The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How U.S. apathy helped kill a pioneering anti-corruption campaign in Guatemala

Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales attends the opening session of a summit on Central American integration in Guatemala City on June 5. (Johan Ordonez/AFP/Getty Images)

GUATEMALA CITY — Two years ago, Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales was facing a potentially ruinous situation. His predecessor had been jailed on corruption charges. He was in danger of being next.

Prosecutors were alleging that ­Morales had accepted nearly $1 million in illegal campaign funds. But these weren’t just any ­prosecutors. They were part of a ­crusading, U.N.-backed anti-corruption commission that had helped indict hundreds of Guatemalan politicians, business executives and drug traffickers. For years, it had enjoyed broad international support, including from President Barack Obama’s administration. 

Today, after an intense effort by Morales to lobby the Trump administration, it’s the corruption-busters themselves who are on the ropes. Morales has vowed to shut down the widely praised commission.  

What has stunned Guatemalans isn’t just the commission’s demise, but the Trump administration’s role in it. The U.S. government has been largely silent as Morales’s government has ramped up pressure on the anticorruption team — kicking its leader out of the country and sending armored Jeeps to patrol outside its headquarters. 

Morales, a former TV comedian, has proved skillful in his dealings with Washington. His envoys have argued that the ­commission represented out-of-control U.N. interference, winning a sympathetic ear from Trump officials wary of the world body, U.S. officials say. 

Guatemala also moved its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem just after the Trump administration did — providing a rare sign of support amid a wave of global condemnation. Relations grew so warm that Guatemalan diplomats hosted Jared Kushner, ­President Trump’s son-in-law, at a $5,000 dinner, according to government documents and interviews. 

“The Guatemalans were really smart about it,” said a U.S. congressional aide involved in Latin American policy, one of several current and former officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities. 

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As Guatemala prepares for a presidential election on Sunday, its once-vaunted anti-corruption campaign is in disarray. A candidate who had worked closely with the U.N.-backed commission has been tossed off the ballot. The front-runner, Sandra Torres, has been accused of campaign finance violations dating back to 2015. (She denies the allegations.) 

The ramifications of the commission’s disappearance could go well beyond this Central American country. 

Guatemala is the No. 1 source of migrants detained on the southwestern U.S. border — a reflection of the poverty and violence in a country long dominated by a corruption-riddled elite. 

Narco-corruption is so flagrant that in April, U.S. authorities charged a presidential candidate with trying to cut a deal to give control of Guatemala’s ports and airports to the notorious Sinaloa cartel. 

“The U.S. interest is in getting rid of drugs, not having migration coming from Guatemala to the United States, and not letting criminal organizations increase their control over the political system,” said Mark Schneider, a Latin America expert with long experience in the U.S. government.

“That’s what’s being undermined now.”

The beginning of the end

The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala was a bold experiment for a nation in trouble. CICIG, as it’s also known, was launched in 2007 to fight networks of corrupt politicians, drug traffickers and military veterans that emerged from Guatemala’s 36-year civil war. The George W. Bush administration was an early supporter. 

“They realized that Guatemala could become a narco-state,” said Helen Mack, a human rights activist who was involved in the commission’s founding. 

In its pact with the United Nations, Guatemala agreed to extraordinary outside interference in its justice system. 

The commission’s international lawyers could co-prosecute cases with Guatemalans. Its experts helped federal prosecutors develop modern tools like a wiretapping unit. In 2013, a new commissioner took over — Iván Velásquez, a Colombian famed for investigating official corruption and drug lords like Pablo Escobar. 

The U.S. government has been the top donor to the commission, providing over $44 million since its formation. But American support went beyond funding. In 2015, Vice President Joe Biden repeatedly pressured Guatemala’s president at the time, Otto Pérez Molina, to extend the commission’s two-year mandate after he considered letting it lapse. 

Biden “told me it was practically a condition” for receiving U.S. aid, Pérez Molina later told the Reuters news agency. 

Pérez Molina was promptly caught up in a massive corruption case built by Velásquez and Thelma Aldana, the country’s tough-talking attorney general. The president resigned, and CICIG became the most popular institution in Guatemala, according to opinion polls.

Soon, the prosecutors had a different target: the new president, Jimmy Morales, and his family. 

Making headway with U.S.

By late 2017, officials in Washington were starting to worry. Velásquez seemed to be locked in an escalating and personal conflict with the Guatemalan leader. 

It started with jailing the president’s 23-year-old son in January of that year during a fraud investigation involving Christmas gift baskets. (He declared his innocence.) 

A few months later, Morales met top officials at the United Nations to complain about the commission’s leader. With head-snapping speed, Velásquez and Aldana appeared on television, accusing the president of campaign finance crimes. (He says he’s innocent.)

