White House

Trump works to thank Guatemala for moving embassy by weakening anti-corruption panel

After Guatemala joined the United States in moving its embassy to Jerusalem, the Trump administration has been working to weaken an international commission on corruption that is targeting the Guatemalan president, according to three people familiar with the discussions.

The Trump administration is still debating what specific changes it wants to pursue, but talks between agencies have alarmed supporters in Guatemala and Washington who feel the changes could undercut the role the United Nations-backed body plays in combating official corruption and other root causes of illegal immigration.

Proposed changes to the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG, include changing the body’s mandate to more narrowly redefine corruption, increasing reporting requirements for donors, limiting terms of the commissioner and appointing a deputy commissioner which Guatemala would help select, according to the sources.

Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, who with his family is a target of CICG's investigations, has accused CICIG of abusing its power and has tried to oust the commissioner, Iván Velásquez.

Until recently, the criticism largely went unheeded as the agency got credit for tackling crime and corruption. But the body now faces its own accusations of corruption and abusing its power that Republicans say has gone unchecked for too long.

The White House was particularly grateful to Morales for backing Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital amid international uproar. Guatemala was the second country to move its embassy there from Tel Aviv after the U.S. did earlier this year. Jerusalem is a divided capital with part of it in Palestinian territory.

“The only reason why the U.S. is all about it is because they’re so happy with Guatemala that they moved the embassy to Jerusalem,” said one U.S. source with direct knowledge of the conversations. “Just because the president (Morales) is upset that CICIG is investigating some of his family members then he makes a decision to do the whole thing in Israel to get in front of the Trump administration and then tell Trump, ‘Help me on CICIG.’ “

The United States has spent $44.5 million – the largest individual donor – supporting CICIG since it was established in 2007.

Created to confront and dismantle illegal security forces and criminal networks that have infiltrated all levels of government and society, CICIG has largely received bipartisan support in Washington and international praise around the world for its work providing democratic stability in a violent country that thousands of migrants flee each year to come to the U.S.

It has identified more than 60 criminal networks and helped the Guatemalan attorney general convict more than 200 people for corruption, including politicians, judges, police officers and drug traffickers.

The most high profile case was in 2015, when CICIG helped uncover a customs fraud scheme that led to the resignations of then-President Otto Perez Molina, his vice president, Roxana Baldetti, and members of his cabinet.

State Department officials acknowledged CICIG’s role in fighting corruption helps stop illegal immigration to the United States. A spokesperson for the department's Western Hemisphere Affairs bureau wouldn’t address specific proposed changes, but said CICIG must continue to tackle corruption and impunity that undermines security in Guatemala.

“Any reform of CICIG should only serve to strengthen the commission and preserve its important, independent mandate,” the spokesperson said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Republicans say CICIG began fighting transnational criminal networks, but Velázquez has led CICIG to focus more on splashier, white-collar investigations that were not what the body was created for.

“They seem more interested in these high-profile, publicity-garnering initiatives like going after Morales's brother and third cousin, I mean, come on, and then basking in the adulation, to be blunt about it, from the international do-gooders,” said José Cárdenas, who served in the National Security Council under George W. Bush and regularly speaks with Trump administration officials.

Some Republicans became alarmed about CICIG after it helped prosecute a Russian family who was convicted of buying false passports in Guatemala. Igor Bitkov and his family argued they fled Russia in 2009 and looked for safe haven in Guatemala after receiving physical and legal threats from the Russian government looking into their paper business.

The congressional Helsinki Commission held an emergency hearing in April on whether the U.N. body helped “the Kremlin destroy a Russian family.”

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fl., one of CICIG's most powerful critics and who has Trump’s ear on this issue, wrote to Morales, questioning "CICIG’s ability to remain free from the corruption that it has been charged with prosecuting.”

Rubio pushed for a hold on $6 million in U.S. funding for CICIG and credited it with generating momentum for needed reforms.

“Until recently, there has been little congressional oversight on how CICIG spends millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars,” Rubio told McClatchy. ”Recent examples, especially the case of the Bitkov family, demonstrate the need for increased transparency.”

Morales was elected in the wake of Pérez Molina’s downfall and ran with the slogan “neither corrupt nor a thief.” Morales pledged his strong support for CICIG and worked with the team until it uncovered more than $800,000 in campaign financing that he couldn’t explain.

Morales declared Velásquez persona "non grata" and ordered him to leave the country. The courts blocked the move.

But Velásquez and members of the private sector didn't give up.

Wealthy Guatemalans are spending $80,000 a month for Washington lobbyists to promote "the rule of law", a campaign some say is designed to target CICIG. And Morales has been currying favor with Trump, including the embassy move, which some U.S. allies slammed as 'irresponsible' and 'dangerous.'

After the U.N. passed a resolution condemning the United States for recognizing Jerusalem, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley invited those countries that voted with Washington to a reception to thank them for their "friendship to the United States." She then traveled to Guatemala where she told CICG that the U.S. saw room for improvement and they should work more quietly -- like the FBI.

UN Haley
United States Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley announced the United States’ withdrawal from UN Human Rights Council, calling it “not worthy of its name.” Mary Altaffer AP

Benjamin Gedan, who served as National Security Council director for Latin America during the Obama administration, said it’s unusual that the Guatemalan president is spending so much political capital “begging the White House to neuter CICIG.”

“You’d think he’d be seeking foreign aid from the United States, or defending the rights of Guatemalan migrants,” Gedan said. “Instead, he is colluding to undermine one of the country’s most effective, and popular, institutions.”

CICIG officials said any changes to its charter must be approved by the United Nations and the Guatemalan government.

CICIG spokesman Matías Ponce told McClatchy it is committed to transparency and open to suggestions on how to improve its work. But he slammed attempts to tie the Kremlin and the U.N. body as part of a campaign to undercut the group’s work.

He added that investigations into the private sector and political arena were natural progressions of their pursuit after clandestine security networks that have infiltrated Guatemalan society.

"It is natural for the groups affected by the investigations to react against the commission," Ponce said. "Currently there are hundreds of people belonging to groups and very powerful sectors affected by investigations or already convicted. The opposition and campaign against is therefore great."

To make any changes, the United States would also have to convince other major donors to CICIG.. Some, like the government of Holland, have publicly praised CICIG and the commissioner.

“We are 100% behind the valuable work of the @CICIGgt and its Commissioner @Ivan_Velasquez_ in the fight against impunity and in favor of justice,” the embassy of Holland tweeted after Reina Bujis, Deputy Director-General for International Cooperation at the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs met with the Velásquez two weeks ago.

A 2017 poll by Vanderbilt University showed that 70 percent of Guatemalans support the CICIG.

Franco Ordoñez: 202-383-6155, @francoordonez