03.13.19

Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy On Justice In Guatemala

Mr. LEAHY.   For the past dozen years, the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, with financial support from the United States and other countries, has worked in collaboration with Guatemala’s Public Ministry.  That partnership has enabled courageous Guatemalan prosecutors to investigate and bring to trial cases they never could have pursued without the international “shield” and assistance provided by CICIG.  It has also enabled courageous Constitutional Court magistrates to defend Guatemala’s weak judicial institutions.  In a country where throughout its history high ranking public officials, including senior military officers, and corporate elites have enjoyed near total impunity for corrupt acts and violent crimes, the Guatemalan people finally saw that justice is possible.

Not surprisingly, that collaboration encountered fierce opposition from its inception.  The same high ranking officials and elites who feared becoming the targets of corruption investigations sought to curtail CICIG’s role.  And last year, that opposition culminated in President Morales expelling the CICIG Commissioner and subsequently announcing that the agreement establishing CICIG would be terminated, effective immediately.  That announcement was made, without warning, after months of negotiations between Guatemalan, United Nations, and United States officials on reforms requested by the Morales government, which would have established the position of Deputy Commissioner as well as certain reporting and oversight requirements.

In response to that announcement, as well as other worrisome trends in Guatemala, last week Senator Cardin and I, along with Representatives Torres and McGovern, introduced legislation in the Senate and House entitled the “Guatemala Rule of Law Accountability Act.”  Its purpose is to respond to the flagrant actions by the Morales government to subvert the rule of law, including its campaign against CICIG.  

In fact, the Morales government lacks authority to unilaterally curtail an agreement with the United Nations, a point that was made clear by the UN Secretary General.  CICIG’s mandate continues in effect until September 2019, at which point it may or may not be renewed.  However, I am concerned that there are some, including at the UN, who believe CICIG should significantly reduce its activities and, for all intents and purposes, fade into the sunset.  This would mean that for the remaining six months of its current mandate CICIG personnel would no longer attend trials or engage in further investigations.  Essentially, CICIG would discontinue its public activities and its personnel would be limited to preparing for the shut-down that would presumably occur in September.

This is extremely worrisome for several reasons.  First, donors would be paying to simply keep the lights on.  Second, CICIG would cease to function half a year before the end of its mandate.  This would be an enormous waste of time and resources that could be used to continue pursuing important cases and to ensure their proper hand-off to the Public Ministry.  Third, it would send a terrible message to the Guatemalan people, especially to the families of the victims. 

CICIG’s work under Commissioner Ivan Velazquez has been important not only for Guatemala, but for all of Central America.  There are still many cases under investigation.  Abandoning these cases would be a grave mistake.   It would signal that the Morales government’s tactics of intimidation and obstruction of justice paid off.  It would undermine future anti-corruption efforts in Guatemala, as well as send a terrible message to anti-corruption efforts in Honduras and fledgling efforts in El Salvador.  The United Nations and the international community have a responsibility to do everything possible to prevent this result. 

On a related topic, the Guatemalan Congress is about to debate, for the third and final time, legislation to grant amnesty to former military personnel who are charged with, or convicted of, war crimes and crimes against humanity.  If the amnesty legislation is approved, those serving prison sentences will reportedly be released with 24 hours.  The Guatemalan Congress has long had a reputation for being corrupt, and absolving military officers who engaged in heinous crimes is clearly a payoff to obstruct justice and undermine the rule of law.

We remember that Guatemala was ravaged by three decades of an internal armed conflict that included crimes of genocide.  An estimated 200,000 people, mostly rural Mayan villagers, were killed and according to the United Nations more than 90 percent of those killings were committed by the army.  The peace accords that ended that disaster were never implemented, and for decades the victims of those crimes were denied justice.  Now the Guatemalan Congress, with the support of President Morales, is on the verge of adding insult to injury by freeing the few army officers who were sent to prison.  It that happens, the Guatemalan government will join other pariah governments that fail to uphold their most sacred obligation to provide security and justice for their citizens.   

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