Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

Can the UN Win the Battle Against Impunity in Guatemala?


U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden earlier this year called for the renewal of the U.N.-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), an independent body created in 2006 to fight organized crime and corruption, as a condition of U.S. aid to the Central American nation. While many Guatemalan civil society groups have urged extending CICIG's mandate when it expires in September, President Otto Pérez Molina has expressed doubts about its future, and some critics have said the body is unconstitutional, unsuccessful and biased. How successful has CICIG been in its first years of operation? Should its mandate be extended? What factors are shaping the debate, and what will most likely be the outcome?

Eduardo Stein, former vice president of Guatemala: "The main motivation in many sectors of Guatemalan society for wanting CICIG to continue is the recent outcome of the proceedings to designate the new Supreme Court and Courts of Appeals magistrates. There are very serious concerns about the real independence of the judiciary. And the generalized feeling of defenselessness in most citizens vis-à-vis the persistence of violence, organized crime and widespread corruption finds in CICIG some element of independent investigative capacity and support amidst weak justice institutions. This sentiment relates to a broader concern that corruption, organized crime and powerful interest groups have infected the institutional scaffolding of the Guatemalan state. Moreover, even if CICIG is a temporary international aid mechanism, it is considered indispensable in the present electoral process and a quite unique and innovative international cooperation design. Yet, many Guatemalans also feel that CICIG should go. The reasons are quite diverse. Arguments of scant results after more than seven years and three commissioners are combined with concerns about external international pressures that affect sovereignty and some worrisome signs in the performance of the previous two commissioners that resorted to questionable and unethical practices--not only in biased agendas--going beyond their mandate and trying to unduly force legal proceedings. The lack of proper supervision by the United Nations' political under-secretariat (CICIG not being strictly a U.N. body since its inception) produced a novel condition that has projected an image of a totally independent entity without an adequate oversight and accountability mechanism. But the deepest fears for the continuation of CICIG lie in recent success stories in support of the nation's prosecuting office (Ministerio Público) and the determination of the new commissioner to investigate corruption in the public sphere as well as political parties' finances: both strictly within the mandate. President Pérez Molina expects the report of a high-level commission by the end of April and will decide probably by the end of May. The prospects for continuation are unfortunately quite grim."

Kelsey Alford-Jones, executive director of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission: "Extension of CICIG's mandate is an essential part of Guatemala's process to strengthen its justice system. In a context of widespread impunity, CICIG has driven more than 200 investigations of criminal networks, parallel power structures and corrupt government officials and brought criminal charges against high-level officials, including members of the police and military once thought to be untouchable. CICIG has strengthened Guatemala's institutions, helping to modernize techniques for criminal investigation and recommending important legal reforms. Because of CICIG's support, Guatemala now has a witness-protection program as well as specialized investigative units and courts for complex or 'high-risk' cases. As impressive as these achievement are, they remain fragile and reversible. CICIG's work has wedged open a crack in the wall of historic impunity. But if the wedge is removed, even these limited opportunities for justice will close. Under constant assault by increasingly brazen criminal and clandestine structures, Guatemala does not have the momentum to institutionalize these advances. A diverse set of civil society organizations, business groups and government officials have called for the extension of CICIG's mandate. Given this widespread support, its long list of concrete successes, dozens of ongoing investigations and international funding ensured for the coming years, there is no legal or practical reason for the CICIG to close up shop. The lone voices that say otherwise would seem to have a vested interest in ensuring impunity. Guatemala should embrace, not abandon, this unique opportunity."

Salvador Paiz, president and CEO of Teculután Investments and president of FUNSEPA in Guatemala City: "El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras rank 80, 115 and 126 out of 175 countries in Transparency International's 2014 Corruption Perception Index. Therefore, it seems reasonable that Vice President Biden is looking for ways to mitigate the risk of corruption when presenting the proposed Northern Triangle billion-dollar aid package. However, it is not clear how the current CICIG answers that question as it only applies to Guatemala, and Presidents Sánchez Cerén and Hernández have already rejected its regionalization. CICIG is an interesting intellectual construct whereby a U.N.-backed institution cooperates with the local attorney general's office to fight entrenched criminal organizations and reduce impunity. The Guatemalan experiment has had some great successes, as with the Rosenberg case where CICIG's involvement averted a national crisis. Unfortunately, the commission has also dropped the ball on several high-profile corruption cases like the investigation of ex-President Portillo (who was later extradited to the United States where he was unequivocally found guilty of money laundering). There have been three CICIGs and not one institution. Although I value individual leadership styles, individuals should not whimsically reinterpret an institutional mandate to fit their personal political agendas. In addition, there has been little in the way of true capacity building and transfer of knowledge toward the local judicial sector. Commissioner Iván Velasquez seems to be doing a lot of damage control to getting the commission back on track. Significant donor resources have already been invested in the establishment of CICIG and in ironing out some of the major wrinkles along the way. The outcome of the CICIG debate will undoubtedly be tied to aid negotiations. However, donors would be wise to more tightly focus the mandate on corruption. In so doing, it would be advisable to purge the rosters of ideologically charged individuals and retain only those that are committed to strengthening rule of law and the capacity-building mandate"

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