On 27 August, Guatemalan president Jimmy Morales made a special TV broadcast to the nation.
In the broadcast, he declared that Iván Velásquez, the head of the UN-appointed CICIG (Commission against Impunity in Guatemala) was ‘persona non grata’ in the country, and that the ‘competent authorities’ would see that Velásquez was immediately deported.
Morales’ move came less than 48 hours after Velásquez had asked the constitutional court to strip the president of political immunity in order to answer questions about contributions of some US$900,000 to his election campaign.
The move quickly backfired.
Foreign minister Carlos Raúl Morales refused to carry out his instruction to deport Velásquez, and was promptly sacked by the president. The Health Minister, Lucrecia Hernández Mack, resigned soon afterwards.
A day later, the Guatemalan Constitutional Court ruled by 3-2 that the president’s attempt to remove the head of the CICIG was unconstitutional.
Worse was to follow for Morales, a TV entertainer elected in 2015 on a programme to clean up political life in Guatemala after his predecessor Otto Pérez Molina was forced to step down following a corruption scandal uncovered by the CICIG and the reforming attorney-general Thelma Aldana.
Instead of removing the Colombian Velásquez, Morales soon found himself facing prosecution over the allegedly illegal financing of his election campaign.
In early September, the Constitutional court ruled that Congress should be allowed to debate whether his political immunity could be withdrawn so that he can face these charges.
Power to curb corruption
Following the 1996 peace accords that put an end to three decades of civil strife in Guatemala, an agreement was made with the United Nations to allow the CICIG to operate in Guatemala both in an attempt to supervise the demilitarisation of paramilitary groups, curb corruption and to strengthen institutions such as the judicial and penal systems.
It is unusual among international organisations because it can build cases against individuals and then hand them over to Guatemalan judicial authorities to pursue in the courts.
Video: CICIG Commissioner Iván Velásques Gómez, interviewed for El Periódico by Evelyn Boche
Since starting work in Guatemala in 2006, the CICIG has had notable successes, the most spectacular of which was to provide evidence of illegal payments and corruption that led to mass popular protests and the impeachment and resignation of Pérez Molina and his vice-president in September 2015. They are both in jail awaiting trial.
President Pérez Molina had previously stated that he would not extend the mandate of the CICIG when it was due to be renewed later in 2015.
Don’t touch me or mine
When he won the election to replace Pérez Molina, Jimmy Morales initially expressed his support for Velásquez and the work of the commission, and agreed that its mandate should be renewed.
His attitude changed in September 2016 when the CICIG provided evidence for the Attorney General Thelma Aldana to begin investigating the president’s son José Manuel and his brother Samuel for suspected fraud and money laundering.
It was when on 12 August 2017 that a court accepted there was a prima facie case against them for fraud that Morales went on the offensive against Velásquez and the CICIG.
Although this attempt to remove him and to curb the activities of the CICIG has failed, a considerable number of leading Guatemalan politicians support Morales’ view. They accuse the CICIG of meddling in Guatemala’s internal affairs, and argue that it is no longer needed.
A two thirds majority is needed in Congress to remove Morales’ immunity. In the past, its members have blocked reforms suggested by the CICIG which would have strengthened the independence of the judiciary. One in five members of Congress are currently being investigated on corruption charges.
Even if he maintains his immunity, President Morales’ position is looking increasingly weak. He has no majority in Congress, and appears to have few coherent proposals to combat the corruption and violence that continue to undermine democratic rule in Guatemala.
The next presidential elections are due in two years’ time, but as Otto Pérez Molina learnt to his cost, ordinary Guatemalans have learnt from their effective protests in 2015 that they can have the last word.