Leahy Statement On Defending The Rule Of Law In Guatemala

The decision, announced last Friday, by Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales to not renew the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) after its current term expires next September, was a profound mistake. 

That mistake was further compounded on Tuesday when the government announced that the CICIG Commissioner, Ivan Velasquez, a respected Colombian jurist, had been summarily declared a “national security threat” and barred from re-entering the country.  That is the kind of fear-provoking mischaracterization one might expect from an authoritarian government that will use any outlandish justification to silence its critics, but not from a democracy.

I urge President Morales to reconsider, and to reverse these actions for the benefit of the Guatemalan people, in the interests of justice, and on behalf of Guatemala’s relations with the United States and its international reputation.  There may still be time to turn this political and judicial crisis into a positive outcome for the country. 

At the time of his public announcement to not renew CICIG, President Morales was joined on the podium by dozens of uniformed military and police officers.  At the same time, military vehicles carrying officers armed with heavy weapons – vehicles provided by the United States for legitimate law enforcement purposes – lined the street in front of CICIG’s office.  They also drove past the Constitutional Court and the U.S. Embassy.  It was an intimidating display reminiscent of the 1970s and 80s, and the intended message was clear:  The commanders of Guatemala’s security forces – which in recent years have been reliable partners with the United States – have sided with those in power to shut down the only credible mechanism for combatting the corruption and impunity that plague that country.  

Not yet determined is the fate of CICIG’s 45 or so international lawyers and investigators, whose work permits have expired.  If Commissioner Velasquez is not allowed to return, and CICIG’s other employees are forced to leave the country, CICIG will, for all practical purposes, cease to exist.

President Morales’ decision to do away with CICIG in a manner that the UN Secretary General says “does not appear to be consistent with the Agreement on the establishment of CICIG,” was reportedly precipitated by a decision of the Supreme Court, days earlier, to refer to Congress a petition by the Attorney General and CICIG to lift President Morales’ immunity for violating campaign financing laws.  It appears that President Morales is more concerned with his own legal vulnerability, and that of his supporters, than upholding the institutions of justice. 

It is also increasingly apparent that this attack on CICIG is only part of a broader attempt that has been gaining steam over the better part of a year to destroy the independence of the Constitutional Court, weaken civil society, intimidate human rights defenders and journalists, and undermine the rule of law.  It is an existential confrontation between the forces of corruption and impunity, and Guatemala’s fledgling judicial institutions.

Ever since CICIG was established 11 years ago to help combat the pervasive corruption, infiltration by organized crime, and near total impunity in Guatemala, the State Department and the U.S. Embassy have consistently supported CICIG as have Republicans and Democrats in Congress.  We are all familiar with the historical links between organized crime, drug traffickers, Guatemala’s security forces, and public officials.  It has been widely recognized by the Guatemalan people that because of CICIG and Guatemala’s Public Ministry, working together, the cause of justice – including convictions of corrupt senior government officials – has been significantly enhanced.  Without CICIG these achievements would not have been possible.

On Saturday, September 1st, Secretary Pompeo responded to President Morales’ announcement with a bizarre tweet that did not even mention CICIG.  Instead, the Secretary expressed appreciation for Guatemala’s “efforts in counternarcotics and security.”  That is a bit like being told that the courthouse is on fire and responding that the stock market is up.  The State Department should condemn what is occurring in Guatemala, reaffirm its support for CICIG and Commissioner Velasquez, and make clear that corrupt Guatemalan officials will be sanctioned under U.S. law.  Otherwise, it will share complicity in the unraveling of years of United States investment in CICIG and in judicial and law enforcement reform in Guatemala.

Perhaps the State Department is worried that if President Morales is prosecuted and convicted of campaign financing violations and removed from office the way his predecessor was, U.S. security cooperation with Guatemala might suffer.  What it really should be worried about is what will happen to the fight against corruption and organized crime if President Morales succeeds in dismantling CICIG.  If the country loses its most effective anti-corruption institution, the progress that has been made in recent years in strengthening the rule of law is likely to be reversed, allowing drug cartels and other criminal organizations to grow unchecked.  This is particularly alarming with national elections in Guatemala scheduled for next year.  The integrity of Guatemala’s democratic process—not simply the survival of CICIC – is threatened by the corrupt influences of organized crime.

Like any institution, CICIG is not without imperfections.  Several constructive reforms have been proposed and I have encouraged CICIG, the United Nations, and the Guatemalan Government to find a way forward that strengthens oversight and transparency while preserving CICIG’s mandate and protecting the Commissioner from political interference.  While that process has been eclipsed by recent events, there is still time to resurrect it.  The United Nations, the United States, other governments that have supported CICIG, and the Guatemalan Government should urgently resume discussions to achieve such a solution. 

Ultimately, if other attempts fail, the future of CICIG, of its Commissioner and employees, and of the rule of law in Guatemala – not just under President Morales who has just over a year left to serve but also in the years ahead – will be in the hands of the Guatemalan people, the judiciary, and the Congress.  As a former prosecutor and the senior member of our Judiciary Committee, I have long recognized that an independent judiciary is a cornerstone of democratic government.  It is what gives practical meaning to the phrase “rule of law”, which is fundamental to strengthening democracy.  To its credit, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court has displayed that independence in the past.  That independence is needed today.    

As a result of President Morales’ actions, security cooperation with Guatemala, and loans from international financial institutions, are now in jeopardy.  That is not in the interests of Guatemala or the United States.  Recognizing what is at stake, and in support of the courageous Guatemalans who are defending the Constitution and the rule of law, I will not support the expenditure of U.S. funds for assistance for the Guatemalan Government under the Alliance for Prosperity, including for the military and police forces, until the fate of CICIG and Commissioner Velasquez is satisfactorily resolved.  

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David Carle: 202-224-3693