3 RGV congressmen want to weaken an anti-corruption investigation on Guatemalan president

In a statement to Neta on Friday, the US State Department made public its position on Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales’ refusal to renew the mandate of an international anti-corruption commission known as CICIG (International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala).

The US State Department said it is in favor of the commission but added an ominous caveat. “Our policy has not changed,” the agency emailed Neta. And then: “The United States supports CICIG, reformed.”

The commission was organized in 2006 to combat corruption at the highest levels of government. It has led to high-profile arrests, including that of former President Otto Pérez Molina in 2015. President Jimmy Morales, a former TV star and comedian, succeeded Molina, opportunistically running on an anti-corruption platform.

Shortly after Morales took office, however, some of his family were arrested pursuant to several CICIG investigations. Morales is now also under CICIG investigation himself for allegedly receiving illegal campaign contributions. The investigation has recently gained steam.

On Aug. 31, Morales announced that he would not renew the commission’s mandate, set to expire in September of next year. And on Sept. 5, Morales banned commission head Iván Velásquez from re-entering the country, a move condemned by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. Morales unsuccessfully tried to ban Velasquez last year.

“Reformed”? We asked for clarification. In response, the State Department wrote:

“The reforms, which are being discussed with the UN Development Programme and CICIG, are in regards to increased oversight and accountability for CICIG, as well as transferring capacity to Guatemalan institutions.  We are not able to discuss details until these conversations are completed.”

The statement appears to accept President Morales’ objections to the commission as politically motivated, overreaching, and in violation of the nation’s sovereignty.

The statement also bears strong resemblance to a joint press release put out by Rio Grande Valley congress members Vicente Gonzalez (TX-15), Filemon Vela (TX-34) and Henry Cuellar (TX-28), which also adopted and parroted Morales’ objections.  

Congressman Vicente Gonzalez in Guatemala City meeting President Jimmy Morales | Courtesy of US Embassy in Guatemala

“While a great experiment in theory,” read the joint statement, “the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala seems to have recently failed to adhere to its core principles and execute its central mission of strengthening rule of law in the country.”

The Texas Congressmen provided no examples to substantiate their claim.

“The United States does not fight impunity with impunity,” the statement continued, “and cannot blindly support institutions that violate a nation’s sovereignty.”

Again, no examples.

What these reforms will entail remains unclear, although it seems likely that they would benefit Morales— a friend of President Trump. The only “reform” thus far has been dubbing Mr. Velásquez persona non grata.

Locally and internationally renowned human rights attorney Jennifer Harbury, whose husband, Efraín Bámaca Velasquez, was tortured and killed by the US-backed Guatemalan army in the 1990s, condemned Morales’ move to expel Velásquez, who is currently working out of New York. Harbury told Neta that Morales “must not be allowed to pick [his] own prosecutors.”

Jennifer Harbury on a hunger strike outside the Guatemala National Palace of Culture in Guatemala City in 1994 | Derrill Bazzy

Guatemalans have taken to the streets all week. On Thursday, thousands protested Morales’ actions, demanding his resignation and creating the hashtag #fuerajimmy (out, Jimmy).

CICIG has enjoyed popular support from indigenous organizations and human rights groups who played an instrumental role in creating the commission in the aftermath of a 36-year civil war, and a genocide in between, which according to Valley leaders, has little— if nothing at all— to do with the current “immigration crisis.”

The indigenous population of Guatemala that was subjected to Genocide makes up most of the country’s population, although their numbers are not reflected in government. Nearly 70 percent of Guatemalans view CICIG favorably.

In addition and digression— I promise we’ll circle back— to the Texas legislators, Florida Senator Marco Rubio has also come to the aid of Morales.

Rubio recently withheld $6 million from the commission, accusing CICIG of being an arm of the Russian government.

He based that accusation on events after a family fled Russia claiming government-related repression, and sought refuge in Guatemala figuring it would be “cheap” and easier than seeking refuge in a Western European country.

In 2015, Guatemalan authorities arrested the Bitkova family for using a criminal network to obtain fraudulent passports. CICIG and the Guatemalan public prosecutor’s office led the anti-corruption investigation. Rubio, therefore, accused the commission of doing Putin’s bidding. The family remains in Guatemala.

CICIG has never received funding from the Russian government. In fact, it has received tens of millions of dollars from American and European donors. Its annual operating budget is a mere $15 to $17 million— hardly a mechanism for Russian, organized crime. Velásquez, a Colombian prosecutor, remains in New York (not St. Petersburg) while banned from Guatemala.

Until Rubio, a sitting member of the Senate Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees, can demonstrate an operational connection between the Kremlin and CICIG, his claim appears to be nothing more than an ignominious expedient in a country obsessed with “Russian interference.”

Nevertheless, to circle back, Rubio’s defense of Morales does demonstrate and explain the apparent and obvious operational connection between Rubio and Congressmen Gonzalez and Congressman Cuellar, all three of whom were photographed meeting with President Morales in Washington, D.C., last February— all at the invitation of Congressman Gonzalez.

The three Rio Grande Valley congressmen have thus taken the side of a Guatemalan President who himself, along with members of his own family, are under criminal investigation by an internationally respected human-rights commission that enjoys the broad-based support of Guatemalan residents and exiles.

Congressmen Gonzalez, Vela, and Cuellar have opted against popular democracy in Guatemala, in favor of the corruption and impunity now threatening to subvert it.