. Velásquez was scarred by his experience as a prosecutor in his native Medellín, Colombia, where, in the late 1990s, he oversaw a case that came close to dealing a fatal blow to the vicious paramilitary groups that were sweeping through the country, terrorizing civilians with gruesome massacres. Those same paramilitaries assassinated, one by one, 11 of the investigators working with Velásquez, and the case foundered after his supervisors transferred it to another office.

Years later, on the Colombian Supreme Court, Velásquez led what became known as the “parapolitics” investigations, which charged nearly a third of the Colombian Congress with conspiring with the paramilitaries to commit electoral fraud. He endured smear campaigns and illegal surveillance in response, but his work made a difference: Colombians who in the past had denied links between the paramilitaries and the state could no longer do so.

When he arrived in Guatemala in 2013 to become CICIG’s third commissioner, he took the reins of an agency established in 2006, partly at the urging of civil society organizations, to help Guatemalan prosecutors combat the influence of shadowy groups operating within the state, allied with organized crime.

An early case during Velásquez’s tenure was that of high-ranking Guatemalan military officer Byron Lima Oliva, serving a 20-year sentence for the 1998 slaying of Bishop Juan Gerardi. Even in prison, he wielded political influence. A news headline that stuck with Velásquez then warned: “Nobody can go against Byron Lima.” CICIG and Guatemalan investigators discovered that Lima had the power to “sell” prisoner transfers to other detention centers. In an email investigators obtained addressed to a cabinet member, Lima listed dozens of individuals he wanted appointed to key posts; many did get those positions. Velásquez concluded that Guatemala’s governing party had effectively handed Lima “control of the penitentiary system.” Prosecutors charged Lima with running an extortion scheme from prison, but Lima never made it to trial: another prisoner shot him to death in 2016.

As the end of CICIG’s term approached in 2015, then-President Otto Pérez Molina began publicly suggesting that he would not renew Guatemala’s agreement with the United Nations to allow the commission to operate.

At that point, the United States played a decisive role in allowing CICIG to continue. The United States, under the administration of George W. Bush, had supported CICIG from its inception, but the commission’s role became even more important when Barack Obama’s administration put forth a plan to stem increased migration flows from Central America by strengthening the justice system. On a visit to Guatemala in March 2015, US Vice President Joe Biden met with Pérez Molina and made the continuation of CICIG a condition of aid.

A few weeks later, on April 16, 2015, CICIG announced charges against dozens of senior officials in the La Línea (the line) case, a massive customs racket in which businesses paid bribes to evade excise taxes. Soon after, Pérez Molina extended CICIG’s mandate, but by then the case had become an unprecedented focus of public attention.

On April 25, 2015, tens of thousands gathered in Guatemala City’s main square to demand the resignation of Vice President Roxana Baldetti, who appeared implicated in La Línea. After Baldetti resigned, the protestors kept going to the streets for weeks until September 2, when, facing charges in connection with La Línea, Pérez Molina resigned.

CICIG investigators and Guatemalan prosecutors kept pursuing leads as they appeared, opening cases involving campaign finance violations by political parties, illegal contracting, and systemic fraud at every level of government — from local administrations to the presidency, the central bank, and even some of the country’s high courts. Major corporations, lawyers, judges, and influential families were implicated. By mid-2019, CICIG reported having initiated more than 120 major cases, involving more than 70 complex criminal networks. The investigations, in Velásquez’s view, had exposed the Guatemalan state as “an extractive enterprise” that had been operating like “a business profiting the few.”

With more than half of Guatemala’s population living in poverty, corruption translated into misery and even death.

La Línea alone cost the Guatemalan treasury as much as $100 million. Corrupt networks stole money from the health care system that should have gone to maternal and elder care. A sweetheart deal between that system and a pharmaceutical company to provide dialysis services may have contributed to seven patients’ deaths from infection.

Guatemala’s corruption was also tied to its high rates of violence. Prosecutors pursued charges against individuals close to Los Huistas, a criminal organization accused of massacres, extortion, and drug trafficking in and around San Antonio Huista, in the poverty-stricken region of Huehuetenango, from which the largest number of Guatemalan migrants flee to the United States. In another case, members of the powerful Mendoza family in the Petén department, near the Mexican border, faced charges for sending armed men to forcibly seize property from peasants. Right after the charges, “peasants were calling the CICIG, crying […] to thank [the investigators] for ‘freeing them,’” recalled Velásquez.

Corruption is second only to insecurity among the factors inhibiting business activity in Guatemala. If the country is to prosper, a 2018 study by the respected Instituto Centroamericano de Estudios Fiscales (Central American Institute of Fiscal Studies) found, it has to fight corruption.

