Few countries have done more, more quickly to combat corruption than impoverished, violence-wracked Guatemala. In less than a year prosecutors have linked nearly 100 officials and business people to schemes that may have robbed the state of more than $120 million in customs revenues, while earning fortunes in kickbacks.
A sitting president and vice president, accused of masterminding the conspiracy, both resigned after losing immunity and now await trial in prison.
Perhaps most remarkably, Guatemala accomplished this without illegally ousting a government and reigniting bloody cycles of repression and rebellion. Citizens from across the political spectrum took to the streets in massive, non-violent demonstrations to demand the ouster of corrupt politicos and then took part in one of the country’s most peaceful recent elections to choose a political outsider — Jimmy Morales, a TV comedian — as president.
Has Guatemala turned a corner toward more effective, transparent governance? In a world where such civic awakenings have too often disintegrated into sectarian strife or reverted to authoritarian rule, no one should take the country’s transformation for granted. Moreover, the country has had unprecedented international help in combating corruption — a unique, U.N.-sponsored commission against impunity, known by its Spanish acronym as CICIG.
It is far from clear whether Guatemala can continue to combat political and institutional corruption or abuse without international help.
CICIG is an internationally-financed investigative entity that is embedded within — and yet independent of — the domestic justice system. Unlike international tribunals, it relies on national courts. Unlike most capacity-building efforts, CICIG not only trains national prosecutors and police, it also works side by side with them to hold dangerous or powerful suspects accountable before the law. Its success has inspired plans to install a similar entity in Honduras, sponsored by the Organization of American States.
But CICIG is also a crutch. Although leading politicians say they support its mission, including president-elect Morales, it is far from clear whether Guatemala can continue to combat political and institutional corruption or abuse without international help.
CICIG has accomplished more than might have been expected when it started operations in 2007 in an attempt to salvage human rights and security agreements included within the U.N.-brokered peace agreements that ended 36-years of intermittent civil war in 1996. At the time, Guatemalan prosecutors who had the will simply lacked the way to uncover and dismantle powerful criminal syndicates. There was no legal procedure allowing investigators to wire-tap suspects (though intelligence services eavesdropped without restraint). Nor could prosecutors bargain with low-level defendants, encouraging them to inform on upper echelons, or go after illegally-acquired wealth through asset forfeiture procedures.
CICIG-promoted laws now provide Guatemala’s justice with these and other essential investigative tools. Perhaps most importantly, CICIG has shielded prosecutors from the political pressures that once smothered controversial cases before they ever reached trial.
Under the leadership of Iván Velásquez, a Colombian jurist known for uncovering the links between politicians, traffickers and paramilitary forces, CICIG and the public prosecutors’ office enjoy high approval ratings among citizens exhausted by crime and corruption. In a traditionally polarized country, the fight against impunity has won applause from business associations to labor unions, from urban professionals to indigenous leaders.
But prosecuting allegedly crooked officials with international help is the easy part. To sustain progress, Congress needs to pass additional reforms, including crucial legislation to make judges and prosecutors more independent. Most importantly a government with one of the region’s lowest rates of tax collection, must demonstrate its commitment to rule of law by paying for it. It cannot continue to rely on international donors to foot the bill.
Guatemalan voters chose President-elect Morales based on what he is against: “Not corrupt, not a thief” was his campaign slogan. To demonstrate that he is not just anti-corruption but pro-justice, he will need to make hard political and financial choices, ideally in alliance with CICIG and the peaceful but determined citizens who want more honest and effective government.
Mary Speck is Mexico and Central America project director for the International Crisis Group.