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A protester holds a sign outside the National Palace in Guatemala City. A protester holds a sign with “Resign, Thief” printed over a portrait of Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei outside the National Palace in Guatemala City, July 24, 2021 (AP photo by Moises Castillo).

Guatemala Has No Intention of Tackling Corruption

Thursday, July 29, 2021

The Biden administration’s strategy to combat mass migration from Central America by tackling its “root causes” just suffered a harsh blow in Guatemala with the ouster of the country’s top anti-corruption official. Juan Francisco Sandoval, the respected chief prosecutor in the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity, known by its Spanish acronym FECI, was fired Friday and promptly fled the country, fearing for his life.  

Sandoval’s ouster prompted street protests and demands for the resignation of President Alejandro Giammattei and Attorney General Consuelo Porras. Above all, Sandoval’s dismissal, and his belief that he might be killed if he remained in the country, offer powerful evidence that Guatemala’s pernicious, endemic corruption is not just failing to improve despite prodding from Washington, but is almost certain to become worse.

For everyday Guatemalans, who have been leaving the country in droves, this is another blaring alarm about the many risks they face. For the Biden administration, it is a bracing reminder that the “root causes” strategy in Central America will continue to run into opposition from powerful foes in the region.

Starting on the campaign trail before the 2020 presidential election, then-candidate Biden decried the Trump administration’s harsh, inhumane approach to high levels of illegal immigration. Instead, he expressed his trademark compassion, saying he would try to change the conditions that force so many in Central America to make the dangerous journey to the U.S. border. Those conditions include extreme poverty, gang violence and environmental degradation. All of these problems, but especially poverty and violence, are magnified by the breakdown of the rule of law, a vicious cycle that begins with corruption, poor governance and misallocation of resources. 

Before the pandemic, the World Bank estimated that more than 49 percent of Guatemalans lived below the poverty line. Despite the country’s relatively strong and stable economy, the number of people living in poverty was growing rather than shrinking, a sign of massive inequality and ineffective governance. Guatemalans suffered the fourth-highest rate of malnutrition in the world and the highest in the Western Hemisphere. The government spent woefully inadequate sums on basic public services, such as education, health and access to water.  

Tackling corruption and rule of law was the obvious first step to create a state that works for all its citizens. 

That’s why when U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris visited Guatemala in June, she had what by all accounts was a tough discussion with Giammattei on the subject. At the time, Harris told reporters, “We had a robust, candid and thorough conversation,” saying the two had discussed “the importance of anti-corruption and the importance of an independent judiciary.” Just 48 hours earlier, Secretary of State Antony Blinken had spoken with his Guatemalan counterpart, warning against any effort to shut down FECI.

Sandoval was infringing on what Guatemalans call the “pact of the corrupt,” which has allowed questionable activities to go unscrutinized and unprosecuted.

So the latest move, while dispiriting, did not come as a surprise. It suggests the current government of Guatemala has no intention of abiding by its commitments to combat graft and work to strengthen the rule of law.

Sandoval, the deposed prosecutor, said he had been instructed not to investigate Giammattei without permission from the attorney general, decrying the order as an unacceptable violation of FECI’s autonomy. For months there had been talk in Guatemala that Porras, the attorney general, was deliberately throwing roadblocks in the way of Sandoval’s work. Porras, for her part, accused him of “abuses.”

It’s worth remembering that Porras was named to the post after the sacking of another respected prosecutor, Thelma Aldana, whose work with the now-disbanded United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG, uncovered high-level corruption that ultimately led to the resignation and arrest of former President Otto Perez Molina. Giamattei’s predecessor, Jimmy Morales, eventually shut down CICIG when it began to investigate his own administration—and family—for corruption as well.

Giammattei succeeded Morales in January 2020, just before the pandemic exploded. A 64-year-old physician, he took office amid high expectations. Glad to be rid of the corrupt and incompetent Morales, under whose administration criminal gangs had grown bigger, stronger and deadlier, Guatemalans supported Giammattei by huge majorities, with his approval ratings at about 80 percent. Since then, he has seen his political standing collapse, with recent surveys putting his approval ratings at just over 20 percent.

Like CICIG, under whose auspices FECI was created, Sandoval’s investigations were increasingly putting him at odds with Guatemala’s powerful elites. For months now, it was known that the government might put an end to his work, which was creating discomfort among those used to feeling untouchable. He was infringing on what Guatemalans call the “pact of the corrupt,” which has allowed questionable activities to go unscrutinized and unprosecuted.

Jordan Rodas, the country’s human rights ombudsman, escorted the purged prosecutor to the border as he fled the country. Rodas later demanded Giammattei’s resignation and accused the attorney general, Porras, of being subject to political pressure from ultraconservative economic sectors that were feeling the heat from FECI’s work. Lambasting Sandoval’s firing as “an international scandal,” Rodas predicted that it would repel foreign investors.

The move did indeed draw condemnation from abroad. The U.S. State Department extolled Sandoval as an “anti-corruption champion,” with its acting head of Western Hemisphere Affairs, Julie Chung, calling his removal a “significant setback to rule of law.”

Ivan Velasquez, the highly regarded former head of CICIG who was expelled by Morales, called Sandoval’s firing “an illegal, arbitrary and criminal act.”  

On Wednesday, the State Department went further, announcing in scathing terms its exasperation with the Guatemalan government and its anger over Sandoval’s firing, saying it shows a “pattern of behavior” that “indicates a lack of commitment to the rule of law.” Washington has now suspended cooperation and is reviewing its assistance to activities led by Porras, the attorney general, while “watching closely for additional actions that would undermine the rule of law or judicial independence in Guatemala.” 

Without the rule of law and an independent, empowered judiciary, it will be practically impossible for Guatemala to become a prosperous, secure country, one whose inhabitants don’t feel they have to escape in order to have a decent life. The latest turn of events is a setback for the Biden administration, and a disaster for the Guatemalan people.

Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is a regular contributor to CNN and The Washington Post. Her WPR column appears every Thursday. Follow her on Twitter at @fridaghitis.

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