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Guatemala Gives the U.N. the Boot

Guatemala le da a la ONU la maleta - Guatemala Gives the UN the boot - Caso Familia Bitkov

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Guatemala le da a la ONU la maleta -The Commission Against Impunity undercuts confidence in the justice system.

While President Trump has been tangling with Congress over security solutions along the U.S. southern border, the United Nations has provoked a political crisis in Guatemala. The U.S. is unlikely to make progress on the former without paying attention to the latter.

The U.N.’s Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG, began work in 2007 with a mandate to investigate illicit security forces and clandestine organizations and to support the Guatemalan attorney general in prosecuting organized crime. Yet in 11 years, CICIG has secured precious few successful prosecutions and none among high-level politicians.

Meanwhile it has undermined confidence in the Guatemalan justice system, and CICIG Commissioner Iván Velásquez has become a lightning rod for controversy. Last Monday Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales gave the commission 24 hours to leave the country. CICIG complied—for now.

According to people familiar with the matter, the Morales government had brought credible complaints to U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres about CICIG witness tampering, illegal negotiations with convicted criminals, and prolonged, illegal preventive detention as a form of psychological torture. It complained that a CICIG official publicly stated that the commission is above the Guatemalan Constitution.

Stéphane Dujarric, the U.N. secretary-general’s spokesman, told me by email on Thursday that the U.N. doesn’t believe CICIG is above the constitution. But he said “the management and running of the commission are the responsibility of the Commissioner. Questions relating to personnel should be addressed to the Commission itself.” In the U.N.’s eyes, Mr. Velásquez answers to no higher power.

Mr. Morales wanted Mr. Velásquez replaced. One person familiar with the matter told me that the secretary-general gave his word to Mr. Morales in September that within two weeks the U.N. would provide names of three candidates to take over the job.

According to Mr. Dujarric, the secretary-general “had proposed the appointment of a CICIG Deputy Commissioner. The President of Guatemala had expressed his agreement with such a plan, as had Commissioner Velásquez.”

The U.N. version of events may well be true. But by last week, Mr. Velásquez still had not been replaced. On Jan. 5, a CICIG employee who had been expelled by the Guatemalan government for security reasons forced his way back into the country. Two days later the foreign minister announced CICIG had to leave.

CICIG supporters claim the commission was close to exposing rampant corruption by Mr. Morales. But he has been in office since January 2016, and CICIG has launched only two formal investigations that might affect him. Neither involves a serious crime.

In the first case, the president’s brother and son were found to have made false invoices for 564 Christmas gift baskets sold to the National Property Registry Office in 2013. Multiple invoices seem to have been drafted at the request of the government office to hide the aggregate value of the purchase (roughly $30,000) because it would have triggered the need for a bidding process.

This is an administrative violation, hardly the heist of the century. Even so, CICIG locked up the president’s relatives for 35 days in January 2017. The case still hasn’t been resolved.

A second case concerns the hiring, by Morales backers, of poll watchers for his National Convergence Front party during the 2015 presidential election. The party didn’t record this “in kind” donation worth roughly $1 million.

This was probably also an administrative violation. Regardless, Congress has already said that there is insufficient evidence against Mr. Morales in the case to warrant the removal of his immunity. There is another alleged campaign-finance violation, but there has been no formal accusation.

The pro-CICIG constitutional court has ruled against Mr. Morales’s expulsion order. But on Wednesday the country’s Supreme Court used its legal powers to green-light a vote in Congress to strip three members of the constitutional court of their immunity. If those magistrates are investigated by Guatemalan authorities, the nation may learn why CICIG so often was allowed to flout the law.

Why the U.N. wasn’t more responsive to Mr. Morales’s legitimate concerns isn’t clear. Finding a mutually acceptable commissioner and guaranteeing basic civil liberties ought not to have been insurmountable tasks. But the CICIG experiment has been such a disaster that suggestions to replicate it in modernizing nations have been rebuffed. Brazil, for example, carried out its own reform.

Guatemala needs to do the same, and some critics of CICIG aren’t credible because banana-republic justice suits them fine. Now that Guatemalans have had a scary brush with authoritarianism imposed by an unaccountable U.N. agency, maybe they will have a greater incentive to do the job themselves. If they refuse, or CICIG comes back, no one should be surprised if citizens continue to flee northward in search of better lives.

Write to O’Grady@wsj.com.

 

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