Guatemala bids goodbye to UN anti-graft body as it wraps up

SONNY FIGUEROA
1 / 3

Guatemala Corruption

An activist holds a sing that reads in Spanish "Thanks CICIG" at the United Nations International Commission Against Impunity headquarters in Guatemala City, Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019. The UN mission is closing its operation after 12 years. It brought to trial three former presidents and hundreds of businessmen, officials, judges and individuals accused of corruption in the Central American country. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — Guatemala said goodbye Tuesday to a U.N. commission that has helped investigate and prosecute hundreds of corrupt politicians, public officials and businesspeople over the last 12 years.

The commission, known as CICIG for its initials in Spanish, ceased its operations after President Jimmy Morales refused to renew its mandate for another two years.

Human rights prosecutor Jordán Rodas said CICIG was a nightmare for those long accustomed to getting away with brazen malfeasance.

Addressing the commission's chief, Iván Velásquez, Rodas said: "You and all the great team at the International Commission against Impunity should know that the majority of the Guatemalan population acknowledges your work and thanks you for your commitment over the years."

In a statement on social media, Velásquez thanked those government authorities "that did commit to the fight against corruption and impunity."

Stéphane Dujarric, spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, said in a statement that CICIG "made a decisive contribution to strengthen the rule of law as well as investigation and prosecution capacities in Guatemala."

Guterres "trusts that efforts to fight impunity will continue and expresses the U.N.'s readiness to continue cooperating with Guatemala in strengthening the rule of law," Dujarric continued. "The Secretary-General expects that the rights of those involved in the fight against impunity in Guatemala will be protected."

Morales announced Aug. 31, 2018, that CICIG would not get a new mandate, giving it until Tuesday, the end of its current term, to wrap up and leave.

The commission and Guatemalan prosecutors had tried to lift the immunity from prosecution that Morales enjoys as a sitting president to investigate him for possible illicit electoral financing, though the legislature declined to do so. They had also brought a case against Morales' son and brother.

Morales denies wrongdoing, and his son and brother were exonerated by a court last month.

President-elect Alejandro Giammattei, who will take office in January, said judging the president's decision to kick CICIG out of the country will be a question for posterity.

"I thank it for the years it was here, for better or for worse for what it has done, for the experiences it has left us. They left us some convictions. They left us the need to fight together to reconstruct our institutions," Giammattei said.

"I cannot say whether President Jimmy Morales was wrong or was not right," the president-elect added. "History will be the judge."

Giammattei said that during his administration he will push for the creation of an anti-corruption commission tasked with punishing such conduct and proposing reforms to avoid it. He said it will be made up of people not from his government but rather named by a council with representation from all sectors of society.

CICIG's work led to prosecutions of three ex-presidents, including Otto Pérez Molina, who was forced to resign in 2015, and his then-vice president, Roxana Baldetti.

The commission helped disband 70 criminal networks and brought allegations against 1,540 people, some 670 of whom were prosecuted. It won 400 convictions and 100 requests to lift officials' immunity from prosecution.

On Monday, police arrested former first lady and two-time presidential runner-up Sandra Torres, after her own immunity from prosecution expired following her loss to Giammattei last month. CICIG and prosecutors first presented a complaint against Torres earlier this year. She called her arrest "political persecution."

Convergence for Human Rights, an umbrella group for civil society organizations, also praised CICIG's work.

"From its beginning in 2007 and over the course of 12 years, the entire team and the commissioners were a bastion for the fight against impunity and corruption," the group said. "Through their work they put name and face to the networks and structures that profit off the state. ... Guatemala will not be the same, since it has been able to see the face of corruption."

Over the weekend a group of young people painted a mural on the wall of CICIG's headquarters with the words: "The people will not forget."

It was later defaced by associates of people accused by CICIG, however, and subsequently erased altogether because the facility was supposed to be handed over without the mural.

Later Tuesday, about 100 opponents of CICIG hung banners and shouted "Long live Guatemala! Long Live sovereignty!" in rejection of the commission.

Ricardo Méndez Ruiz of a group that opposed CICIG praised the decision to end its time in Guatemala.

"We recognize the brave role of President Jimmy Morales, as well as that of Foreign Minister Sandra Jovel and Government Minister Enrique Degenhart to solve the crisis created by ex-Commissioner Iván Velásquez with the intention of provoking a coup," Méndez said.

Other Guatemalans sent messages of support on Twitter with the hashtag "ThanksCICIG."

___

This story has been corrected to reflect that the mural on CICIG headquarters was defaced by opponents of the commission, then subsequently erased altogether because the facility was supposed to be handed over without the mural.