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Q&A: Guatemala’s struggle against corruption



Q&A: Guatemala’s struggle against corruption

The work of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) played a crucial role in Guatemala’s recent successes against corruption. In this Q&A, the INTERNATIONAL CRISIS GROUP’s Guatemala Analyst ARTURO MATUTE explains what this UN-backed body’s investigations have revealed, and how it should fulfil its mission to promote accountability and strengthen rule of law in one of the world’s most violent countries.

Q: How important is the recent crackdown on corruption in Guatemala?

The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) has scored its biggest prosecutorial hit yet with the arrest of top officials accused of running a racket to defraud the state of millions of dollars in customs revenues. The scandal has rocked Guatemala’s political establishment, coming as it does just months before the September general elections. It has also sparked condemnation by political and civil society leaders across the ideological spectrum. President Otto Pérez Molina acted quickly to stem the outrage by requesting a two-year extension of the commission’s mandate, pointing out that his government supported its inquiry into possible customs fraud. But charges against Vice President Roxana Baldetti’s private secretary as the group’s alleged ringleader has fractured the governing party.

Q: Why was CICIG created and how does it operate?

The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) is a unique UN-backed body set up to promote the investigation, criminal prosecution and punishment of the crimes committed by illicit security forces and clandestine security organisations. These groups – known by the acronym CIACS in Spanish – were initially linked to counter-insurgency and intelligence networks formed to eliminate government opponents during the 36-year armed conflict that ended formally when guerrilla groups and the government finished signing a series of peace agreements in 1996. After the conflict ended, some CIACS mutated into profit-oriented criminal groups, using their ability to influence or infiltrate state justice institutions to commit illegal activities with impunity.

Human rights and other civil society groups, with strong international backing, pushed for creation of an independent body to investigate criminal networks and their links with the state. Despite opposition from some conservative groups, the government signed the agreement creating CICIG with the UN in 2006. As a mechanism for criminal prosecutions, CICIG is an international entity, funded by foreign governments, but embedded in the national judicial system. Evidence gathered by CICIG is used by Guatemalan prosecutors to bring charges in Guatemalan courts; the commission can also act as a co-plaintiff in certain cases. Its mandate also includes advising the government on judicial and institutional reforms.

Q: What has CICIG accomplished?

A justice sector committee charged with evaluating CICIG’s performance credited the commission with helping secure seventeen convictions as co-plaintiff, resulting in the dismantling of criminal organisations, while providing support in another 24 successful prosecutions. Some of its highest profile investigations have been used to secure guilty verdicts abroad, such as ex-President Alfonso Portillo’s conviction in the U.S. on corruption charges and former National Police Chief Erwin Sperisen’s conviction in Switzerland for the 2006 murder of seven inmates. It has strengthened prosecutors’ capacity by helping establish a special investigation methods unit, a criminal analysis section and a witness protection office. It has also promoted legal reforms, including laws to create special high-risk courts, regulate firearms and ammunitions and permit plea bargaining, plus the country’s first asset forfeiture law, allowing the state to seize illegally acquired properties.

But CICIG has also drawn criticism. Despite past investigations leading to the arrest of top officials within the police, the Ministry of Interior and the prison system, some said it had failed to uncover criminal networks within the state or to consolidate institutional reforms. The investigation into customs fraud by CICIG under Commissioner Iván Velásquez, a former Colombian judge known for investigating paramilitary activity and political corruption, has helped change that perception. The scale of the fraud and the seniority of the officials captured have outraged Guatemalans, who often seem disinterested in public issues or reluctant to express dissent, given the country’s history of repression. Timing has also magnified the investigation’s impact: the arrests come as political parties are gearing up for presidential, legislative and local elections.

Q: What did CICIG and Guatemalan prosecutors uncover and how did they do it?

Prosecutors on 16 April revealed the results of an eight-month investigation into a network created to defraud the national revenue agency. Dubbed by prosecutors “La Línea” – or “The Line” for the telephone number provided to importers seeking to evade duties – the group allegedly took bribes in return for underreporting the value of imported goods. According to prosecutors, it operated within customs offices at ports and border crossings, manipulating shifts so that conspirators could be placed on duty at specific times in specific locations.

