President Jimmy Morales is facing pushback at home and abroad after his recent attempt to expel Iván Velásquez, the head of a United Nations anti-corruption commission, from the country.
Velásquez was appointed by the UN Secretary-General in 2013 to head the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala. His and the Commission’s efforts were critical in the investigation which led to the resignation and arrest of President Otto Pérez and Vice President Roxana Baldetti in 2015.
The Commission began in 2007 after a request from the Guatemalan government. Its three primary 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 two-year mandate has been extended four times. The Commission’s current mandate expires in September 2019.
In an official statement, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein was “deeply disturbed” by President Morales’ attempt to expel Velásquez from Guatemala.
“Velásquez and the Commission, known by its Spanish initials as CICIG, together with the Attorney General, Thelma Aldana, and her office, play a critically important role in the fight against impunity and corruption in Guatemala,” said Hussein in the statement.
In the United States, Congressman Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, issued a statement in reaction to President Morales’ action:
One of the bedrock principles of a constitutional system is that no one is above the law. I urge President Morales to change course, respect the Constitutional Court, and allow Ivan Velasquez to continue his important work supporting Guatemalan authorities fighting high levels of corruption.
The U.S. Congress has spoken with one voice in support of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala. We will continue to stand with the Guatemalan people, and especially those in poverty, who are hurt most by corruption.
In May, the House of Representatives passed a resolution that acknowledged the importance of the Commission and urged the government of Guatemala to work with the Commission to fight corruption.
Local opposition to President Morales’ order forcing Iván Velásquez to leave Guatemala came from the Constitutional Court. The Constitutional Court, which is the final authority on questions of constitutionality in Guatemala, intervened and nullified the President’s order shortly after it was made.
Attorney General Thelma Aldana has been highly critical of the President’s action. Both Aldana and Velásquez have raised concerns over possible campaign finance violations during the 2015 presidential election. Aldana asked a court on August 25 to remove President Morales’ immunity from prosecution so an investigation could move forward.
The Attorney General and President have been at odds since the President’s son, José Manuel Morales, and brother, Samuel Morales, were arrested on fraud charges in early 2017.
An Uncertain Future
The current political crisis in Guatemala is reminiscent of the crisis that propelled Jimmy Morales to the presidency less than two years ago.
In April 2015, the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala and the Attorney General’s office arrested or issued warrants for 22 people on corruption charges. The case, known as “La Línea,” revolved around a smuggling ring designed to avoid import taxes. The investigation’s net included Vice President Roxana Baldetti and President Otto Pérez, referred to as “la dos” and “el uno,” respectively.
In September 2015, after being stripped of his immunity from prosecution, President Pérez resigned from office. Vice President Baldetti had already resigned in May 2015 and Alejandro Maldonado Aguirre, a former Minister of Education, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and constitutional judge, was selected to replace her. Maldonado served as acting president for five months until Jimmy Morales was sworn into office in January 2016 after a sweeping electoral victory in October.
Guatemalans face the very real and very familiar possibility that their President will not serve out his entire term because of a corruption investigation. Should that occur, the Vice President, Jafeth Cabrera, will have nearly two years in office before the presidential elections in 2019. During that time, Cabrera will have the unenviable task of leading a nation going through the difficult but necessary task of rooting out corruption in Guatemala.
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