The Demise of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG): An experiment in Central American Accountability

The Demise of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG): An experiment in Central American Accountability

Guatemalans have welcomed the anti-impunity commission that works to combat high level corruption and abuses, but after over a decade of prominent arrests and government pushback, Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales threatened a pre-emptive withdrawal from the effort in January 2019. The decision is tied to a pattern of US-led norm breaking, with implications for justice in Guatemala and the region.

by Cassandra Stimpson

The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, or La Comisión Internacional Contra La Impunidad En Guatemala, (CICIG) is a unique initiative described as an ‘independent investigative entity that operates under Guatemalan law’ that acts in conjunction with the Guatemalan justice system in an effort to end impunity and increase local institutional capacity1. The CICIG formed in the wake of longstanding “state capture,” wherein organised crime and businesses control governmental functions with immunity from prosecutorial powers2. Similar to many Latin American states, the Guatemalan criminal infrastructures did not simply disappear once the 36-year civil war ended in 1996, taking 200,000 lives. Old structures and networks remained for conducting business. High level human rights abusers were hired into governmental positions. Thus, corruption and abuse easily found a new home in military and intelligence personnel. The international body, with an independent capacity to influence domestic decisions, hoped to reduce the implications of state capture that trickle down to nearly all facets of society, from murder convictions to local tax systems.

The CICIG exists at Guatemala’s official invitation in response to local and international outcry after the murder of a Salvadoran congressman from the Central American Parliament in 2007, and its mandate must be renewed every two years. It cemented its place in Guatemala City by using its initial momentum to enact an outreach strategy that enlisted local civil society along with national media to engage the public3. Those indicted so far due to CICIG operations include politicians, policemen, business leaders, judges,  and even permeate the upper echelons of the political system concluding in the arrest of a Vice President and two former Presidents4.

The United Nations (UN) and Guatemala agreed to establish the experimental enterprise in 2007, and until 2015, it was hailed as an innovative success. The CICIG’s broad achievements lie in legislative improvements and investigatory and prosecutorial capacity building to convict organised criminals and colluding public officials5.  As a result of the council, Guatemala’s impunity rate fell from 98% in 2006 to 70% in 2015. Whilst still a comparatively high level, this 28% reduction does represent significant progress made by CICIG in improving justice nationwide6. Nevertheless, in 2016, statistically one in four Guatemalans had been solicited for a bribe, and over a third believed that all politicians in the country were corrupt7.

The CICIG remained controversial throughout its tenure and, coinciding with President Trump’s blustery approach to the international liberal order and outspoken concerns for state sovereignty, the Guatemalan administration became emboldened to condemn the international body prosecuting governmental figures. Currently, Guatemalan courts have thwarted its complete closure, but UN personnel have been removed from the country and the Morales administration has all but dismantled what is left of the commission8.

The CICIG still holds higher public trust than Guatemala’s Public Ministry and its Constitutional Court, and there was hope that the CICIG’s high regard would dissuade President Morales from dismantling the commission9. CICIG’s unravelling can be explained by the elite class’ desire to retain and collect further power alongside latent concerns for state sovereignty. There is little doubt that the CICIG’s investigation, in conjunction with the Public Ministry, into Mr. Morales’ 2015 campaign contributions influenced the decision to attempt to shut down the UN body early in 201910.

Beyond Mr. Morales’ reaction to the threat to his presidency, there are larger, normative issues that the CICIG represents. Despite its perceived necessity and popularity with citizens, it has complications. For instance, to adapt to the punitive institutional responses that the CICIG promoted, criminal  groups built further defenses and moved underground, making convictions more difficult11.  Indeed, the CICIG’s prosecutorial power, normally reserved for national bodies, could be seen as a legitimate cause for national security concerns.

The CICIG impacted and formed norms in governments, criminal organisations, businesses and other institutions throughout the region, and its removal will have similar inverse ramifications. The decision to end the CICIG’s initiative comes as the Guatemalan congress debates an amnesty bill that would free over 30 convicted war criminals and over a dozen awaiting trial, as well as stop any potential investigations into war crimes that took place during Guatemala’s brutal, decades-long civil war. The bill, combined with CICIG’s closure, could reignite the pattern of impunity that the military, government, and national elites have enjoyed throughout Guatemalan history12.

