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Photo Credit: Clamor Por Guatemala-Jouse Goge

Today marks the 10th anniversary of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, known by its Spanish abbreviation as CICIG (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala). On December 12, 2006, the United Nations and the Government of Guatemala signed an agreement to establish CICIG to assist the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the National Civilian Police, and law enforcement in investigating organized crime and its connections with state institutions. CICIG has a unique hybrid structure. On the one hand, it is an independent international entity comprised of judges, prosecutors, and law enforcement officers from over 20 countries. On the other hand, despite its sovereignty concerns, the Government of Guatemala gave CICIG the authority to investigate and assist in prosecutions of corruption and other crimes under national law. This innovative structure does not have any precedent in the history of international anti-corruption initiatives. In its 10 years of existence, CICIG has achieved notable victories on different battlefields, including prosecuting over 200 corrupt officials, reforming Guatemala’s anti-corruption laws, building local capacity of investigative authorities, and, most importantly – mobilizing the business community and civil society against corruption. The expansion of this successful model to other weak and failed states could constitute a new era in the global fight against corruption.

Back in 2006, CICIG seemed a last resort to restore normalcy in the country’s justice system, where 98 percent of homicides were not solved, where the work of judges was so dangerous that they could not get health insurance, and where organized crime had such close connections with state officials that criminal networks were directed by prisoners from jail. At that time, it was obvious that the widespread cancer of corruption had no hope for self-healing, and the country needed external help. In the words of Guatemala’s former vice president Eduardo Stein, who stood behind the establishment of CICIG: “We realized we couldn’t fix our institutions alone. We figured that if member states could ask the Security Council for peacekeepers, why not help to address an internal problem that is as serious as war: Organized crime.”

For Guatemala’s business community and civil society, CICIG remains the last bulwark of justice in cases against corrupt officials who defraud the state of public funds and undermine economic opportunities in the country. According to the 2015 estimates of the Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial, and Financial Associations (CACIF), “half of every dollar the government raises in revenue is stolen.” One of the most recent corruption scandals revealed the existence of the hierarchical system of state corruption that controlled smuggling and movement of goods through Guatemala’s ports. In April 2015, CICIG accused high-ranking officials of the Presidential Administration, tax authorities, and customs administration of creating the “La Línea” (line) criminal network to extort bribes from businesses in exchange for reduced tariffs and customs duties. A one-year investigation by CICIG confirmed that then President Otto Pérez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti were the masterminds behind “La Línea.” This sparked a wave of protests, which eventually forced them to resign. Later, they were arrested by the Attorney General’s Office.

Not surprisingly, in early 2015, President Pérez Molina refused to renew the CICIG two-year mandate. Only under pressure from business communities and civil society was the mandate eventually extended to 2017. Due to its successful anti-corruption efforts, CICIG won broad support of Guatemalan business associations, including the Chamber of Commerce. The 2015 survey conducted by the Chamber of Commerce showed that 71 percent of its members supported the extension of CICIG. Despite the fact that some members of CACIF were themselves under investigation for corruption, the organization supported CICIG in the “La Línea” case, stating that: “Smuggling and defrauding have turned into cancer that not only damaged state assets, but also seriously affected law-abiding entrepreneurs and Guatemalan taxpayers who carry the entire tax burden in the country.” In this respect, Jorge Briz, then CACIF President, called on businesses and organizations in the private sector to unite their efforts in “the national crusade against corruption.”

However, even after a decade of the fight against impunity, Guatemala still encounters severe difficulties in prosecuting corrupt officials, businessmen, and judges. The most serious issue remains the lack of judicial independence. In 2015, a former judge of Courts of Appeals Claudia Escobar publicly resigned from her position protesting against corruption in the selection process of Appellate and Supreme Court justices. After her denunciation, CICIG focused its efforts on promoting a constitutional reform in the judicial sector. Escobar was also the key whistleblower in the case against the former President of the Guatemalan Congress. She recorded a conversation where he offered her re-election in exchange for her ruling in favor of Vice President Baldetti and then turned the recording over to CICIG. Due to numerous threats and intimidation, Escobar and her family were eventually forced to leave Guatemala for the US. Yet, the risks confronting whistleblowers did not stop her personal fight against impunity in Guatemala. As she puts it, “If you fight impunity, impunity will fight back.” In the US, she continues to advocate for judicial independence as the necessary prerequisite for anti-corruption programs in Guatemala. As she said during her recent presentation at CIPE, “If you don’t have judicial independence, it does not matter how much effort you put, you end up with a wall that you cannot break.” In 2016, she joined the NED Fellowship Program to examine the impact of international institutions on Guatemala’s fight against impunity.

CICIG has proved to have a transformational impact on collective action against corruption by business organizations and civil society. In 2015, thousands of people took to the streets of the capital protesting against corrupt officials under the slogan “Justice now!” which the media characterized as “the Guatemalan Spring.” After the establishment of CICIG, Guatemala’s rate of impunity decreased from 95 percent to 70 percent. CICIG became a role model for Honduras, which also suffers from endemic corruption, extreme violence, and drug trafficking. In 2015, the Organization of American States created the Support Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH). Its key objective is to provide structural reforms in the Honduran judicial system. By strengthening local capacity to fight impunity in Guatemala, CICIG is also setting a good example to other countries in Central America whose state institutions are infiltrated by organized crime and clandestine security organizations.

Yulia Krylova is a doctoral candidate at George Mason University