A sordid story told in remarkable new reporting from the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal illustrates the often twisted through-threads in President Donald Trump’s transactional and egocentric approach to U.S. foreign policy. In this case, the threads connect the expulsion from Guatemala of a highly effective U.N.-backed anti-corruption prosecutor, the decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, the migrant crisis on the U.S. southern border, and immunity for crooked Russian timber tycoons.
In a particularly obscure but significant twist, the story revolves around the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (known by its Spanish acronym CICIG). The commission was one of the new hybrid justice mechanisms developed as an alternative to the creation of a stand-alone ad hoc tribunal or mixed judicial chamber. With support from the United Nations and donor countries, such efforts aim to strengthen domestic investigative and prosecutorial authorities through a range of rule-of-law initiatives that include the secondment of international experts to dedicated war crimes and anti-corruption prosecutorial units. Similar models have been contemplated for Honduras and El Salvador, but none has been as successful as CICIG.
CICIG had its origins in civil society demands and a 2002 request from the government of Guatemala to the United Nations for assistance in dealing with the high levels of postwar violence and entrenched impunity. Formed in 2006, CICIG embedded international experts in the Guatemalan Attorney General’s office and the National Police to help investigate and disband criminal organizations with ties to the security forces—known as Cuerpos Ilegales y Aparatos Clandestinos de Seguridad—and other corrupt state structures that threaten economic development and the enjoyment of human rights in Guatemala. One of these international secondees was the courageous Colombian prosecutor Iván Velásquez, who was tapped to head CICIG in 2013, given his extensive experience investigating prominent figures accused of corruption, supporting paramilitaries, and perpetrating state violence in Colombia.
CICIG did not investigate international crimes stemming from Guatemala’s 36-year armed conflict, such as the genocide case against Efraín Ríos Montt. But it did focus on corruption and organized crime syndicates that arose during and after the armed conflict. And some CICIG cases involved the commission of what could be deemed international crimes, such as targeted killings and social cleansing operations.
CICIG’s results were impressive. For example, it brought down several former presidents, including Otto Pérez Molina, now stripped of his immunity and awaiting trial for bribery, and Álvaro Colom, charged with graft. CICIG investigations and prosecutions also contributed to related proceedings in foreign courts, including in Switzerland (which prosecuted ex-police chief Erwin Sperisen for the extrajudicial killings of prisoners) and the United States (which launched a money laundering case against another former Guatemalan president, Alfonso Portillo). Historically, the United States was a strong supporter of CICIG and a reliable donor. Then-Vice President Joe Biden took a special interest in CICIG and in rooting out corruption and organized crime in Central America, seeing these twin perils as key drivers of the migrant crisis that unfolded during the Obama administration. Not surprisingly, CICIG became one of the most popular institutions in Guatemala.
As it turned out, CICIG would become a victim of its own success. Velásquez’s investigations eventually led closer and closer to then-President Jimmy Morales, who left office in January and who in an earlier incarnation as a comedian regularly appeared in blackface and found humor in misogyny and racism. Velásquez’s work eventually led to the indictment of Morales’ son and brother for embezzlement and then began focusing on Morales’ own potential campaign financing violations. Morales (described as “the Donald Trump of Guatemala”) responded by trying to declare Velásquez “persona non grata” and to disband the CICIG—moves declared unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court.
The international community (including the United States and the United Nations) at first rallied to support the CICIG, and the Constitutional Court ruled that Velásquez’s investigation should proceed. However, Morales failed to renew CICIG’s mandate in 2018 (alarming many Guatemalan ministers and diplomats), finally expelled Velásquez and other international staff, and ordered the CICIG to disband in January 2019. Along the way, and reminiscent of the worst days of Guatemala’s dirty war, Morales deployed U.S.-donated tanks to surround CICIG’s offices in a show of force.
Although CICIG originally enjoyed strong support from the U.S. Congress, this began to shift in 2018. This is where the Russian timber tycoons come in. Velásquez began investigating Igor and Irina Bitkov, who had fled corruption allegations in Russia and emigrated to Guatemala through a massive identity fraud scheme, which eventually landed them and their 14-year-old daughter in prison there.
Opponents of Velásquez, however, started spreading rumors that he was doing the bidding of Russian President Vladimir Putin, that CICIG was “tormenting” an innocent family (per the Wall Street Journal, which took the bait), and that the Kremlin had infiltrated CICIG. A shadowy lobbying firm pushed this false narrative, which found fertile ground in bipartisan anti-Putin sentiment on Capitol Hill. Even the U.S. Helsinki Commission fell for the story and had to be straightened out by Guatemala experts. CICIG soon found its crucial U.S. funding frozen and then terminated. Other donors objected, but they were not strong enough to sustain CICIG without U.S. support. And so, the anti-corruption drive in Guatemala ground to a halt.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration also reversed course on CICIG. Morales and Trump apparently bonded over their shared “persecution” at the hands of independent prosecutors. Indeed, Velásquez was known as “the Robert Mueller of Latin America.” But according to Reveal’s story, the Trump administration attached strings to its assistance in killing CICIG.
What did the Trump administration get in exchange? Morales helped Trump advance two election promises: Morales 1) moved Guatemala’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem two days after Trump inaugurated the new U.S. embassy site in May 2018, and 2) agreed in July 2019 to allow Guatemala to serve as a “safe third country” for migrants escaping violence in Latin America and beyond. This cruel misnomer requires migrants to apply for asylum in a third country (rather than transiting and then applying at the U.S. border), and enables the United States to transfer asylees who appear at its border to Guatemala to apply for asylum there. All this was occurring just as Guatemala was becoming one of the largest sources of migration in the region, due to endemic violence and corruption.
What is next for the anti-corruption movement in Guatemala? Morales’s successor, Alejandro Giammattei, has promised to tackle graft, but to do so through the presidential office, without the assistance of the international community. He is unlikely to revive CICIG in part because he once faced scrutiny for his alleged involvement in the execution of prisoners when he was a prison warden—charges for which he was later exonerated.
Latin American experts warn that Giammattei’s approach will yield little more than “more of the same,” including the revival of criminal rackets and the re-entrenchment of impunity. Theoretically, CICIG could be reinstated, but there is no question that U.S. support will be crucial—an unlikely contingency absent a change of administration in November. Given his strong support to this effort as vice president, a Biden administration would be well-placed to reverse course again—if it is not too late.
It’s a riveting — if demoralizing — quid pro quo story, and proof positive of the way corruption begets corruption and autocrats find solace in each other. It is also a further testament to the depths to which the Trump administration will go to undermine the rule of law wherever it might begin to flourish.
IMAGE: U.S. President Donald Trump welcomes Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales at the South Portico of the White House December 17, 2019 in Washington, DC. President Morales was the first Central American leader to sign and implement the Asylum Cooperation Agreement with the U.S. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)