Robert Rotberg is the founding director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Program on Intrastate Conflict, a former senior fellow at CIGI and president emeritus of the World Peace Foundation.
If Donald Trump’s promised concrete barrier to defend the U.S. border from immigrants from Central America has any hope of actually deterring anyone, such a wall would actually need to be erected almost 3,000 kilometres south, along the frontier between Mexico and Guatemala.
That’s where migrants cross on their northern journeys to the United States from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, which is where a new caravan was formed last weekend. Asylum seekers from those three countries feel that their lives have become so worthless that a long trek to a U.S. fence south of San Diego is a reasonable alternative. Homicide rates in those three countries and Venezuela are among the highest in the world. Corrupt government officials in all three countries make it almost impossible for honest citizens to pursue ordinary livelihoods.
Corruption directly saps the ability of weak countries to improve the well-being of their peoples. And the three desperate countries – but especially Guatemala, the largest of the three – face a severe rule-of-law crisis that will only propel more of its citizens northward.
The good news is that comedian-turned-president Jimmy Morales has a formidable tool that he could use to block sleaze in Guatemala and, as a result, in Central America. The International Commission Against Impunity (CICIG, from its Spanish initials) was created 12 years ago at the close of Guatemala’s vicious civil war to help his attorney-general prosecute criminals and uphold the rule of law after a desperate decade. This salutary institution – authorized by the United Nations, funded by the United States and Canada, and staffed by prosecutors from South America – is the only one of its kind globally. For a decade, CICIG has assisted Guatemalans in reining in their government’s corruption.
CICIG has the resources and independence to collect evidence and to convict corrupt politicians and bureaucrats who would otherwise have received impunity from compromised judges. In 2014 and 2015, for example, the commission discovered that drug traffickers were systematically funding local politicians and political campaigns; that the state’s social security system was riddled with suspect payments; that the head of the central bank had laundered money; and that then-president Otto Perez Molina was skimming millions of dollars off a contract to provide dialysis treatment for kidney patients and taking kickbacks from an import scheme, leading to the dramatic ouster and imprisonment of Mr. Perez Molina and a number of his associates.
The bad news is that instead of learning from his predecessor’s mistakes, Mr. Morales is undermining CICIG instead. The work of CICIG and the popular demonstrations that drove Mr. Perez Molina from power also brought about Mr. Morales’s landslide election victory in 2015. His campaign slogan – “neither corrupt, nor a thief" – took advantage of that climate. But last year, CICIG began investigating the way in which Mr. Morales paid for his victory, and charged the president’s brother and son with fraud. It has directly accused Mr. Morales, along with some of Guatemala’s business elite, of violating campaign finance laws.
Mr. Morales retaliated by removing police investigators from CICIG’s staff, refusing to let Ivan Velasquez, the commission’s chief prosecutor, return to Guatemala from Colombia, and cancelling visas for deputy prosecutors. Two weeks ago, Mr. Morales gave the remaining international staff of CICIG 24 hours to leave the country, even though it had the support of the United Nations.
Nevertheless, CICIG still exists. Guatemala’s constitutional court overturned Mr. Morales’s decision, while demonstrators took to the streets in Guatemala City to support CICIG and its efforts. But the Guatemalan national assembly may vote this week to remove three of the five judges who decided in favour of CICIG.
Only diplomatic and financial pressure from the United States and Canada can save CICIG. As a model example of an anti-corruption institution – not only for Guatemala and the rest of Central America, but also for Africa and Asia – it needs to continue pursuing its mandate. Without its continued presence in Guatemala, too, immigrants will continue to flee corruption and crime and flow north to Mexico and the U.S. fence. And while Canadians should hardly need an argument to defend the rule of law, Guatemala’s problem is very much North America’s, too.