Leahy Statement On The International Commission Against Impunity In Guatemala

Mr. President, many of us here are familiar with the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, known as CICIG.  The United States Congress, and Republican and Democratic administrations, have supported it for years, and with few exceptions it is strongly supported by the Guatemalan people.  That is because CICIG, working closely with the Office of the Attorney General, has proven what many Guatemalans thought impossible:  that even the most powerful government officials who commit major crimes believing they are above the law can be brought to justice.

CICIG was created in December 2006, when the United Nations and Guatemala signed a treaty-level agreement setting up CICIG as an independent body to support the Office of the Attorney General, the National Civilian Police, and other Guatemalan Government institutions in the investigation and prosecution of particularly sensitive and difficult cases.  I vividly remember that time, when impunity for even the worst crimes was a virtual certainty in Guatemala. 

During more than 35 years of internal armed conflict an estimated 200,000 Guatemalans, mostly rural Mayan villagers, were murdered – the vast majority by the army.  Many were rounded up and never seen or heard from again.  Thanks largely to the efforts of the Guatemala Forensic Anthropology Foundation, the tortured remains of many hundreds have been found in unmarked mass graves, some on former military bases.  Hardly anyone has been punished for those atrocities, and past attempts to investigate and prosecute some of the individuals responsible were stymied.

Even in the years since that dark period, almost anyone, especially those in positions of authority, got away with anything, including assassinations and robbing the public treasury.  Today, few crimes involving official corruption and violations of human rights are prosecuted, and even fewer result in conviction and punishment. 

But those that have been credibly investigated and brought to trial are due to the courageous efforts of CICIG and its Commissioner, Ivan Velasquez, a respected Colombian jurist, and the recently retired Attorney General, Thelma Aldana, who carried on the tradition of independence and integrity established by her predecessor, Claudia Paz y Paz.  These prosecutors have given hope not only to victims who long ago lost faith in Guatemala’s dysfunctional justice system, but also to many members of the business community who recognize that without an independent judiciary and confidence that the rule of law will be enforced, Guatemala will never attract the foreign investment it needs to develop. 

Predictably, and throughout its history, CICIG has come under attack from those who have enriched themselves at public expense and escaped justice, including for heinous crimes.  Fearing prosecution, they have sought to challenge CICIG’s legitimacy and impuned the character and conduct of its Commissioner.  Each time, CICIG has survived, thanks to the support of the international community. 

Today, CICIG is once again being attacked, including by some senior officials, who have sought to exploit factual misrepresentations, including those echoed in the Guatemalan and U.S. media, about a troubling case involving members of a Russian family who entered Guatemala with fraudulent passports.  This has even resulted in a portion of the funds appropriated by Congress for CICIG to be temporarily blocked from disbursement.      

Without recounting the bizarre facts of that case, suffice it to say that not a shred of credible evidence has been presented to support the allegations of abuse of authority leveled at CICIG, and in particular at Commissioner Velasquez.  That, however, does not appear to matter to those who have long sought an excuse to replace Velasquez with someone who is susceptible to intimidation.  The Bitkov case, which has all the makings of a made for TV tragedy, should be appropriately resolved in the Guatemalan courts.  The family should be treated justly and humanely.  But CICIG is not the problem. 

It is important to reiterate what the Guatemalan people know:  CICIG is an absolutely essential institution that has enabled the Office of the Attorney General to break through the wall of impunity in ways that would never have been possible without CICIG’s support.  It is that simple.  Without CICIG there is no reason to believe that any case involving high ranking officials, or members of organized crime networks with the ability to intimidate and bribe prosecutors and judges and threaten or assassinate witnesses, will be brought to justice.  

It is also a fact that CICIG is only as effective as its Commissioner, and that while even those who want to rein in CICIG publicly claim to support it, they make little secret of their goal to get rid of Velasquez.   

Commissioner Velasquez is an experienced, courageous jurist with integrity.  That is why he was hired for the job, and by all indications he is guilty of nothing more than doing the job he was hired to do.  And the more he does so, the more those who fear prosecution will try to find ways to stop him.  It is therefore very important at this time that the international community, including the United States, reaffirms its support for Velasquez and the fight against corruption and impunity in Guatemala.

It is noteworthy that the former Attorney General has consistently voiced her support for Velasquez, because if anyone should know if there is a grain of truth to the allegations against him, it would be her.  She knows from experience the motivations of those who are aligned against CICIG, because they have also tried to intimidate her.

In order for CICIG and Commissioner Velasquez to effectively carry out CICIG’s mandate through the reminder of its current term that ends in September 2019, he needs the support of the Guatemalan Government, the United Nations, the United States, and other governments that support justice in Guatemala.  I commend the Department of State, and U.S. Ambassador Arreaga, for recognizing what is at stake, and for seeking ways to ensure that CICIG and Commissioner Velasquez can carry out their responsibilities transparently and effectively.  I also know that a majority of Democrats and Republicans respect Commissioner Velasquez and want CICIG to receive the funds it needs.  I am confident that the funds will be released, that CICIG and the role of the Commissioner will be enhanced, and that the cause of justice for the Guatemalan people will be served.

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David Carle: 202-224-3693