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In Guatemala, a justice experiment gone right

CICIG’s fight against impunity, led by unassuming investigator from Colombia, emboldens citizens ahead of elections

GUATEMALA CITY — Many Guatemalans felt vindicated to see the country’s former president, Otto Pérez Molina, in court Friday for heading a major corruption scheme. Following several months of massive protests — more than 100,000 people gathered in Guatemala City on August 27, the country’s largest protest of all time — Congress voted to remove the President’s immunity so that he could be tried for his crimes. In the late hours of Sept. 2, President Otto Pérez Molina resigned.

This newly emboldened citizenry is thanks in great part to the work of Thelma Aldana, the country’s Public Prosecutor, and Iván Velásquez, head of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala. Known by its Spanish acronym CICIG, the commission works to eradicate criminal networks in Guatemala. It operates under a U.N. mandate alongside the country’s Office of the Public Prosecutor and other state institutions. 

CICIG has functioned under three commissioners: Spaniard Carlos Castresana, Costa Rican Francisco Dall’Anese and Colombian Iván Velásquez, who has been in office since 2013.

Guatemalans have embraced Velásquez with unparalleled enthusiasm. Thursdays, the day the commission often releases its latest charges, have been affectionately deemed "Thursdays of CICIG." On social media, Guatemalans have been calling — only partly in jest — for Velásquez to gain citizenship so he can run for president.

Under Velásquez, CICIG offers a rare moment of hope in an otherwise politically weary Guatemala. This weariness has affected the political landscape for the upcoming elections. Leading candidates associated with the current establishment have lost support, while candidates considered to be a break from politics as usual have risen in the polls. 

Velásquez is viewed as less political than his predecessors. Unlike Castresana, who was known for his political savvy and oratorical pomp, Velásquez has the cool temperament of a diplomat, speaking in a slow, measured tone and rarely showing emotion.

“He’s less the kind of person to form immediate friendships or make political connections,” said Javier Monterroso, who worked in the Public Prosecutor’s Office alongside the last two commissioners. “He’s more of an investigator.”

Added Édgar Gutiérrez, a political analyst and security expert, “Velásquez is not a man seeking protagonism.”

Contraband and corruption

As early as 2002, under pressure from human rights organizations, the Guatemalan government and the U.N. called for the creation of a commission that would investigate and disband criminal networks, recognizing that many were deeply entrenched in the state. The commission began operating in September 2007.

Since its inception, CICIG has successfully investigated high-impact cases such as the self-ordered assassination of lawyer Rodrigo Rosenberg, which captured international headlines.

In his short tenure, Velásquez has successfully charged Vice President Roxana Baldetti, the former heads of Guatemalan equivalents to Social Security and the IRS, as well as mayors, judges and eight congressmen. Accusations include graft, fraud and money laundering. On August 21, the Public Prosecutor’s Office and CICIG charged President Otto Pérez Molina with leading a corruption scheme in which he accepted bribes in exchange for reducing or waiving taxes for imports to Guatemala.

Key to CICIG’s ability to successfully pursue cases was the signing of an anti-corruption law in 2012. The law permits the use of wiretaps in investigations dealing with corrupt government officials. These wiretaps have proven essential in prosecuting cases against officials in high echelons of government.

'[Iván] Velásquez is not a man seeking protagonism.”

Édgar Gutiérrez

political analyst and security expert

Velásquez has also found an unlikely ally in Public Prosecutor Thelma Aldana. Many suspected President Molina appointed Aldana in May of 2014 with the understanding that she would not rock the status quo by investigating high-level officials. However, Aldana has closely supported CICIG’s investigations and defended the renewal of the commission against the wishes of the president.

But these factors alone cannot account for the leaps in the fight against impunity Guatemala has experienced over the past four months. Leading voices in national media, civil society, and the private sector agree that the radical change is a result of Velásquez’s work at the helm.

Once in office, Velásquez developed a strategy to address corruption in powerful state structures, which included changes in investigative methods and priorities.

As Monterroso explained, prior to the arrival of Velásquez, most of Guatemala’s limited wiretap capacities were dedicated to drug trafficking and kidnapping cases, and were generally operated by the Public Prosecutor’s Office. Now CICIG has taken over most of the wiretap lines, and the focus of the investigations has shifted to contraband and corruption in government.

Velásquez’s background in his native Colombia prepared him well for his work with CICIG. Both Colombia and Guatemala have experienced civil wars, drug trafficking, and extreme levels of violence. As head of an investigative unit of the Supreme Court in Colombia, Velásquez uncovered close ties between paramilitary leaders and members of the country’s Congress. His work led to the sentencing of almost 50 congressmen.

Reflecting on Colombia’s strides in the struggle against corruption and impunity, Gutiérrez said, “We could say that Velásquez came from the future.”

Investigating an investigator

Conversations are already underway in Honduras, following massive protests against corruption in government, to establish a similar commission. Thomas Shannon, Counselor to John Kerry, suggested that both Honduras and El Salvador would benefit greatly from international investigative bodies like CICIG. The governments of both countries have expressed resistance to this idea.

Manuel Baldizón, the leading candidate in Guatemala’s September 6 presidential election, has also been critical of CICIG. The Commission has accused several of Baldizón’s party members — including his running mate, Édgar Barquín — of corruption and money laundering. Baldizón claims that CICIG constitutes foreign intervention in national affairs and has directly accused Velásquez of targeting his party.

Referring to charges brought forth by CICIG and the Public Prosecutor's Office, Édgar Barquín stated, "We find it dangerous that these institutions are used as possible instruments of a new form of international intervention in the country.”

In a CNN interview, Velásquez was asked what he made of Baldizón’s criticisms.

"Always — and this has been a constant in the investigations of which I’ve been part for over 24 years — instead of defending their innocence, the people who are affected by investigations question the investigator,” Velásquez calmly replied. “That is something I’m accustomed to, so it’s not strange that now Mr. Baldizón is resorting to a similar argument.”

Baldizón indicated on CNN that should he be elected president, CICIG would continue without Iván Velásquez. Analysts fear that this would mean a major setback in the fight against impunity in Guatemala.

In the days leading up to the elections, Velásquez remains focused on his investigations, calling for Guatemalans to stay actively engaged in the fight against corruption.

And despite his growing popularity, he continues to deflect attention from himself. Velásquez recently tweeted a quote from former Uruguayan President José Mujica: “There are no saviors or wizards in the world; there are only collective causes.”

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