Authorities arrested 21 suspects on 16 April, including the current and former heads of the revenue agency. The fraud was allegedly orchestrated by Vice President Roxana Baldetti’s private secretary, Juan Carlos Monzón, who recently travelled with her to South Korea. His whereabouts since are uncertain and he has been declared a fugitive.

The investigation conducted by CICIG with the help of a special investigation unit in the Public Ministry (Public Prosecutor’s Office) has collected massive amounts of scientific and documentary evidence, including financial records and the interception of some 66,000 telephone conversations and over 6,000 electronic messages. This means that prosecutors do not plan to rely on witness testimony or confessions to obtain a conviction, an advance reflecting the increasing sophistication and professionalisation of Guatemalan investigators.

Q: What are the political implications of this investigation?

The governing Patriot Party has suffered a huge blow. The incrimination of Vice President Baldetti’s private secretary severely weakens the position of one of President Pérez Molina’s closest political allies. Both Baldetti and Monzón have previously faced accusations of corruption in the press, which they denied. The Patriot Party presidential candidate, Alejandro Sinibaldi, resigned from the organisation three days after the arrests, accusing the vice president of having “sabotaged” his campaign and suggesting he would form an electoral coalition. Five congressmen have also abandoned the party.

President Pérez Molina’s credibility has also suffered. Previously he had publicly expressed reluctance to extend CICIG’s work. After the arrests, he reversed his stance and speeded up the presentation of the justice sector committee’s assessment, which recommended extending CICIG’s mandate. Then on 23 April, he announced he would ask the UN Secretary-General to authorise the commission for another two-year period, in a public ceremony attended by cabinet ministers and diplomats.

But the president’s about-face has done little to quell the outrage expressed in regular and social media outlets. Thousands gathered on 25 April in the capital’s Plaza de la Constitución to demand an end to corruption in one of the country’s biggest demonstrations in recent years. Many also called on both the vice president and the president to resign. The political system in general, however, inspires little confidence. Guatemala is one of the Latin American countries where attitudes are least favourable to stability, according to the Americas Barometer, which measures levels of support to the political system and levels of tolerance to dissenting views.

Q: What should CICIG do over the next two years?

Not only has CICIG been able to renew its mandate, it has enjoyed an outpouring of popular support. Former critics, such as the powerful Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial and Financial Associations – known as CACIF – have praised the commission’s work in collaboration with the Public Ministry, calling corruption a “cancer” on the national patrimony. This adds to the multiple expressions of support from civil society organisations, academia, and the media as well as from international actors.

CICIG’s investigations are changing the popular perception that Guatemala’s criminal networks are impregnable. Although widespread corruption in institutions such as the tax authority has long been rumoured, national authorities were unable or unwilling to act. There is now broad agreement that international support is needed to dismantle these networks and bring their leaders to justice. But as Crisis Group pointed out in a 2011 report, Guatemala cannot depend on external mechanisms forever: “National ownership of the commission’s functions and objectives is crucial to guaranteeing its long-term impact”.

The justice sector committee’s assessment recommending CICIG’s extension also called for closer coordination with national institutions, through such measures as a joint work plan. Commissioner Velásquez should embrace these recommendations, which would not only bolster CICIG’s image as an able and neutral actor but also encourage broader engagement with Guatemalan police, prosecutors and judges. The commission can also help ensure that the September elections are clean and credible. CICIG has launched an investigation into political campaign financing, promising to turn its results over to electoral authorities. It is an open secret that criminal groups, including powerful drug traffickers, finance political campaigns, especially in vulnerable border communities.

Beyond these considerations, CICIG should make the most of its current popularity to present a proposal for justice sector and electoral reforms and seek congressional support for necessary legal and constitutional changes. The commission’s work in Guatemala will eventually come to an end. Its greatest challenge over the next two years is assuring that national institutions have the training, tools and determination to combat impunity once it is gone. DM

Photo: Around 2,000 demonstrators gather outside the National Palace of Culture, headquarters of the Guatemalan government, to protest against Guatemalan president Otto Perez Molina and his vice president Roxana Baldetti, whose secretary is involved in a corruption case, in Guatemala City, Guatemala, 02 May 2015. EPA/Esteban Biba


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