Constitutional Crisis in Guatemala and the U.S. Must Denounce It

By Giovanni Batz

Protestors at the airport in support of CICIG and to denounce the detention of Osorio.   Source

Protestors at the airport in support of CICIG and to denounce the detention of Osorio. Source

Guatemala is currently undergoing a constitutional crisis as fears and concerns of a possible coup, and even a return to dictatorship, by President Jimmy Morales. On Saturday January 5, 2019, Colombian national Yilen Osorio, investigator of the UN-sponsored anti-corruption commission known as International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), was detained and prevented from entering the country. The United States is the largest contributor and provides 40% of CICIGs budget, and with the increasing migration of Guatemalans, the US public should be concerned about the political situation in Guatemala.

A former comedian whose campaign slogan was “neither corrupt, nor a thief”, Morales has attempted to discredit, eliminate and persecute investigators of the CICIG throughout his presidency. The CICIG is currently investigating him for corruption and illicit campaign financing during the 2015 presidential election. On August 31, 2018, while surrounded by 68 uniformed military members, Morales announced that he would not renew the mandate of CICIG (set to expire September 2019). More concerning was that on the same morning, military vehicles (J8 Jeeps) equipped with gunners donated by the US Defense Department for anti-narcotic operations, drove past the offices of CICIG, the homes of human rights defenders, and even the US embassy as a means of intimidation and psychological warfare. The use of these vehicles was condemned by many, including eight members of US Congress who wrote to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to express their concerns. Despite these actions and against US personnel, the Trump administration donated dozens more military vehicles to Guatemala.

Morales with Military announcing the end of CICIG Mandate on Aug. 31.   Source

Morales with Military announcing the end of CICIG Mandate on Aug. 31. Source

The political war against CICIG continued to escalate days after Morales announced that the Commissioner of the CICIG, Ivan Velazquez, was banned from reentering Guatemala. The Constitutional Court ordered the lifting of the ban, but Morales has since defied this order. Instead, on December 18, 2018, he ordered the Foreign Affairs Ministry to revoke the visas and diplomatic clearances of eleven CICIG workers and gave them 72 hours to leave the country. The Constitutional Court again ruled in favor of CICIG and ordered the restoration of their work visas. The Justice Department then presented impeachment proceedings against three of the Constitutional Court judges accusing them of violating the Constitution and abusing their power. Observers and critics have warned that Morales constantly is threatening a coup as a political tactic and has violated the law by disobeying rulings from the highest court.  

Thus, when migration officials held Osorio and tried to deport him, Guatemalans were concerned that this could trigger a coup and plunge the country into further political turmoil and violence. US Congresswoman Norma Torres (D-CA) issued a press release stating she was “shocked and disgusted” by the detention of Osorio and attributed these actions to a “mafioso government...afraid of facing justice” who held a “blatant disregard for judicial rulings.” Civil society groups, indigenous ancestral authorities, human rights observers, and protestors gathered at the airport in support of Osorio and CICIG. The Attorney General exerted considerable pressure. After a 25-hour stand-off, the Constitutional Court ruled that Osorio was allowed to enter Guatemala. This incident was viewed as a victory for the rule of law, but Guatemalans prepared for backlash. The following day, the Minister of Foreign Affairs visited UN headquarters to announce they were unilaterally shutting down CICIG and giving the commission 24 hours to leave the country. In response, the UN stated that the mandate would not end, a decision later backed by the Constitutional Court which ruled that Morales did not have the power to end CICIG. During these tense moments, CICIG workers decided to leave the country out of security concerns. Guatemala is currently at a crucial political juncture, and many are concerned that we are witnessing a self-coup in the making.

Since 2007, CICIG has operated in Guatemala and works in collaboration with the Attorney General’s office. It has been involved in the prosecution of over 1,000 individuals involved in illegal activity, but it has been during Velazquez’s tenure that it has seen the most drastic results. This includes the 2015 La Linea corruption scandal that led to the resignation of former president Otto Perez Molina, who is currently under trial, along with other former high-level government officials. Allies of Morales include members of congress, the oligarchy, politicians, businessmen, and military officials, all who have continued to defame the commission and have worked towards its expulsion. Many congresspeople and other public officials are also under investigation from CICIG. In contrast, the Guatemalan public overwhelmingly supports CICIG. A recent survey found that 75.3% support its work and that only 14.4% approve of Morales job as president. The discontent with Morales and his allies is evident on social media with hashtags in Spanish such as #CICIGSeQueda (#CICIGStays), #NoAlMoralazo (#NoToMorales), #PactodeCorruptos (#PactOfTheCorrupt), #NoMasGolpesALaDemocracia #NoMoreBlowsToDemocracy), among others.

Today, the United States finds itself in a similar situation either to condemn or to condone violence and the violation of the rule of law in Guatemala.

While some Americans know Guatemala to be one of the countries with the highest sending rates of migrants, many are unaware of the United States role in Guatemala’s political history and current situation. The US has historically supported military governments and dictatorships in Central America. In 1954, the Central Intelligence Agency overthrew democratically elected Jacobo Arbenz after he passed much needed agrarian reform that sought to rectify land inequality. During the Guatemalan Civil War (1960-1996), the US aided the military in committing genocide against the Maya through massacres, kidnapping, sexual violence among other human rights abuses. In 1999, Bill Clinton apologized for the US’ role in this violence and repression and said “the United States must not repeat that mistake.” Today, the United States finds itself in a similar situation either to condemn or to condone violence and the violation of the rule of law in Guatemala.

Trump remains silent on Morales’ corruption investigation, which in some ways mirrors his own. Instead, Trump has focused his energy on separating children from their parents at the border, criminalizing Central American asylum seekers, caravans and migrants, turning a blind eye to the deaths of two Guatemalan children while in detention by Border Patrol, and shutting down the government to pressure funding for his imprudent border wall. Congresswoman Torres, born in Guatemala, has been one the most vocal US official in denouncing the rising political tensions. In her press release regarding Osorio’s detention, she appropriately asks, “How can the Trump Administration remain silent while these thugs undo years of progress? This is why children leave their homes and risk their lives to come here.” Torres, a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Rules Committee, has also condemned the move to end CICIG and has “introduced the Guatemala Rule of Law Accountability Act, which would require the U.S. President to impose sanctions on individuals who have undermined the rule of law in Guatemala.”

The US should continue and increase its support for CICIG as well as openly and clearly condemning Morales’ actions. Guatemala has historically suffered from impunity, coups, state-sponsored violence, and repression of human rights activists and indigenous peoples. The Guatemalan president’s war on the CICIG should be viewed with strong concern. US failure to denounce Morales’ actions would implicitly condone them, and this must not occur. The US public can do their part and contact their congressperson to urge them to support CICIG and to condemn the actions taken by Morales who is threatening the rule of law in Guatemala.


Giovanni Batz is a social anthropologist who specializes in Guatemalan politics, history and migration. His publications can be found in Latin American Perspectives and several edited volumes.