Beyond removing the corruption deterrent, ending the CICIG will affect the economy. Guatemala’s credit rating will likely fall because of the move, raising interest rates and reducing overall foreign investment, which is already declining. As confidence shrinks in Guatemala’s regulatory atmosphere, the space left by departing investment creates an opportunity for previously eradicated illicit enterprises to once again flourish. The anti-corruption body helped imprison many local business leaders who now warmly welcome the dismantling of the commission13.

In the past, the US has invested heavily in the fight against military-backed networks of corruption prominent in Latin America. The State Department believes that anti-corruption efforts reduce migration and drug flow to the US, therefore over the past decade the CICIG had received bipartisan support from US administrations and lawmakers, who have appropriated nearly $45 million toward the commission since its inception. Yet, when Mr. Morales announced the closure, it was merely met with a vague anti-corruption statement from the local US Embassy. Guatemala has moved closer to US positions as of late, refusing to affirm China’s claim over Taiwan, recognising Juan Guaidó as the true elected leader in Venezuela, and becoming the first country to back the Trump administration’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem. Perhaps because of these events, there has not only been little pushback to the closure, but former US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley advocated defunding the commission. This received opposition from the State Department and anti-narcotics agencies that hoped the CICIG would be a regional model14. For instance, plans have been in motion to form the CICIES (International Commission against Impunity in El Salvador), a copycat in the spirit of the Guatemalan council15.

The purposeful destruction of the CICIG, accompanied by the lack of US attention, signals a normative shift away from concerns for good governance and accountability as part of the international liberal order, and toward a more transactional relationship, harkening back to a Cold War Order wherein human rights, corruption, and other transgressions are ignored in favor of ideological pandering and personal relationships. There may still be time to save the CICIG, whose current mandate is set to expire this year. Whether the experiment’s results will sustain however, and whether other countries can utilise its lessons, remains to be seen.

1.  Washington Office on Latin America, “The International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG): An Innovative Instrument for Fighting Criminal Organizations and Strengthening the Rule of Law” (Washington, DC: Washington Office on Latin America, July 1, 2015), 2, https://www.wola.org/analysis/wola-report-on-the-international-commission-against-impunity-in-guatemala-cicig/.
2.  Yulia Krylova, “Outsourcing the Fight against Corruption: Lessons from the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala,” Global Policy 9, no. 1 (February 2018).
3.  Washington Office on Latin America, “The International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG): An Innovative Instrument for Fighting Criminal Organizations and Strengthening the Rule of Law.”
4.  Krylova, “Outsourcing the Fight against Corruption: Lessons from the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala.”
5.  Washington Office on Latin America, “The International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG): An Innovative Instrument for Fighting Criminal Organizations and Strengthening the Rule of Law,” 2.
6.  Krylova, “Outsourcing the Fight against Corruption: Lessons from the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala.”
7.  Elizabeth J. Zechmeister and Dinorah Azpuru, “What Does the Public Report on Corruption, the CICIG, the Public Ministry, and the Constitutional Court in Guatemala?,” Topical Brief, Latin American Public Opinion Project (Vanderbilt University, August 31, 2017).
8.  Nelson Renteria, “Guatemalan Presidential Candidate Aldana ‘not Scared’ of Arrest Threat,” Reuters, March 21, 2019, sec. World News, https://af.reuters.com/article/worldNews/idAFKCN1R202H.
9.  Zechmeister and Azpuru.
10. Ibid.
11.  Washington Office on Latin America, “The International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG): An Innovative Instrument for Fighting Criminal Organizations and Strengthening the Rule of Law.”
12.  Sandra Cuffe, “Guatemala War Crime Survivors Challenge Amnesty Bill,” Al Jazeera, February 14, 2019, sec. News, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/02/guatemala-war-crime-survivors-challenge-amnesty-bill-190213234804759.html.
13.  Ximena Enríquez, “Is Kicking Out CICIG Bad for Business in Guatemala?” (Guatemala City: Americas Quarterly, February 9, 2019), https://www.americasquarterly.org/content/kicking-out-cicig-bad-business-guatemala?
14.  Colum Lynch, “Corrupt Guatemalans’ GOP Lifeline,” Foreign Policy, February 5, 2019, https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/02/05/trump-republican-lawmakers-weaken-u-n-anti-corruption-commission-guatemala-jimmy-morales-white-house-putin/.
15.  Fernando Romero, “La CICIES de Nayib Bukele no es como la pintan,” Factum Magazine, October 9, 2018, http://revistafactum.com/cicies-bukele/.

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