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By Lisa Rankin and Stacey Gomez
This month, thousands of people have taken to the streets throughout Guatemala to demand an end to corruption and impunity, opposing President Jimmy Morales’ move to shutdown a UN mandated anti-corruption commission. Many fear that actions such as his attacks against the commission and continued violation of Constitutional Court rulings signal a technical coup, which could lead the country down a path of dictatorship.
In fact, the country is still recovering from a 36-year internal armed conflict marked by a series of dictatorships and resulting in the deaths of upwards of 200,000 people.
Maureen Larkin, a member of the P.E.I. committee of the Maritimes-Guatemala Breaking the Silence Network (BTS) and participant in BTS’ May 2018 delegation to Guatemala shares: “What we saw in Guatemala was real courage and commitment to their community. But their activism has high costs. Eighteen land defenders were killed last year for protecting their land and territory.”
Since 2006, the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) has been a key actor in the struggle against corruption and impunity in Guatemala, working alongside the Public Prosecutor’s office. Their most high-profile case is that of former president Otto Perez Molina and former vice-president Roxana Baldetti, who were arrested on corruption charges in 2015.
The Public Prosecutor’s office and CICIG have also sought to have President Morales tried on corruption charges for illicit campaign financing. Morales’ brother and son, as well as members of his political party are currently under investigation for corruption. Shutting down CICIG serves to shield these powerful interests from prosecution.
Canadian mining companies, active in Guatemala since the 1970s, have long since been criticized for human rights abuses and environmental degradation. Local communities also point to the illegal ways mining licenses and permits have been obtained by Canadian companies from the Guatemalan state. The CICIG was only beginning to touch on such cases when attacks against the Commission began.
In August 2018, Morales caused a national uproar when it was announced that he would not renew the Commission’s mandate beyond 2019. Soon after, he barred CICIG Commissioner and Colombian jurist Ivan Velasquez from re-entering the country. At least eleven CICIG officials have also had their visas denied or revoked. All the while, the Constitutional Court has consistently reiterated the body's legitimacy.
The situation flared up again this past Jan. 5 with the 25-hour illegal detainment of CICIG investigator and Colombian national Yilen Osorio Zuluaga by Guatemalan officials at the country’s international airport. Two days later, Guatemala’s Foreign Minister Sandra Jovel announced a unilateral shut down of CICIG, effective within 24 hours. She denied the legitimacy of Constitutional Court rulings in statements which were later affirmed by the Guatemalan president. Within days, the Constitutional Court voted to suspend that decision.
Now, an attack against three Constitutional Court judges who’ve made a number of important decisions to check the power of Morales and the government’s executive branch is moving forward. The Supreme Court of Justice, allied with the Morales government, has accepted a motion by a right-wing interest group which threatens judicial independence. The motion seeks to remove the immunity of the three judges so they can be investigated for alleged violations such as abuse of power. Currently, the matter is before an investigative committee made up of five members of Congress.
Actions by the Morales government signify a move to consolidate power and constitute an attack against the rule of law, as well as democratic institutions. Many fear that this technical coup could once again thrust Guatemala into a violent dictatorship.
Canada, one of the top four donors to the Commission, recently issued a statement highlighting its “disappointment” at the Guatemalan government’s decision to unilaterally end CICIG’s work. While it’s a step in the right direction, Canadian civil society organizations (CSOs) are calling for a stronger response. On January 22nd, BTS and 29 other Canadian CSOs sent a letter to our government stressing our concerns regarding the technical coup in Guatemala, as well as urging the Embassy to use all channels available to advocate its ongoing support for the Commission and for respect of the country's Constitutional Court.
With the electoral process recently launched in lead up to Guatemala’s June elections, it’s a decisive period in the country’s democracy. Given this extremely volatile context, our ongoing solidarity - including writing to our MPs to express our concern - is needed. As Ms. Larkin adds: “Guatemala deserves the support of the international community.”
Lisa Rankin and Stacey Gomez are coordinators of the Maritimes-Guatemala Breaking the Silence Network, an organization that has been working in solidarity with Guatemalans since the 1980s.