From the offensive against CICIG to Pandora’s Box
Here are the main highlights of the calamity that erupted in August,
adding to Guatemala’s pre-existing and seemingly interminable crisis.
While this new disaster has historical roots, its most immediate cause is
the offensive unleashed by the powerful and illicit political-economic networks
of businessmen, military officers, politicians, public officials and criminal structures that have been increasingly active since 2015.
Fernando Girón Soto
In her book Paper Cadavers: The Archives of Dictatorship in Guatemala (Duke University Press, 014), Kirsten Weld, Harvard University historian of modern Latin America, said that the affinity groups (oligarchs, business elites, foreign agro-export and mineral extraction interests and the Army) entrenched in a weak State barely able to care for its citizens’ health and safety, have turned the resulting power vacuum into their own jealously safeguarded domain. This is the most accurate synopsis I’ve found of the causes for recent events in Guatemala.
Intensifying an existing crisis
The newest outbreak of the crisis began on August 22 of this year, when Prosecutor General Thelma Aldana posted a terse message on her Facebook page saying: “If CICIG Commissioner Iván Velásquez is expelled from Guatemala, the only way I can protest is to resign as attorney general and head of the Public Ministry.”
Her words opened the door to the unfolding of unimaginable consequences in Guatemala’s ongoing political and institutional crisis. They mobilized most of the country’s sectors that support and sympathize with both her and Commissioner Velásquez, who heads the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG).
Within a few hours the media reported the reason for Aldana’s message: President Jimmy Morales, without informing the Guatemalan public, and of course without communicating his purpose or agenda, had asked for a bilateral meeting with United Nations Secretary General António Guterres, purportedly to ask him to dismiss Commissioner Velásquez.
Ten years of the CICIG
The CICIG is an international body answerable to the United Nations created on December 12, 2006, with the signing of a treaty-level agreement between the UN and Guatemala. It was set up in the country in 2007 after being ratified by Guatemala’s Congress and receiving the full support of presidential candidate Álvaro Colom, elected in September of that same year. It was conceived to support the Public Ministry, the National Civil Police and other state institutions in their investigation of sensitive and difficult cases so they would no longer remain unpunished, as traditionally has been the case.
In 2015, CICIG’s third commissioner, the Colombian jurist Iván Velásquez, played a crucial role in this task by uncovering the corruption plot known as “La Línea” (the line), which sent President Morales’ immediate predecessors, then-President Otto Pérez Molina and his Vice President, Roxana Baldetti, to prison, along with many others.
How to get rid of Iván Velásquez?
The meeting President Morales had requested with Guterres to discuss Velázquez’s dismissal took place in the UN headquarters in New York City on Friday August 25. The previous month the secretary general had extended the commissioner’s term for another two years and formally expressed his and the UN’s unconditional support for both Velásquez and CICIG. CICIG’s own two-year mandate had already been extended in April 2017, ironically at Morales’ request.
Back in Guatemala that same day, the Public Ministry and CICIG asked for a pretrial investigation of Morales for irregularities and possible crimes discovered in the electoral campaign finances of the National Convergence Front (FCN-Nación), the political party on whose ticket he successfully ran. They had been committed back in 2015, when Morales was that party’s general secretary.
The opposition to the commissioner is coming specifically from ultra-right groups; entrepreneurs who have been interrogated; corrupt military officers and politicians; structural mafias; sectors of the urban upper middle class, especially in the capital city; and more generally from conservative people who are ill-informed and politically prejudiced. But by the date of the meeting in New York, Guatemalan social organizations and a large part of the population had expressed sustained support for Velásquez and repudiated Morales’ request.
On his return to Guatemala, Morales again gave no explanation of his trip or of what had taken place in the meeting, as should be done by the statesman he prides himself as being. In the face of the strong public reaction in Guatemala and the UN’s institutional reaction, Morales reportedly hadn’t dared ask Guterres to fire Velásquez outright, although it later emerged that he had handed him documentation expressing that request.
While Morales didn’t ask for Velásquez’s removal, he did attempt to expel him. In a surprise early-morning move on Sunday August 27, a poorly produced video was broadcast in which the President announced through a spokesman that he had declared Commissioner Velásquez persona non grata and ordered him to leave the country immediately.
With that the catastrophe exploded. Within hours numerous groups of people had gathered in front of the CICIG headquarters to prevent the presidential notification from being delivered to the commissioner. At the same time, Jordán Rodas Andrade, the new human rights ombudsman appointed by Congress just days before, filed a motion with the Constitutionality Court to stop the President’s action.