Guatemala’s Congress rejected their request to lift Morales’s immunity from prosecution. But the president was furious. 

In a visit to Guatemala in early 2018, Nikki Haley, then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, praised the commission but warned its officials to lower their profile. “They don’t need to be in the paper every day,” she said to reporters. 

By that point, “a really ugly battle” had broken out in Washington over the commission, according to the U.S. congressional aide. 

Haley “approached this as another example of runaway bureaucracy” involving the United Nations, said one senior U.S. official. Veteran Latin America hands at the State Department defended the commission. 

Chaney Denton, a spokeswoman for Haley, said: “She advocated linking our funding to serious reforms of CICIG, so it no longer engaged in prosecutorial abuses and it stopped grandstanding on behalf of the commissioner.” 

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Denton declined to elaborate, but Morales sent envoys to convince Washington that Velásquez was a leftist bent on undermining the conservative government, said a former U.S. official involved in Latin America policy. The president’s allies in Guatemala spent heavily on American lobbyists. As the allegations flew, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) temporarily froze $6 million in U.S. aid for the anti-corruption commission over concerns of Russian manipulation. But the State Department found no evidence of wrongdoing. 

Morales’s most high-profile gesture was recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, despite Palestinian claims to part of the city. Trump met with Morales to thank him. Sheldon Adelson, a GOP megadonor and Trump confidant, provided the Guatemalan leader a Boeing 767 to visit his country’s new embassy, according to the Guatemalan Foreign Ministry. 

“CICIG got lost in that,” said a second congressional aide.

In June 2018, Guatemala’s ambassador to Washington, Manuel Espina, hosted Kushner at a $5,000 dinner for 10 Latin American ambassadors, according to government documents. The dinner conversation centered on persuading the countries to move their embassies in Israel to Jerusalem, according to interviews with two guests. 

The White House did not respond to a request for comment. In the end, according to current and former officials, there was never a high-level meeting to alter American policy. Kushner, who was focused on Israel, may not have even realized how much the commission mattered to the Guatemalans. “I don’t think, in Jared’s mind, he ever did anything CICIG-related,” said a former senior U.S. official. 

But the Guatemalans interpreted their access “as a signal they had a green light” to do what they wanted at home, the ex-official said. (The Guatemalan government did not respond to a request for comment.)  

On Aug. 31, 2018, Morales’s government dispatched U.S.-donated armored Jeeps — some with roof-mounted machine guns — to patrol outside the anti-corruption commission’s 12-foot-high perimeter wall. Hours later, the president declared he would not renew its mandate, charging that it had engaged in “selective criminal prosecution.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted the next day: “We greatly appreciate Guatemala’s efforts in counternarcotics and security.” 

He didn’t mention CICIG. 

The final chapter?

Even some supporters question whether Velásquez and Aldana made a strategic blunder in pursuing the president and his family. After all, the commission needs Guatemala’s approval to function.

“If this causes you to disappear from the country, it’s probably not the best decision to make,” said Arturo Matute, a political analyst.

The prosecutors also angered the small but powerful economic elite by investigating their secret contributions to Morales’s campaign. 

“These weren’t exorbitant amounts,” said Marco Augusto García, who until recently led one of Guatemala’s biggest business chambers. He argued that the commission should have focused on more-serious crimes. 

Velásquez, who now works from a U.N. office in New York, responds: “Nobody is above the law. ” Illegal campaign financing, he said, is particularly worrying because it creates “a malfunction in a democracy” by giving one candidate an edge. And such donations feed future corruption.

Morales last fall barred Velásquez from Guatemala. The countries in the G-13 group — the largest donors to Guatemala — issued a statement “lamenting” that decision and the closure of the commission. The United States was the only member nation that didn’t sign. 

Asked about the U.S. position on CICIG, the State Department’s Western Hemisphere bureau said that “the United States remains committed to supporting Guatemalan institutions and the Guatemalan people in their ongoing fight against corruption and impunity.” 

Aldana, 63, decided to run for president as a pro-CICIG candidate. But she was recently knocked off the ballot after being accused of embezzlement, lying and tax evasion in connection with her work as attorney general. (She says she’s innocent.) The judge who issued the arrest warrant is under investigation after allegedly receiving millions of dollars in bribes, according to Guatemalan media. 

As for Morales, he is not eligible for reelection. He will lose his immunity from prosecution when his term ends in January. 

But he will not have to worry about the anti-corruption commission. It’s slated for closure on Sept. 3. 

Gabriela Martinez in Mexico City and Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the drug lord investigated by Iván Velásquez. The drug lord was Pablo Escobar. The story has been updated.

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