August 12, 2019 / 10:49 PM / 3 months ago

Anti-graft group's exit to test mettle of new Guatemala leader

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - Guatemala’s next leader, Alejandro Giammattei, could not have asked for clearer endorsement of his scepticism towards President Donald Trump’s proposed immigration deal than when a visiting U.S. lawmaker last week said the plan was unfeasible.

FILE PHOTO: The winner of Guatemala's presidential election, Alejandro Giammattei, talks during an interview with Reuters in Guatemala City, Guatemala, August 11, 2019. Picture taken August 11, 2019. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas/File Photo

But when California Democratic Representative Norma Torres spoke during her visit to Guatemala on Thursday about how to tackle the corruption that has long bedeviled the country, the two were no longer reading from the same script.

Her voice cracking with emotion, the Guatemalan-born Torres extolled the work of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a U.N. anti-corruption body that has become the bane of many public officials in Guatemala.

With the aid of prosecutors, the CICIG brought down the last president and then almost toppled his successor - who reacted by ordering the commission to leave the country.

Yet neither Giammattei, who is due to take office in January, nor the centre-left rival he defeated in Sunday’s presidential election, showed any desire to stop that expulsion, despite polls suggesting that the CICIG is widely respected by ordinary Guatemalans.

“(This) is a huge loss for Guatemala,” said Adam Isacson, an expert on defence and border security at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a think tank.

Anger over corruption, impunity and inequality has fuelled resentment of politicians in Guatemala, contributing to social instability that helps drive tens of thousands of people north each year in search of a better life in the United States.

Without a programme to continue the CICIG’s work, the next government risks a backlash from a public already upset about the deal the outgoing government signed under pressure from Trump to stem migration.

Threatened with economic sanctions if it refused, the administration of outgoing President Jimmy Morales reached an accord in late July to make Guatemala a so-called “safe third country” for migrants, despite the endemic poverty and violence that plague the Central American nation.


Both Giammattei and his presidential rival had at times been on the wrong end of investigations by the CICIG - as had Morales, who accused it of abusing its power in Guatemala before terminating its mandate, effective Sept. 3.

In an interview with Reuters on Sunday before election results came in, Giammattei said the CICIG’s future was out of his hands, and that he had already assembled a national commission to deal with corruption.

“The CICIG was very successful in putting people in jail, as in the case of La Linea,” Giammattei said, referring to the name given to the customs racket the CICIG helped bust in 2015 to impeach then-President Otto Perez, who is now in prison.

“But the next day another, stronger Linea had emerged, because the problem is the system,” the 63-year-old said. “You need to attack the causes (of corruption).”

Giammattei said the key lay in removing public sector officials’ scope to act without proper oversight. To do that, government business must be made transparent, by putting its transactions online, the veteran bureaucrat said.

Morales, a former TV star who was elected in 2015 vowing to continue the CICIG’s crusade, himself became the subject of a probe by the commission, which alleged his campaign had committed financial irregularities.

By then, dozens of politicians and public officials had been targeted by the CICIG. Unlike Perez, Morales survived a congressional vote to strip him of his presidential immunity, and he labelled the CICIG a “threat to peace” in Guatemala.

Even some supporters of the commission have tacitly expressed concerns that it at times over-reached itself.

CICIG spokesman Matias Ponce declined to comment on what Giammattei’s victory meant for rooting out graft, but he told Reuters that Guatemala still had a “long way to go.”

“There needs to be goodwill on the part of authorities to keep fighting corruption and impunity,” he said.

U.S. congresswoman Torres, who said last week Guatemala was in “no way capable” of being a safe third country, congratulated Giammattei on his victory, and she expressed hope he could curb migration by reducing poverty and improving security.

“None of these goals can be achieved, however, without combating corruption and strengthening the rule of law. I strongly urge the new president-elect to take immediate and concrete actions towards these goals,” she said in a statement. “If he demonstrates a sincere commitment do doing so, he can count on strong support from the United States Congress.”

Additional reporting by Delphine Schrank in Mexico City; Editing by Dave Graham and Cynthia Osterman

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