The President’s “reasons”
The Constitutionality Court accepted the motion and provisionally suspended the Commissioner’s expulsion, so putting a halt to Morales’ ploy. The court’s decision was ratified on Tuesday August 29, establishing the definitive suspension of the presidential order and letting the President know that it was definitively annulled ipso jure (by the law itself).
Presumably Morales’ decision to declare Velásquez non grata and attempt to expel him from the country was triggered by the findings of the Public Ministry-CICIG investigation of the FCN-Nación. If this is so, the President was making state decisions to benefit himself and protect a sector that committed electoral crimes.
The Supreme Court sent the pretrial investigation request against Morales to Congress, as it falls to the legislators to decide whether or not to proceed with what would now be another political trial.
On Monday September 11, the Congress voted 104 to 25 with 29 absences against proceeding with the pretrial investigation request against President Morales and as a consequence also blocked any further investigation of the reported deeds themselves. It was a critical moment in the national upheaval begun days before and it seemed the forces of impunity were winning the day.
This impression was reinforced two days later, the day Congress recessed for the Independence festivities. During the day’s plenary session the FCN-Nación bench presented two surprise motions to amend the Penal Code, Congress hastily approved the amendments in baldly self-serving fashion as they exempt general secretaries of all political parties from any responsibility for illicit electoral financing. That effectively provided impunity for financial crimes and consequent laundering of assets, crimes that involve almost all of Guatemalan politicians and their private financiers, whether business or criminal.
The representatives covered their own backs
The representatives’ decision was as perverse as it was important for the political parties and the “political class” as a whole: the amendments shielded them from the risk of being legally removed and at the same time prevented other legislative amendments to the country’s corrupt political system. This current process of co-opting the State combined with the exclusionary and inequitable neoliberal economic model are the main elements that explain the profound crisis in which Guatemala is plunged today.
With these new amendments protecting them, the representatives and their financiers and true bosses—all members of the illicit political-economic networks that have so much power in the country—paved the way to dismantling the process initiated in 2015 by CICIG’s Iván Velásquez and the Public Ministry’s Thelma Aldana to uncover and penalize “La Línea,” which had dominated the Tax Administration Office for years.
Illicit political-economic networks
Having failed in their attempt to get rid of Commissioner Iván Velásquez, those powerful networks thought up these amendments as another way to take him out of the game. Once the political parties’ impunity was consolidated, they could ask President Morales to fire Thelma Aldana as attorney general so they could get on with fully co-opting the State and reversing the unfavorable scenario created for them after the case of La Línea.
They believed that taking advantage of the interval created by the changeover in US ambassadors would offer them a better shot at launching their offensive. Ambassador Todd Robinson who had been pivotal to strengthening the work of the Public Ministry and CICIG was handing over his post to Luis Arreaga, a Guatemalan who had migrated to the US when he was very young and become a naturalized citizen.
The variable the mafia networks failed to take into account is one they both despise and fear: the public’s reaction. Indignation arose the minute the passage of the amendments in Congress became known. The media—especially radio, which is accessible to the largest number of people—and the social networks, called on people to express that indignation in the streets. The afternoon of September 14, as the Independence celebrations were due to start, the people took over the plaza, preventing the official event, the President’s speech and the traditional raising of the flag by the Army.
The mobilization became a mass protest demanding the resignation of both Morales and the legislators, a bid to clean out Congress. They also demanded amendments to the Electoral and Political Parties Laws that would change the rules of the game governing the 2019 elections.
A very different Independence Day
On September 15, Independence Day for both Guatemala and Central America as a whole, people began filling the central square at 7 am to prevent the military parade held annually. But out of fear the President had already suspended it the night before. The people then went en masse to Congress, resolutely surrounded the building and shouted out slogans and insults to the representatives who had passed the Penal Code amendments days earlier. It took until almost midnight and the lobbing of tear gas to disperse the demonstration that day.
That same afternoon, Lenina García, the recently-elected secretary general of the University Students Association (AEU) at the University of San Carlos, called for a national strike on September 20 to demand reforms to the Electoral and Political Parties Law, and the resignation of both President Morales and the representatives who had passed the amendments to the Penal Code in an open “pact for corruption.”
The university presence
The AEU’s call was very significant given its former history. The University Students Association, founded May 22, 1920. by what was then called the “1920 Generation” in the heat of the struggle against the “liberal” dictatorship of Manuel Estrada Cabrera, was led by outstanding students who later became our country’s great intellectuals: Miguel Ángel Asturias, Luis Cardoza y Aragón, Epaminondas Quintana, David Vela and others. Over the course of 80 years the AEU became the political symbol of grassroots struggle for people’s rights and freedom and a place to denounce oppressors.
