A UN team of investigators against corruption has already forced presidents, judges and generals to stand trial. It enjoys cult status among the population.
Fighter for good: Ivan Velasquez Gomez Photo: reuters
Determined, the torero Ivan Velasquez Gomez lunges at the bull of corruption. He wants to finish off the mighty beast. This poster caused hearty laughter among the staff of the UN Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (Cicig): The bullfighter with the tight calves and the rather lanky figure is their superior.
For just under three years, Velasquez Gomez has headed the UN commission that aims to strengthen the judiciary in Guatemala. The Cicig and its head have enjoyed cult status in Guatemala since the evidence they presented led to the resignation of then-President Otto Perez Molina in early September 2015. Now the ex-general must stand trial for corruption in one of the most spectacular trials in Guatemala’s history.
Not only in Central and South America, but also in Asia, the cases presented by the Cicig against organized crime are being closely watched. In view of the successes, social organizations in Honduras and El Salvador, as well as politicians in the United States, are pleading for similar commissions to be set up in Honduras and El Salvador, for example.
Two years ago, the situation looked quite different. At the end of 2013, President Otto Perez Molina had publicly spoken out against renewing the Cicig mandate, which would have ended in September 2015. But in early September 2014, the commission presented a case that caused quite a stir in Guatemala: the Byron Lima case. The former captain in the Guatemalan army was involved in the 1998 murder of bishop and human rights activist Juan Gerardi. Byron Lima was sentenced to 30 years in prison. In prison, he then built up an influential criminal network, whose machinations were uncovered by investigators led by Velasquez Gomez.
This investigative success was something of a door opener and the first major case of the UN Commission under Velasquez Gomez’s direction. The Colombian is known for not going public with cases until they are watertight. In Bogota at the time, he uncovered the networks between paramilitaries and politics. More than sixty deputies went to prison.
No political loyalties
In Guatemala, he works with Attorney General Thelma Aldana. The former judge has proven that she knows no political loyalties. This is unusual in Guatemala, which is dominated by old-boy networks.
The resignation of a president because of corruption would simply have been unthinkable
The corruption network "La Linea," in which then President Otto Perez Molina was involved, would not have come to light without the UN Commission. Perez Molina and Vice-President Roxana Baldetti had been channeling goods into the country en masse, bypassing customs and receiving millions from the importing companies in return.
The commission presented its findings shortly before the presidential elections in 2015, and Perez Molina resigned on September 2. The investigators were able to draw on advances in the justice sector that they themselves had helped initiate, such as the tapping of telephone calls and the use of recorded conversations in court. "In the La LInea corruption case alone, our investigators evaluated 90,000 audio and 30,000 written documents," says commission spokesman Arturo Aguilar.
For such complex trials in the public interest, three courts for capital offenses were set up on the initiative of the experts, the "Tribunales de Mayor Riesgo." The trial of ex-dictator EfraIn RIos Montt and the first rape trial against Guatemalan military officers have also been heard there.
The existence of these courts has transformed the country’s justice system, as has the presence of UN investigators. "When UN experts are involved in a case, the likelihood of money flowing under the table is nil," says Orlando Lopez, the senior prosecutor for human rights crimes. Several corrupt judges have been arrested following Cicig research, and the climate in the country has changed. Nevertheless, the judiciary has "more political support from abroad than from within the country," judges German human rights lawyer Michael Morth, who has been working in Guatemala for twenty years.
The work should be expanded
The resignation of a president for corruption would simply not have been imagined in Guatemala until September 2, 2015 – today, the evidence against Perez Molina is so overwhelming that Judge Miguel Angel Galvez can barely keep up with sifting through the documents. In mid-July, he agreed to consolidate the five trials against the criminal network in the presidential palace into one case. At issue are a port expansion and other construction contracts awarded in return for payment, and numerous gifts; among them a helicopter, a luxury limousine and an airplane with which Perez Molina wanted to supplement his pension. In total, more than 60 million euros are said to have flowed.
The successes of the UN investigators over the past ten years or so speak for themselves. And the work is set to expand. "We want to decentralize the work, set up a second location in Quetzaltenango to show more presence in the interior of the country," says Arturo Aguilar. Quetzaltenango is Guatemala’s second largest city, located in the north of the country, and the Cicig branch has already been inaugurated – thanks to a million-dollar donation from the United States. This has signal character.
Outside Guatemala City, corruption is often even more visible. In the metropolis itself, civil society is now stirring. Again and again, there are demonstrations against corruption in front of the presidential palace, and municipal radio stations such as "Radio Urbana" provide information about the activities of the deputies. This is a glimmer of hope for which the work of the commission is partly responsible. But such successes require patience. "It takes time to build a team and get up to speed, and you need political support," Aguilar explains. Without pressure from the U.S., Cicig would hardly have been able to investigate further.