Guatemala's President Jimmy Morales at an international forum in June. On Sunday he moved to expel the head of an anti-corruption commission. REUTERS/Charles Platiau/File Photo (Charles Platiau/Reuters)

Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales ordered the expulsion of the head of a United Nations-backed anti-
corruption group Sunday morning, attacking an organization whose rigorous investigations have put a former president behind bars and whose attention has now shifted toward alleged campaign finance violations by Morales himself.

Within hours, however, the Supreme Court blocked the expulsion order, at least temporarily, until it can look into the matter more thoroughly.

Morales’s decision to attempt to expel Iván Velásquez, a Colombian lawyer who has led the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (known by its initials in Spanish, CICIG) since 2013, was met with swift international condemnation. The United States, along with several other countries that backed the anti-corruption commission, issued a joint statement saying that the group had “played a vital role in the fight against impunity” in Guatemala. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres was “shocked” by the decision, according to a statement issued by his spokesman.

“I think this is a profound threat to the rule of law in Guatemala,” said Adriana Beltrán, a Central America expert at the Washington Office on Latin America. “CICIG has dealt a huge blow against corruption working jointly with the public prosecutor’s office . . . [and] it has provided Guatemalans with a sense of hope.”

Morales, in a video posted on the Guatemalan government’s Twitter page, said that as president of a “free, independent and sovereign state” and exercising his constitutional rights, he was declaring Velásquez to be persona non grata. Morales also fired the foreign minister, Carlos Raúl Morales, because he had refused to throw Velásquez out of the country.

Health Minister Lucrecia Hernández Mack and her three deputies announced their resignations Sunday. In a public letter, Hernández wrote that Morales, by attempting to expel Velásquez, was now “in favor of impunity.”

Later on Sunday, Guatemala’s top court voted to issue a temporary injunction blocking the expulsion order. The court announced that it would deliberate on the case before making a further decision.

Over the past decade, CICIG has been a driving force in a series of corruption investigations against top government officials, and it helped inspire a nationwide protest movement in 2015. The commission of investigators and law enforcement officers, working with the Guatemalan attorney general’s office, built a case against former president Otto ­Pérez Molina, his vice president, Roxana Baldetti, and dozens of other people for public corruption. Pérez Molina and Baldetti remain in prison.

CICIG was formed in 2007 as a way to bolster notoriously weak judicial institutions in a country where impunity was rampant and murders were hardly ever solved. The group, composed of investigators from around the world, has relied on sophisticated investigative techniques, wiretapping and examination of financial records to pursue the country’s most high-profile crimes.

But its success has generated critics within the government, who see it as a foreign body that undermines Guatemalan sovereignty. Every two years, the group’s mandate must be renewed.

Morales, who was elected in 2015 after a career as a TV comedian, had run on the campaign slogan “Neither corrupt nor a thief,” riding the wave of anti-corruption sentiment in the country. Earlier this year, however, Morales’s older brother and one of his sons were arrested on corruption charges.

On Friday, Velásquez, along with Attorney General Thelma Aldana, announced that there was evidence suggesting that Morales may have broken campaign finance laws when he was head of his political party, and Velásquez requested a formal investigation. For that to happen, Morales would have to be stripped of his immunity as president, which would require approval by the Supreme Court and Congress.

That same day, Morales, who has denied any wrongdoing, was in New York visiting Guterres, the U.N. chief, presumably to discuss CICIG. In Guterres’s statement on Sunday, he said Velásquez’s work assisting Guatemalan institutions helped “to ensure justice was done in numerous cases.”