In 2000, after many years of state repression and terrorism, the AEU was taken over by a gang of miscreants led by Jorge Mario García, alias “Gilligan,” who worked for Military Intelligence. Along with his accomplices, he organizationally and operatiionally destroyed the AEU over the ensuing 17 years until it became nothing more than a den of delinquents.
García now belongs to the criminal structure embedded in the illicit political-economic networks operating in Guatemala City under the protection and direction of Metropolitan Mayor Álvaro Arzú and retired General Marco Tulio Espinosa, a military intelligence officer who headed the now-defunct Presidential General Staff. In its time, that structure was responsible for numerous emblematic crimes, among them the murders of anthropologist Myrna Mack in 1990 and Archbishop Juan José Gerardi in 1998. Espinosa was also the minister of defense during Arzú’s presidency (1996-2000).
According to Insight Crime, an organization of independent investigative reporters, “Espinosa’s intelligence network extends from the Mayor’s Office rather than from the President’s Office, controls the city’s traffic Police and maintains considerable instruments to gather and act on state intelligence, controlling numerous corrupt capital accumulation chains.”
The AEU was retrieved in August of this year from the hands of the criminals into whose hands it had fallen. Its call for a national strike the next month was evidence of its rescue from the criminals who had held it captive.
The national strike was a mobilization similar to 2015
All oiver the country the population massively supported the strike called by the AEU despite open opposition by the Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial and Financial Associations (CACIF) and the so-called G8, which unites the country’s richest oligarchic families: Gutiérrez-Bosch, Montano, Dougherty, Novella, Castillo, Vila, Molina and Herrara, among others.
The strike became an explicit challenge to national oligarchic power. It was joined by organizations of peasants, original peoples and women; religious groups rejecting corruption: other organizations that joined in and non-organized individual citizens. Together they created a constant and peaceful social mobilization we haven’t seen since the great mobilizations of 2015.
The legislative, executive and judicial branches of government, unwilling to make even the slightest change in a political system that’s already virtually collapsed, entrenched themselves in their intransigent positions. . They were surrounded by support from the ultramontane and quasi-fascist Right, agents of semi-criminal groups such as some cattle ranchers committed to drug trafficking, and mayors who are part of the pact for corruption.
A new US ambassador and new signs
Ambassador Robinson left the US Embassy in the hands of Chargé d’Affaires David Hodge on September 20, who turned it over to the new US ambassador, Luis Arreaga, upon his arrival in Guatemala on October 3. That two-week interval between his predecessor’s departure and his arrival created a space the corrupt powers and illicit political-economic networks used to gain spaces, influence and time.
From Sunday October 1, however, there were already signs that the activities of the new ambassador wouldn’t be limited to protocol events nor would his arrival be non-prejudicial for the illicit networks. That day, Williams Agberto Mansilla, the highly suspect defense minister found responsible for giving President Morales almost US$7,000 a month in bonuses, left office. Brigadier General Luis Miguel Ralda Moreno, who commanded the Army’s Engineer Corps, was appointed in his place, passing over Brigadier General Erick Servando Cano Zamora, the chief of the National Defense’s General Staff, who was known to be Morales’ favorite because their similar interests and thus was an odds-on favorite for the post.
Surprise attack on the President
The appointment of Ralda Moreno, from the 107th graduating class of the Polytechnic School, Guatemala’s Military Academy, signaled that officers from the 103rd graduation—that of General Cano Zamora—and the other intervening classes will go into retirement or remain available to the Army but will no longer be eligible for operational command posts in the institution.
This is significant because these officers are known to have been the closest to the structure of retired general and former President Pérez Molina, today in prison. They were also close to retired General Ricardo Bustamente, who directed the National Security System Secretariat, and still manages the State Intelligence agencies from the shadows, as well as to the so-called “Mini-Junta” of the President’s military advisors. The fact that they have been retired is a remarkable blow against President Morales and his advisers, a surprise attack that weakens his influence inside the Army.
After presenting his credentials to President Morales on Wednesday, October 4, Ambassador Arreaga visited the president of Congress, Commissioner Velásquez and Attorney General Aldana. The next day he visited the president of the Constitutionality Court, which had annulled the persona non grata order against Velásquez. It did not go unperceived that he bypassed the Supreme Court of Justice.
