On 31 August, President Jimmy Morales declared that, as of September 2019, the UN-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) will no longer be welcome in the Central American country. Morales’ decision to scrap this international investigative body, established in 2007 and responsible for several historic indictments of former presidents, pits critics of high-level abuses of power in Guatemala against those who claim the commission tramples on the nation’s sovereign rights. Despite its huge popularity in Guatemala, it will be hard to preserve the CICIG without compromise, given the government’s hostility. The UN and donor countries should reject Morales’ more tempestuous demands, such as replacing the commission chief, but they should press the CICIG to sharpen its focus in order to protect its key legacies. To wit, the CICIG should help prosecute the country’s most harmful and pervasive criminal groups, support legal reforms to ensure a more transparent political system, and strengthen the police, prosecution service and judiciary in their efforts to reduce violent crime.
For now, there seems to be no escaping deadlock on the CICIG’s future. European donors to the commission, as well as Guatemalan civil society and Latin American anti-corruption activists, denounce Morales’ moves as efforts to protect political and economic elites against judicial intrusion. Morales and his allies celebrate the restoration of national control over the judiciary amid vague and unfounded accusations of left-wing political bias in the CICIG.
Yet in addition to placing political and business leaders in the dock, the CICIG has also effected a series of legal and institutional reforms, the future of which is now in doubt. During the commission’s operation since 2007, Guatemala has been one of very few Latin American countries to achieve a sustained reduction in its murder rate. At a time when crime and gang violence across the Northern Triangle of Central America – composed of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – account for a rising tide of forced displacement and flight northward to Mexico and the U.S., the decision to remove a bulwark of judicial and police reform in the region is a strategic misstep in the campaign to quell insecurity and deter migration. Quantitative analysis and close examination of the steps taken to bolster Guatemala’s policing and prosecution service in the wake of the CICIG’s creation strongly suggest that the commission has played a key part in improving security in the country. After the commission was established in 2007, a period in which the country's regional peers experienced a 1 per cent annual rise in their homicide rates, new Crisis Group research in this report shows that Guatemala saw an average 5 per cent annual decline in the murder rate. Overall, the CICIG is estimated to have contributed a net reduction of more than 4,500 homicides during 2007-2017.
Although prospects for the commission’s survival appear bleak, its fate is not yet sealed. The need to preserve its successes makes it important that the Guatemalan government and foreign donors consider modifications to its format so as to both satisfy President Morales’ requirement that it respect national sovereignty and retain the investigative rigour that donors and civil society demand. At the heart of the modifications should be an agreed-upon strategy of case selection in which the CICIG’s resources are directed to prosecuting the most dangerous criminal networks, as well as supporting legal reforms to underpin the transparency of the political system and continuing efforts to entrench judicial independence and professional policing.
The positions of the commission and the Guatemalan state seem irreconcilable. Yet they need not be if the two sides, with UN, U.S. and European Union (EU) support, reconsider their relations and establish clearer methods for selecting cases for the commission’s attention. But the parties can bridge the gap only so long as the Guatemalan government and its allies recognise that reducing criminal violence is a shared goal far more important than protecting officials inside or close to the current government.
Bogotá/New York/Brussels, 24 October 2018