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Crisis of Democracy Looms in Guatemala

GUATEMALA CITY — Three years ago, Guatemala became a startling example to Latin America.

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Azam Ahmed
Elisabeth Malkin, New York Times

GUATEMALA CITY — Three years ago, Guatemala became a startling example to Latin America.

Still battered by decades of civil war, it launched a corruption investigation that reached the highest level of government, drawing hundreds of thousands of supporters to the streets and ultimately landing the president, Otto Pérez Molina, in jail.

It was a feat for a fragile democracy and an inspiration in a region where elites were virtually untouchable and prosecutors were just beginning to tackle graft.

But now the nation risks becoming another kind of example — of the danger to institutions when the entrenched interests of the powerful are challenged.

The crisis was ignited when President Jimmy Morales, once the beneficiary of the commission’s investigations — they unseated his predecessor and helped pave the way for Morales’ unlikely victory in 2015 — found himself in the commission’s cross hairs.

The commission has already targeted his brother and son; both are awaiting trial. Now an investigation into illicit campaign financing points to Morales and his wealthy backers.

The president has gone on the offensive, even defying the country’s highest constitutional court in his attempt to throw out the international prosecutors leading the investigation.

First, Morales announced he would not renew the mandate of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, the special United Nations-backed body that has been helping the attorney general’s office build cases since 2007. Then, last week, he barred the Colombian head of the commission, Iván Velásquez Gómez, from returning to the country.

Morales wants to draw a line and make clear “that the fight against corruption is over,” said Fernando Carrera, a former foreign minister of Guatemala under Pérez Molina.

The president’s actions have left Guatemala at the brink of a constitutional crisis and threaten a backward slide into authoritarianism.

The political maneuvers pale in the context of the battles and bombs that defined this Central American nation’s brutal civil war, which ended with U.N.-backed peace accords in 1996. But the crisis threatens to extinguish the hope for an end to the endemic impunity that has long defined Guatemala — and which enthusiastic protesters believed they had finally buried three years ago.

For years now, the United States has supported the prosecutions unequivocally, seeing in the effort a potential salve for the corruption that crippled the region’s political and economic development — and fueled, at least in part, emigration by those looking for a better life.

But under President Donald Trump, the United States has taken a back seat during the current crisis, saying little about Morales’ campaign against the investigators. A schism has emerged in the U.S. government, with career diplomats staunchly supporting the commission, while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo offered what many found to be a weak statement of support for a reformed commission.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., like many supporters of the commission, expressed concern about the lukewarm U.S. response.

“We should not lose sight of the importance of what we have invested in all these years,” Leahy said. “If the commission goes, it is hard to see how things don’t get demonstrably worse.”

Some former diplomats and experts have suggested the Trump administration is managing the impending crisis in Guatemala with caution, fearful of what might come after Morales if he is forced from office. But those same individuals warn that a Guatemala in chaos — one where there is practically no check on corruption — could hit Washington where it hurts the most: the flow of migrants leaving Guatemala for the United States.

For now, the tepid response has empowered Morales to continue his broadsides, experts said.

Morales’ administration has also worked to ensure support for his presidency, and criticism of the commission, in Washington, signing lobbying contracts worth millions of dollars to influence Congress and the White House.

Guatemala supported the Trump administration’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem — and even followed suit, moving their own embassy there.

Without the stalwart support of the United States, many have wondered if the protesters can muster the force they showed in 2015, when hundreds of thousands filled the capital for months.

There is little evidence, for the moment, of collective action. But leaders of the movement also said they are being more strategic and targeted.

The first protest took place Monday as indigenous groups filled the city center of Sololá and blocked sections of the Pan-American Highway. More demonstrations are planned for the rest of the week.

“We have to support the work of the commission,” said Javier Gramajo López, a founder of Construir Pais, one of the activist groups involved in the 2015 protests. “But instead of inciting people, we are calling for calm, waiting for the opportune moment, when we are organized.”

The Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, known as CICIG, first arrived in the country in 2007 to assist the attorney general in rooting out government corruption networks, many of then linked to former military officers.

The effort was backed by the U.N., and donor governments funded much of its work, including the United States, which has paid roughly half its budget in recent years.

Under the leadership of Velásquez, who arrived in 2013, the commission hit its stride, revealing corruption schemes that ranged from the customs racket that brought down Pérez Molina to the manufacturing of fake passports, the creation of phantom congressional jobs and the siphoning of funds from the capital’s new bus system. Although investigations spanned various aspects of government, the fight has become a personal battle between two people: the circumspect Velásquez, and Morales, a former comedian known for crude caricatures that include blackface.

Velásquez has shown a fierce determination to fulfill his mandate, going after the powerful to the point of confronting those responsible for authorizing his presence in the country. His approach has not always been popular; even those who applaud his work worry that an outsider bringing down corrupt officials in Guatemala is still a long way from enduring justice.

Showing a healthy dose of self-awareness, he has told colleagues that despite the commission’s broad popular support, they were likely headed toward an inexorable clash with the establishment.

“There’s going to be a point where we touch the nerve center of this,” he has told several people who work for him. “And that will be the point of no return.”

Three years into his presidency, Morales is in a fight for survival, one he knew was coming.

A year ago, he tried to order Velásquez out of the country. He was blocked by the constitutional court, which ruled that the prosecutor should remain in Guatemala.

Since then, Morales and his allies in congress — many of them facing corruption accusations of their own — have tried to undermine the commission and protect the president. Congress voted against stripping Morales’ immunity from prosecution. It attempted to gut campaign finance rules and slash prison terms for several crimes, but was stopped by the constitutional court and a wave of protest from students to business groups.

In January, Morales fired his reformist interior minister and appointed Enrique Degenhart, who worked to block the government’s cooperation with the commission, reassigning police officers that worked alongside the prosecutors.

“It has been a government in survival mode and not in governance mode,” said Lucrecia Hernández Mack, who joined the Morales government as health minister and resigned a year ago. “There are no public or social policies. It has been a boat adrift, and the only policy is to get the CICIG and the attorney general off its back.”

The crisis hit a peak in late August, when Morales, flanked by military and police officers, announced he would not renew the commission’s mandate next year. Four days later, defying the constitutional court, he barred Velásquez, who was on a trip to Washington, from returning to Guatemala.

That pushed Guatemala to the brink, said Alexander Aizenstatd, a constitutional lawyer in Guatemala, who has been critical of the U.N.-backed commission in the past.

“When you sign an oath to uphold the law, you do it, especially when you are the president of the country,” he said. “You can’t decide which court rulings you follow and which ones you do not.”

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