Pandora’s Box is opened
The very next day the Public Ministry and CICIG called a press conference in which they reported on their investigation of the case they are calling “Pandora’s Box.” As a result of their investigation so far, they ordered the arrest of 14 persons and asked for a pretrial investigation against Álvaro Arzú.
Major Crimes Judge Erika Aifán quickly ordered the preventive detention of Luis Alberto Lima, key to obtaining information about the illicit political-economic networks and a brother of the late Byron a Lima, executed in jail in June 2016. She also ordered the same for defense lawyer Moisés Galindo, ally of counter-insurgency military officers and human rights violators, for his alleged involvement in the illicit trafficking chains operated by those same officers.
Even more significant than these orders was the pretrial investigation motion against former President and current Metropolitan Mayor Álvaro Arzú, linked to the far Right through the National Liberation Movement, now extinct as a party but with cadres active in different areas of the political spectrum. Arzú has been a fierce opponent of CICIG and the Public Ministry and has always rejected the urgent changes the corrupt political system requires. The symbolic effect of seeing him subjected to a pretrial investigation was devastating for the Guatemalan Right.
What’s the Supreme Court’s role in all this?
The political dynamic of the current national crisis can’t be easily or rapidly resolved. There’s a lot at stake for the illicit political-economic networks.
On October 11, the Supreme Court of Justice rejected the motion for a pretrial investigation against the representatives who had passed the amendments to the Penal Code on September 13. It also rejected the same motion against President Jimmy Morales for the monthly US$7,000 bonuses he received from the Defense Ministry. The ten full Supreme Court justices and three alternates voted unanimously, which probably explains why the new US ambassador has still not visited the Supreme Court and may offer a clue to what could happen in the future with these justices.
An international earthquake
This is the timeline to date of this interminable crisis, which is revealing ever greater deterioration in the functioning of the public institutions and also the population’s increasingly widespread rejection of and ennui toward the government as well as the political and justice systems. This is worrying because it puts the country’s governance at risk.
President Morales’ actions had the effect of an earthquake on international relations. The reactions of the UN Secretary General’s Office and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights were forceful and devastating for Morales and his government, as were the reactions of the US State Department and the US representative to the UN. The international community in general unanimously rejected Morales after he declared Iván Velásquez persona non grata.
The risks of international isolation and the probability of international sanctions against Guatemala’s government are latent because of the obsessive attitude of Morales and his government against CICIG, an agency financed by the international community through the UN, that offered an opportunity to achieve justice in our country. If isolation should effectively materialize, Guatemala doesn’t have the resources in place, the developed skills or the organized political responses to deal with it.
What’s behind the crisis?
What’s behind this very serious crisis? How can such an inept leader cause such a profound state crisis; a social crisis of such dimensions?
The answers are many, but let’s start with the most immediate one: in July 2016 , the illicit political-economic networks of entrepreneurs, politicians, military officers, public officials and criminal structures mainly made up of illegal trafficking networks, began an offensive to reverse their strategically disadvantageous status. They had been put on the defensive starting in April 2015, when Byron Lima, a former Army captain sentenced to 20 years for participating in the extrajudicial execution of Bishop Juan José Gerardi in 1998, was executed in prison.
The offensive that began then hasn’t ended. Continuing it poses extremely serious consequences for Guatemalan society, immersed as it is in a profound crisis of adjusting to the rapid changes of now unsustainable realities, as well as changes imposed by globalization and the uncontrollable predominance of financial and venture capitalism.
One of the results of these realities in Guatemala has been the virtual evaporation of the already weak, corrupt and inefficient functioning of public institutions.
The roots of this crisis go way back
The persistence of authoritarianism in the inner workings of power and its methods of domination starting in 1954 was expressed in the forms of capital accumulation practiced by the traditional elites, landowners and agro-exporters, as well as by the emerging commercial, industrial, financial and service elites. These forms of accumulation, with their limited business skills and dependence on the dominant profiteering, were unable to create a dynamic, open and competitive economic model in the best style of liberal and capitalist orthodoxy. On the contrary they were, and continue to be, subject to fiscal privileges, disguised subsidies and especially “deals” with the State, among them the monopolistic and protected privatization of public services.
All this has resulted in a patrimonial rentier economic model, in which corruption isn’t a simple defect, but the way that favors the model’s functioning. Corruption, along with land rents, is the main source of capital accumulation for all these elites, which is why this crisis will drag on. Leaving this model is very complex and the future we envisage today is very uncertain.
Fernando Girón Soto is a political information analyst and the envío correspondent in Guatemala.