As a former Appeal’s Court judge in Guatemala, I am deeply concerned about the rapidly escalating constitutional crisis that threatens recent progress to establish the rule of law in my country.
Over the last five months, the president of Guatemala has repeatedly defied the orders of the Constitutional Court in an effort to block investigations into allegations of corruption during his election campaign. He is now seeking to remove several magistrates of the Constitutional Court, the highest tribunal in Guatemala. If he is successful, the long-term implications for the country could be severe, especially in light of the court’s responsibility to ensure the integrity of the upcoming elections. The United States needs to send a clear signal that it remains committed to combating the corruption in Guatemala and will not tolerate any effort to compromise the rule of law and the integrity of the court.
In 2007, I was appointed as an appeals judge in one of the most conflict-ridden and populated areas of Guatemala, positioning me on the front lines, fighting corruption outside and inside the judiciary. I pressed charges against judicial clerks, unethical lawyers and corrupt politicians – accomplishments only possible with the support of a United Nations-backed anti-corruption commission (known by the Spanish acronym, CICIG) created to address the endemic rule of law issues plaguing the country at that time.
In 2014, when I expected to be re-appointed to the bench, the head of the Guatemalan Congress, Godofredo Rivera, attempted to stack the courts to favor his political party, which had links with drug cartels and corruption scandals. Without CICIG’s capacity to investigate objectively, I would not have been able to publicly denounce Rivera and he would not have been sentenced to 13 years in jail for bribery and influence peddling. CICIG gave judges, lawyers, and advocates an ally in uncovering corruption at the highest levels, moves that were previously suicidal.
What concerns me now is that the same institution that enabled me to take a stand against corruption is at risk of disappearing. After more than 10 years, CICIG has presented hundreds of cases proving illegal security forces and organized crime have infiltrated government institutions, often through powerful individuals in diverse sectors. These conclusions led to investigations into political corruption and illegal campaign financing.
Implicating the President
The investigations recently culminated in evidence that President Jimmy Morales violated campaign finance laws. In an apparent attempt to end investigations into these allegations, Morales declared CICIG Commissioner Ivan Velásquez “persona non-grata” and called for his expulsion from the country in 2017, but was overruled by the Constitutional Court.
However, Morales would not take no for an answer, even if that meant ignoring the rulings of the highest court in the land. In another series of attempts to impede investigations, the president announced he would not renew CICIG´s mandate and barred Velásquez, from returning to Guatemala.
Both decisions made by the head of the executive branch were reviewed by the Constitutional Court, which serves as the guardian of the constitution in Guatemala. The court overruled Morales’s decisions and ordered the foreign affairs ministry to allow the reentry of CICIG’s commissioner and to renew the courtesy visas for the commission’s personnel.
Unfortunately, the government of Guatemala has blatantly ignored the rulings, and as a response, they sent special police forces to the Guatemalan international airport, where in a shameful moment for the history of the country, the ministry of foreign affairs refused entrance to a U.N. investigator and held him in detention for about 24 hours in the airport.
On Jan. 7, Morales declared the unilateral termination of the agreement between the U.N. and Guatemala and gave CICIG 24 hours to close operations in the country. Two days later, the Constitutional Court ruled that the termination of the agreement is unconstitutional.
What started as a conflict between the president and CICIG has devolved into a constitutional crisis. Now, Morales has ordered the Office of the Prosecutor General to lift the immunity of the constitutional court magistrates.
As the American Bar Association said in a Jan. 11 letter to the chairman and ranking member of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs: “It is important to U.S. interests to convey that the Morales administration’s assault on judicial independence and misuse of U.S. defense articles is unacceptable.” The letter cites as an example the Guatemalan Ministry of Interior’s use of U.S.-origin military vehicles intended for counter-narcotics operations in an apparent intimidation tactic in front of the U.S. Embassy and the CICIG headquarters.
The ABA suggests the committee consider suspending further security assistance to Guatemala. Unfortunately, I must agree that such a step is needed in the current circumstances.
As I write this, I do so from outside of Guatemala because it is unsafe for me to do so from my home country. I hope to one day return to a country where the rule of law is respected, not manipulated. For this to happen, the international community must support the independence of the judiciary in Guatemala and demand adherence to the rule of law.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the positions of her employers and/or associated educational and professional institutions.
IMAGE: Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, center, flanked by Vice-President Jafeth Cabrera, right, and his cabinet, gives a statement at the Culture Palace in Guatemala City on Jan. 7, 2019. Morales announced an immediate end to the UN-sponsored anti-corruption commission, CICIG. (Photo by NOE PEREZ/AFP/Getty Images)