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Guatemalans protest against expulsion of United Nations anti-corruption commission

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The International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG by its initials in Spanish) was set up by the United Nations in an agreement with the Government of Guatemala in 2007.

Over the years, the CICIG has highlighted corruption cases involving politicians, bureaucrats and business people. CICIG prosecutors have helped convict 310 government officials, business leaders and heads of criminal organizations.

As of 2019, CICIG prosecutors were pursuing 84 major investigations.

Notably, the CICIG had been investigating Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales' campaign finances and pursuing corruption investigations against two members of his family (his son and his brother) and several members of the Guatemalan Congress.

In a recent New York Times article, journalist Francisco Goldman characterized Morales as "an unpopular president is backed by hard-line military, right-wing parties and conservative elites."

The mandate of the CICIG was to run to September 3, 2019, but last August Morales refused to extend its term for another two years and just days later barred CICIG Commissioner Ivan Velasquez from re-entering the country.

On January 7, Morales announced his government's immediate withdrawal from the CICIG agreement with the UN and ordered CICIG staff to leave the country within 24 hours.

On January 8, members of the CICIG began to depart Guatemala.

On January 9, the Constitutional Court -- Guatemala's highest judicial authority -- ruled against the expulsion of CICIG staff, but Morales refused to comply with the ruling.

On January 14, thousands of Guatemalans protested the government's actions, as Sandra Cuffe reported, with "rallies, marches and roadblocks" across the country.

Cuffe adds, "In Guatemala City, the capital, more than 20 blocks in the city center were shut to vehicle traffic and a heavy police presence guarded the area as a protest march called by more than 60 social movement organizations sought to reach the central plaza."

On January 17, the Guatemalan Congress voted to move forward with changes to the National Reconciliation Law that would establish new restrictions on prosecuting war crimes, a move welcomed by the military and denounced by victims of genocide.

What are the implications of Morales' actions?

Goldman comments, "Guatemalans are bracing for what's being deemed as ''he restoration:' a return to impunity for corrupt economic and political elites, the release from prison of those charged with crimes by CICIG and the repression of journalists, human rights and judicial activists."

Ohio State University Professor Rachel E. Bowen adds, "More undocumented migrants detained crossing the United States' southern border come from Guatemala than from any other country. The collapse of its democracy would surely send even more desperate residents fleeing."

Bowen also notes, "The damage done [by Morales' actions] may be just as dramatic -- and violent -- as a military coup."

And Goldman has cautioned, "Morales's lawless actions against the [CICIG] and his intentional sabotaging of the rule of law could never succeed without the seemingly unconditional support of the Trump administration and Republicans in the United States Congress."

This essentially gives permission and emboldens other governments committing human rights violations to act with impunity and ignore the rule of law.

To date, the Canadian government has only issued a mild rebuke.

On January 10, Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland stated, "Canada has been a strong supporter of Guatemala's efforts to fight corruption and impunity, including through the CICIG and the work of Guatemala's public ministry."

Freeland added, "We call on the Government of Guatemala to respect the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, and the democratic rights of the people and country."

The situation in Guatemala will likely only intensify with a general election scheduled to take place on June 16, with a second round for the presidential election to be held on August 11 if no candidate wins a majority in the first round.

There are already concerns being expressed about electoral fraud that could take place during this election.

Peace Brigades International (PBI) has noted, "Many of the people and organisations PBI works with in Guatemala are fighting impunity: seeking justice for crimes committed where the perpetrators -- highly powerful people -- have not been prosecuted or punished."

It adds, "Those seeking justice -- victims, lawyers, campaigners -- face immense risk, and can be particularly vulnerable because their would-be attackers are able to act without fear of punishment."

PBI currently provides protective accompaniment to eleven human rights groups in Guatemala including: Association of Neighbors of Chicoyogüito of Alta Verapaz AVECHAV, Council of Peoples of K'iche 'CPK, Cahabón's peaceful resistance, and TZ'KAT Ancestral Healing Network of Community Feminism from Ixmulew.

Image: Twitter/@Sandra_Cluffe

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