When Guatemala’s Attorney General Consuelo Porras recently removed the anticorruption leader Juan Francisco Sandoval from his post as the special prosecutor against impunity, her action ended the last semblance of prosecutorial independence generated by one of the most successful projects run by the United Nations: the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, or Cicig.
The organization was created to help Guatemala recover from its 36-year internal conflict that killed 200,000 people and ended in 1996. Fighting impunity in the country is most likely to end now as the United States concentrates on reducing migration from Central America to the north and protests in Guatemala clamor for justice stemming from the long war. It did not help Cicig’s cause when the Trump administration looked the other way after the Guatemalan government failed to renew the commission’s mandate in 2019.
“There is a soft coup in Guatemala,” said Sandoval in an Aug. 6 interview, speaking from Washington, D.C. “We have gradually moved towards a deterioration of the institutions, so at this moment there is an environment of total impunity, an alignment of all the actors so that crimes go unpunished.”
According to Sandoval and other observers of the current judicial crisis in Guatemala, he was fired because his probes were getting too close to President Alejandro Giammattei. “According to the investigations that were taking place, he could have received gifts, illicit resources, to favor certain businessmen,” Sandoval said, referring to the president.
Sandoval’s removal and exile — he immediately fled to El Salvador — meant that the pacto de corruptos, a term coined by Guatemalan civil society to describe the informal deal among a sector of the country’s political and business elite to deflect corruption charges, have further buried Cicig, which was founded in 2007 and whose commissioner was appointed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the time.
Sandoval’s office, or FECI, was created by Cicig. It was left standing as the only independent prosecutorial agency in Guatemala. The agency’s work was compromised in July when the right-wing government of Giammattei not only dismissed Sandoval but also appointed Rafael Curruchiche, broadly considered to represent the corrupt elites’ interests, as the head of FECI. (It stands for Fiscalía Especializada Contra la Impunidad, or the special prosecutor’s office against impunity.)
Giammattei had reasons to fear the agency. Cicig indicted Guatemala’s former President Otto Pérez Molina and his vice president as well as prosecuted dozens of prominent officials, such as a Supreme Court magistrate, two former presidents (Álvaro Arzú and Efraín Ríos Montt), members of Congress and government ministers. Its indictments resulted in the ouster of more than a dozen judges and thousands of police officers and the detention of powerful drug traffickers.
Sandoval’s removal last month is “the final chapter of the presence of Cicig in the country because FECI was its creation,” Gert Rosenthal, a former foreign minister and ex-ambassador of Guatemala to the UN, told PassBlue. The justice system’s independence achieved through UN body has been “literally erased,” Rosenthal, now an adviser on political mediation and peace-building at the UN, added. “We are experiencing a clear setback.”
Cicig was established after an intense campaign led by Guatemalan civil society groups, who were concerned that the criminal networks entrenched in the country’s government institutions could derail its fragile democracy after it ended one of the worst civil wars in Latin America. The networks were the remnants of the military and its associates who, during the conflict, combated “communism” under the auspices of the United States National Security Doctrine.
After the peace agreements were reached in 1996, a collection of Western countries was instrumental in contributing to constrain and hold accountable the forces that morphed into the pacto de corruptos.
Cicig was funded by donors known as G13: Britain, Canada, Germany, Italy, Spain, France, Sweden, Switzerland and the US as well as multilateral organizations like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the UN. With an annual budget of $12 million to $15 million, Cicig was promoted as a model to bolster justice systems in Central America. In the US, it received bipartisan support.
That changed during the Trump administration, from 2017 to 2021.
In 2017, a sector of Guatemalan elite financed a successful lobbying campaign to break the US bipartisan support for Cicig. That allowed President Morales to declare the agency’s commissioner, the Colombian jurist Iván Velásquez, persona non grata. Two years later, after Trump forged a deal with Guatemala to limit emigration from Central America, Morales refused to renew Cicig’s mandate. UN Secretary-General António Guterres criticized the decision, but the US didn’t flinch.
After Sandoval’s ouster in July, UN spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric said that “it is of great concern that, since CICIG was closed, a growing number of former prominent prosecutors have needed to leave the country — to all appearances, because of their work on accountability and justice.” Dujarric said that Guterres had called the Guatemalan authorities to “enhance their efforts in strengthening the rule of law.”
Ostensibly, Sandoval’s removal represents a consolidation of factions that “are not friends of representative democracy,” Rosenthal said. The groups, he added, involve “the darkest forces in this country: the illicit cartels, which are not only about narcotics, a group of ex-militaries who lived through the internal war and want revenge, and part of the business sector.”
The Biden administration reacted strongly to Sandoval’s dismissal. The State Department’s principal deputy spokesperson, Jalina Porter, told reporters on July 27 that the US “lost confidence in the attorney general [Porras] and her intention to cooperate with the US government and fight corruption in good faith.” Antony Blinken, the secretary of state, and Samantha Power, head of the US Agency for International Development (Usaid), also condemned the decision through their official Twitter accounts.
Asked if Usaid would take specific steps in Guatemala after Sandoval’s dismissal, the agency’s spokesperson referred PassBlue to Porter’s statement. The agency reported a $94.5 million investment in Guatemala for the 2020 fiscal year, 38 percent less than in 2019.
Stephen McFarland, the US ambassador to Guatemala from 2008 to 2011, told PassBlue by phone, referring to the US: “There are some indications that there are some additional measures. Which measures and to what extent it is still unclear.” According to McFarland, who is retired, the US could impose sanctions against Guatemalan officials under the Magnitsky Act — freezing assets and banning those who are sanctioned from entering the US. The sanctions, however, could take months to be approved.
Migration is still a primary concern of the US in the region. Vice President Kamala Harris’s first official trip abroad was to Guatemala, in June, to address the causes of migration, the US said. Corruption was mentioned as one source, but the solution proposed by Harris to keep Guatemalans from emigrating was to encourage economic growth. She met with some of the “biggest CEOs” in the US to spur investments in Guatemala, she said, “to again uplift folks who may have been overlooked or neglected.”
McFarland said it was not in the interest of Guatemala to stop emigration, especially as remittances are the largest source of economic income for the country. An unstable Guatemala, in McFarland’s view, could foster more emigration to the US.
“Instability generates even more migration,” he added. “So, for me, the challenge for the US is not so much to stop migration, but rather to try to manage it and try to prevent it for doubling or tripling in the next couple of years.”
Meanwhile, the fight for justice in Guatemala is still being waged by Indigenous and other citizens there. Since the end of July, at least three large demonstrations that took place nationwide have denounced the corruption of the president and his circle, a worsening economic crisis and the government’s disastrous handling of the pandemic.
“There is a higher level of organization from the base of the Guatemalan society, from the municipalities and the nongovernmental organizations,” Rosenthal said. “That is something relatively new.”