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Opinion Don’t let Guatemala’s president sabotage the fight against corruption

Indigenous leaders stand in support of Iván Velásquez, commissioner for the U.N.-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, outside the U.N. office in Guatemala City on Tuesday. (Moises Castillo/Associated Press)

Claudia Escobar, a former magistrate of the Court of Appeals of Guatemala and a legal scholar, is a Reagan-Fascell democracy fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy. Eshe Hill is a research associate at the National Endowment for Democracy.

Guatemalans are making a stand for the rule of law. On Aug. 27, Guatemalans and members of the international community watched in disbelief as President Jimmy Morales declared Iván Velásquez, head of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) “persona non grata” and attempted to expel him from the country. CICIG, which was created with the backing of the United Nations, has been one of the most successful global initiatives in the fight against corruption to date. Now Guatemala’s citizens are fighting to defend it.

Formed in 2006, CICIG has played a vital role in fighting deeply entrenched corruption in Guatemala. The United Nations created the commission in response to a request from the Guatemalan government, which was aware of its own institutional weaknesses, above all the crippling presence of organized crime in law enforcement and the judiciary. The commission’s strength lies in its ability to investigate independently from the local political authorities. Under the management of Velásquez, CICIG carried out multiple corruption investigations against officials, politicians, executives and the military, revealing how illegal groups and a clandestine security apparatus have been co-opting the state for decades.

The president’s declaration is a grave blow to the fight for justice in Guatemala. Thankfully, the Guatemalan people and courts have not let this go unopposed. The international community quickly declared its backing for Velásquez. In just a matter of hours, Guatemalans took to social media and the streets to express their indignation, leading to the #IvánSeQueda (“Iván must stay”) viral campaign. Further, the Constitutional Court issued an order to stop the expulsion of Velásquez. This pressure had an effect, prompting Morales to back away from his edict. Yet despite these encouraging developments, the crisis is not over.

It is fundamental that the president and government leaders respect the separation of powers and judicial independence. Therefore, the court’s ruling must prevail and Morales must abide by it. This is exactly the sort of crisis that tests the effectiveness of democratic institutions and the need for balance of power. The courts will define the future of the country. Judges must act with absolute independence and ensure that their resolutions are based on the law, not political pressure.

Although Morales campaigned on an anti-corruption platform and expressed support for CICIG and Velásquez when he took office, he radically changed his attitude when his son and brother were linked to a corruption case. An investigation carried out by CICIG and the Public Prosecutor’s Office found serious indications that the political party that brought Morales to power received illegal funds during the election campaign. This investigation led to a formal request from the Public Prosecutor’s Office for the impeachment of Morales, since he was the secretary general of the ruling party.

If Morales thought that the expulsion of the commissioner would save him from facing justice, he was wrong. Now there is more than one impeachment process against him. Morales still faces the campaign finance allegations, but after Sunday, he may face obstruction of justice charges for trying to get rid of Velásquez. He must face accountability for this possible obstruction, as well as for his disobedience, coercion and abuse of authority. And he must bear the consequences of his unwillingness to fight for what is right.

The institutional crisis underway in Guatemala resembles one two years ago, when former president Otto Pérez Molina, former vice president Roxana Baldetti and other high officials were accused of corruption and forced to resign. The context of this case is different, however, because many individuals under corruption investigations have tried to block the work of CICIG and weaken the Public Ministry. The forces of corruption are clearly fighting back.

The institutional weakness of Guatemala has allowed an alliance of criminal groups, drug traffickers, organized crime and corrupt officials to co-opt institutions through the obsolete and pandering political-electoral system. A country, however small, that places state institutions at the service of organized crime is a threat to the security of the entire continent.

Destroying the structures that have allowed corruption to run wild will not be an easy task. As Velásquez has repeatedly pointed out, “illicit economic political networks are reluctant to disappear.” The attacks on the rule of law and anti-corruption efforts make it even more imperative that Guatemalan courts and other institutions of the justice sector do their best to guarantee to the people that the rule of law will prevail.

Within the Guatemalan judicial system, independent and impartial judges and magistrates are the exception, not the rule. To make matters worse, the constitution subjects judicial power to political power. For officials struggling to strengthen the justice system, the price is high. They suffer threats to their lives and integrity, and are often victims of discredit through media campaigns. These are all challenges that the commissioner and the attorney general currently face, along with judges and prosecutors who stand against corruption.

Every day, Guatemalans wage a new battle against corruption. This is a critical moment to support Guatemalans committed to justice and the rule of law. Velásquez must not be forced to leave his position as the head of CICIG. That would cripple the country’s fight against corruption, burying the only real hope of transforming a country marked by impunity, violence and inequity.