Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales Tries to Remove UN Anti-Corruption Commissioner

Guatemala erupted in political crisis on Sunday after President Jimmy Morales ordered the head of a United Nations anti-corruption commission to leave the country. The Constitutional Court of Guatemala has since blocked the President’s order.

The International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala started in 2007 after a request from the Guatemalan government. The Commission’s three main objectives are to investigate illegal groups that commit crimes that affect fundamental human rights of Guatemalans, collaborate with the government to dismantle these groups, and make public policy recommendations. Its original mandate two-year mandate has been extended four times. The Commission’s current mandate expires in September 2019.

Ivan Velasquez was appointed by the UN Secretary-General in 2013 to head the Commission. He is a former magistrate of the Supreme Court of Colombia. Velasquez and the Commission’s efforts were critical in the investigation which led to the resignation and arrest of President Otto Perez Molina.

President Morales’ decision to remove Velasquez was not unexpected. Tensions in Guatemala were high last week when rumors emerged that Morales was going to seek Velasquez’s removal from the Commission. Thousands marched in the capital of Guatemalan last Wednesday and Saturday in support of the anti-corruption commission and to demand President Morales’ resignation.

Guatemalan Attorney General Thelma Aldana asked a court on Friday to remove President Morales’ immunity from prosecution so an investigation could move forward. Both Aldana and Velasquez have raised concerns over possible campaign finance violations during the 2015 presidential election.

At the time of that election, Jimmy Morales was the leader of the National Convergence Front party. Morales ran on the campaign slogan “neither corrupt nor a thief.”

Domestic Reaction

Guatemalan Health Minister Lucrecia Hernandez Mack and her deputies resigned in protest after President Morales ordered Commissioner Ivan Velasquez to leave the country. In their letter of resignation, Lucrecia Hernandez Mack and her deputies said, “we consider that the work plan that we have been developing ceases to be ethically and politically viable in a government such as yours.”

International Reaction

Members of United States Congress expressed their support for Attorney General Thelma Aldana and Commissioner Ivan Velasquez. In a joint statement, Representatives Eliot Engel, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and Albio Sires said:

Attorney General Aldana and Commissioner Velásquez have done extraordinary work combating corruption and impunity in Guatemala, and we urge President Morales to continue supporting these important institutions.

The three powerful members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee went further to imply that President Morales’ action to remove Velasquez could endanger United States foreign assistance to Guatemala.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was shocked by the news. In a statement, Guterres praised Velasquez:

Under Commissioner Velásquez’s leadership, the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) has made a decisive contribution to strengthening justice sector institutions in Guatemala, helping to ensure justice was done in numerous cases.  Mr. Velásquez has worked tirelessly to promote a culture that upholds the rule of law and rejects corruption.

Morales’ Fall from Grace

This is the latest in a series of controversies surrounding President Jimmy Morales.

Elected in 2015 by a wide margin, Jimmy Morales was seen as a political outsider who ran on the campaign slogan “neither corrupt nor a thief.” That election came on the heels of President Otto Fernando Perez Molina’s resignation from office and subsequent arrest on corruption charges.

This year began with the news that a judge ordered the detention of President Morales’ son and brother on fraud charges. Their alleged crimes are related to the scandal that brought down President Otto Perez and his Vice President, Ingrid Roxana Baldetti Elias, in 2015.

As the New York Times reports, President Morales stopped cooperating with Attorney General Aldana and Commissioner Velasquez after the investigation against his son and brother began.

Morales also faces tough questions related to campaign finance during the 2015 presidential election. As Prensa Libre reports, there are several active investigations related to campaign funds that may have come from Marlon Monroy Meoño, a narcotrafficker, and Alejandro Sinibaldi, the Communications Minister under President Otto Pérez who is accused of money laundering.

President Morales’ attempt to remove Commissioner Velasquez may mean the beginning of the end of his presidency. Less than two years after being elected to office, Jimmy Morales has created a political crisis that rivals the scandal that brought down his predecessor.

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