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On the afternoon of August 31, 2018, a dozen US military jeeps manned by Guatemalan troops parked in front of the CICIG compound. Another group of jeeps snaked in front of the US embassy and the Guatemalan Constitutional Court.

To Velásquez, the jeeps were an effort to intimidate and to remind Guatemalans of their repressive past. Guatemala’s president, Jimmy Morales, reinforced that message on television when, flanked by military officers in fatigues, he announced that he would not renew CICIG’s mandate. CICIG, he claimed, had endangered Guatemala’s security and sovereignty. Morales soured on CICIG soon after his brother and son were arrested in 2017 for alleged fraud. That hostility worsened when Morales’s own presidential campaign was implicated in an illegal campaign financing investigation.

But it wasn’t just Morales. “At some point [CICIG] picked a fight with the whole Guatemalan elite,” said Guatemalan commentator Phillip Chicola. “That’s when the tide began to switch.”

Critics began attacking CICIG, arguing it was overstepping its mandate, that it lacked adequate reporting mechanisms, and that it was violating due process. The last complaint was partly grounded in the fact that judges in Guatemala could hold defendants in indefinite pretrial detention, and did so in some CICIG cases despite the commission’s criticism of the practice.

Others became targets too. Andrea Ixchiu Hernández, a K’iche’ indigenous activist, recalls that after 2015, many protestors began receiving threats online from people who viewed their activism as destabilizing. Critics claimed that CICIG, activists, and independent media were part of a communist plot. “In Guatemala, we live in a McCarthyist era,” said Chicola. “The idea that communism is coming is a permanent source of fear […] so they were effective in bringing up this conspiracy theory.”

In addition to announcing the non-renewal of CICIG’s mandate, Morales ordered that Velásquez — who was then traveling outside the country — be barred from reentering. For the next year, Velásquez would keep leading the CICIG’s investigations, but he never returned to Guatemala.

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Could Velásquez have done anything to save CICIG? Perhaps he could have reduced the pressure by simply resigning. But Guatemalan Judge Claudia Escobar — who fled the country after threats on her life — points out that Velásquez “represented the entire fight against corruption.” CICIG’s opponents were intent on wiping out the whole enterprise, including the work of local prosecutors, civil society groups, and journalists, many of whom are now alarmed about their own security.

Some CICIG supporters wonder whether it overreached. Did it need to go after Morales’s brother and son (they were acquitted just days before CICIG’s departure), and all the political parties? The investigations touched so many that it was left with virtually no allies in positions of political power.

To Velásquez, refraining was not an option: “When you engage in selective justice, what eventually happens is that […] the powerful are not touched.”

He did, however, wish he had recognized earlier the extent of corruption in the judiciary. While CICIG obtained more than 300 convictions, many cases stalled in the courts.

The final blow came from elsewhere: the United States. Morales and Guatemala’s business sector aggressively courted the Trump administration. They hired lobbying firms close to US Vice President Mike Pence and US Senator Marco Rubio, cultivated a relationship with then–United States Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, and even moved Guatemala’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — days after the United States did the same in May 2018.

The day after Morales announced he would not renew CICIG’s mandate, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo posted a tweet that — far from questioning Morales’s decision — expressed appreciation for “Guatemala’s efforts in counternarcotics and security.”

With President Donald Trump fixated on stemming migration to the United States ahead of the 2020 elections, Guatemala’s approval of a “safe third country” agreement to require refugees from El Salvador and Honduras to seek asylum in Guatemala may bring the United States even closer. Yet turning a blind eye to Guatemala’s web of corruption means that the state will continue serving only the interests of the few. The basic reasons driving so many Guatemalans to flee — the entrenched poverty, violence, and despair — remain there, and migration may only increase.

CICIG will not return, and dark times probably lie ahead for Guatemala’s anti-corruption fighters. Yet CICIG’s legacy cannot be entirely erased.

During its final week, CICIG released a report describing how the entire Guatemalan state was co-opted by illicit networks. In that sense, Chicola observes, CICIG has served as “a sort of truth commission for the Guatemalan political system.” In neighboring El Salvador, many people have been clamoring for the establishment of an investigative commission like CICIG, though the government has yet to commit to it.

After the rain stopped on August 31, 2019, a brightly painted mural came up on CICIG’s wall, announcing: “Gracias CICIG” (Thank you, CICIG) and “EL PUEBLO NO OLVIDARÁ” (The people will not forget). In smaller print, a Velásquez quote affirmed: “FLORECERÁS GUATE” (You will bloom, Guatemala).

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Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno is the author of There Are No Dead Here: A Story of Murder and Denial in Colombia (Bold Type Books, 2018).

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Banner image: "Chacalacadefresa" by Makenso is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.