GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales announced Friday that he is shutting down a crusading U.N.-sponsored anti-graft commission that pressed a number of high-profile corruption probes, including one pending against the president himself over purported illicit campaign financing.
Speaking in front of a host of mostly military and police leaders, Morales said he had informed the U.N. secretary-general of his decision not to renew the body's mandate and "immediately" begin transferring its capacities to Guatemalan institutions. The government later clarified in a statement that the commission will remain in the country through the end of its current two-year term, which ends Sept. 3, 2019, during the transition period.
"It was respectfully requested of the United Nations that the commission initiate the transfer," the statement read, adding that the commission "will have a year to complete this objective contemplated in its mandate."
Minutes before the surprise announcement, U.S.-donated army vehicles that Guatemala uses to fight drug and other smuggling were deployed to the commission's headquarters in the capital in what critics called an attempt at intimidation.
The decision caps a long history of friction between the president and the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG for its initials in Spanish.
In August 2017, Morales announced that he was expelling the commission's chief, Ivan Velasquez, but that move was quickly blocked by Guatemala's top court.
At the time Morales declared Velasquez a persona non grata and fired his foreign minister for refusing to carry out the order to expel him, before later backing off and saying he would obey the court's decision.
Morales accused the commission Friday of "violating our laws, inducing people and institutions to participate in acts of corruption and impunity," and "selective criminal prosecution with an ideological bias."
"Selective justice has been used to intimidate and terrorize the citizenry," he charged. "Judicial independence has been violated, with the intention of manipulating justice, actions that attack the presumption of innocence and due process."
The announcement was promptly met with criticism from human rights officials and advocates.
"We sincerely regret the great mistake that the president made public in not renewing CICIG's mandate," Guatemalan human rights prosecutor Jordan Rodas said. "We are grateful for its valuable contribution in the country to the fight against corruption and impunity."
Morales is suspected of receiving at least $1 million in undeclared contributions during the 2015 campaign. He has denied wrongdoing.
Last week the Supreme Court allowed a request brought by CICIG and Guatemalan prosecutors to strip his immunity from prosecution to go to Congress for consideration. If 105 lawmakers vote in favor, it could open him up to investigation for possible illicit campaign financing.
"I think there's a conflict of interest, and an attempt by President Morales to try to protect his own interests in light of the ongoing investigation and probe," said Adriana Beltran, director for citizen security at the Washington Office on Latin America, which advocates for human rights in the region.
Beltran said CICIG and Velasquez have made remarkable progress in strengthening the rule of law in Guatemala "despite constant attacks and efforts to try to undermine (their) work," and that "there's still much more that needs to be done."
The commission released security camera video showing perhaps a dozen military jeeps taking up position curbside outside the headquarters Friday, some with soldiers manning machine gun turrets. CICIG spokesman Matias Ponce said they were there for a few minutes, and later returned and drove by without stopping. Ponce also told The Associated Press that police and army vehicles intercepted a car carrying a team from the commission on a street in the capital.
Rodas called the deployment an "oversize and intimidating presence."
"It is an unnecessary military movement that reminds us of days past when there were coups, and now we are a democracy — nobody is above the law," he said, adding that he would work to guarantee the safety of the commissioner and his team.
Prosecutors' spokeswoman Julia Barrera said an investigation was opened "to see if any crime was committed" by deploying the vehicles.
The U.S. Embassy said in a statement that the United States had donated the jeeps to help Guatemala fight crime and drug trafficking in border areas, and said it "is closely monitoring that all equipment donated for law enforcement in Guatemala is used appropriately and on the terms of the agreements under which they were donated."
Friday's announcement also coincided with the expiration of visas for all foreign employees of CICIG, including Velasquez. The future of their migratory status was not immediately clear.
The U.S. Embassy in Guatemala said in a statement that CICIG "is an effective and important partner to fight against impunity, improve governance and hold the corrupt accountable in Guatemala." It added that Washington would continue to support efforts against corruption and impunity in the country.
It was a much softer statement than the one from State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert last year, when Morales tried to expel Velasquez. Back then, she said Washington was "deeply concerned" and "it remains crucial that CICIG be permitted to work free from interference by the Guatemalan government."
The U.S. and U.N. ambassadors arrived at the commission's headquarters in the afternoon in an apparent show of support, as did small groups of demonstrators in favor of and against CICIG.
Some set off small fireworks in celebration. Others chanted, "Jimmy out!"
Chief prosecutor Maria Consuelo Porras, who partnered with the commission in requesting the elimination of Morales' immunity of office, urged the government and the United Nations "to make their best efforts to reach agreements that benefit the Guatemalan people for peace, tranquility and social harmony."
U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont and staunch CICIG supporter, said that in light of the announcement, Congress would "reassess" future aid to Guatemala and its military.
"It now falls to the Guatemalan people, the judiciary and the Attorney General to ensure that this attempt to perpetuate impunity does not succeed," Leahy said in a statement. "It is critical that CICIG ... continues to carry out its mandate."
The commission's work with Guatemalan prosecutors has led to high-profile graft probes that ensnared dozens of politicians and businesspeople and even led to the downfall of former President Otto Perez Molina and his then-vice president.
The military deployment came the same day a U.N. human rights team was expelled from the Central American nation of Nicaragua after the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights published a critical report accusing President Daniel Ortega's government of violent repression of opposition protests.
There was no immediate indication of a link between the two events.
Associated Press writer Peter Orsi contributed from Mexico City.