Last month, Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales effectively shut down the operation of the UN-operated International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (called by its Spanish initials, “CICIG”) by declining to renew its mandate past its September 2019 expiration date and by barring the head of CICIG, Iván Velásquez, from re-entering the country.  CICIG, a uniquely independent organ of the United Nations (“U.N.”), was created in 2007 to support and assist Guatemalan institutions in identifying, investigating, and prosecuting public corruption.  Over the past decade, it has investigated nearly 200 public officials, and its efforts led to the prosecution and ultimate resignation of former Guatemalan President, Otto Pérez Molina.[1] 

Though President Morales’s decision not to renew CICIG’s mandate was announced without warning, recent events suggested that a confrontation between he and CICIG was looming.  Over the past year, tensions have been rising between CICIG and the Morales administration, as CICIG pursued an investigation into the financing of President Morales’s campaign.  Last year, in the summer of 2017, Morales unsuccessfully tried to expel Velasquez from Guatemala and have him replaced as the head of CICIG.  On May 15, 2018, then-Attorney General Thelma Aldana and Commissioner Velásquez held a joint press conference outlining new corruption allegations against President Morales.[2]  Two days later, President Morales appointed a new Attorney General to replace the outgoing Attorney General Aldana.[3]

In response to President Morales’s actions, CICIG has not been without local support.  Since her appointment, Aldana’s replacement, Maria Consuelo Porras, has signaled her intent to continue her predecessor’s work by requesting a legislative hearing into President Morales’s alleged misconduct.[4]  Such a hearing could, in theory, result in the lifting of President Morales’s immunity to prosecution, though a previous congressional vote in 2017 on the same matter went in President Morales’s favor.[5]  In addition, on September 16, 2018, Guatemala’s highest court issued a provisional ruling annulling President Morales’s decision to bar Velasquez from returning to Guatemala.  The government’s subsequent failure to comply with the Court’s ruling led to the filing of a lawsuit by human rights organizations, a public statement in support of the Court’s ruling by Attorney General Porras, and a statement by Ministry of Defense officials that they would not bar Velásquez’s return in violation of the court order.[6]  Thus far, the United Nations has maintained that Velásquez continues in his role and has not appointed a new commissioner.[7]

Prior to these recent events, Guatemala’s partnership with CICIG on anticorruption enforcement has had notable attention as a successful experiment in combating corruption in public institutions.  While recent events demonstrate the continued fragility of this success, the public reactions of Guatemala’s highest court, Attorney General and local human rights organizations to President Morales’s actions demonstrate the progress the country has made.

The History and Structure of CICIG

The UN’s involvement in anti-corruption efforts in Guatemala stem from its role in  resolving Guatemala’s 36-year civil war.[8]  When Guatemala returned to democracy in 1996 under U.N.-brokered peace accords, paramilitary groups and clandestine security networks – Cuerpos Illegales y Aparatos Clandestinos de Seguridad (“CIACS”) – continued to impact Guatemalan institutions and politics[9] by extorting or bribing public officials to support their illegal and black market activities.[10]

In 2002, several Guatemalan NGOs garnered support for the creation of an international commission that would investigate, among other things, any connections between these corrupt activities and Guatemalan public officials.  In response to pressure from the international community, Guatemala’s congress voted in 2007 to ratify CICIG, a U.N.-backed organization staffed by international experts, vetted by Guatemalan prosecutors and investigators, and headed by an appointee of the U.N. Secretary-General.[11]  Today, CICIG has the backing of more than 70% of Guatemalans, and its funding comes from a number of donor countries, including the European Union, the United States, and Sweden.[12]

CICIG’s hybrid structure – it operates independently, as a part of the U.N., but must work with Guatemala’s legal system – is considered groundbreaking.[13]  Under this structure, CICIG must partner with and defer to Guatemala’s law enforcement authorities and court system.[14]  As a result, while CICIG carries out independent investigations, acts as a complementary prosecutor (“querellante adhesivo”), and recommends public policies,[15] it has no independent prosecutorial powers and does not supplant local law enforcement.[16]  Specifically, while it has the ability to file criminal complaints, issue subpoenas, interview witnesses and suspects, conduct surveillance, select and supervise investigative teams, and provide technical support, CICIG does not have the authority to issue arrest warrants or conduct searches, nor to independently bring criminal proceedings to trial.[17]  Instead, it may join cases only in a complementary capacity, and only after having received the consent of the Attorney General.[18]  To carry out its mandate, therefore, CICIG must collaborate closely with Guatemala’s Attorney General’s Office.

In addition, while the concept of using an international tribunal to address domestic violations is not new, and follows from the post-conflict examples of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, CICIG’s mandate is unique in that it addresses current acts of corruption instead of historic acts of war.  This situates it more as an extension of Guatemala’s law enforcement authorities, rather than as a body created to address past grievances, which has both raised questions of sovereignty and created tensions with the administration at whose discretion it exists.

CICIG’s Anticorruption Efforts

In its early years, CICIG’s investigations focused on politically-connected homicides and embezzlement by public officials, rather than on bribery and graft emanating from the private sector.[19]  After being appointed its Commissioner, Velásquez began to prioritize corruption and economic fraud.[20]  In 2015, investigations into a multi-million dollar customs fraud ring known as “La Línea” led to the arrest of 200 people, including former President Otto Pérez Molina and Vice-President Roxana Baldetti, who both subsequently resigned.[21] The office of former Attorney General Thelma Aldana worked closely with Commissioner Velásquez in investigating and prosecuting La Línea, an undertaking that required the collection and analysis of nearly ninety thousand intercepted telephone calls and six thousand emails.[22]  Beyond La Línea, other notable prosecutions have included separate embezzlement cases against ex-President Portillo, ex-Defense Minister Eduardo Arévalo Lacs, and General Enrique Ríos Sosa.[23]

In recent years, the growing capacity of CICIG and Guatemalan authorities to investigate financial corruption has affected the private sector as well.  Some key examples of enforcement actions taken against private individuals and organizations include Guatemala’s $18 million settlement with Odebrecht in relation to bribes paid to Guatemalan officials[24] and the prosecution of executives at two of the country’s largest banks, an executive at a telecommunications firm, the founding manager of mining firm Montana Exploradora, and members of the board of BANTRAB (Banco de los Trabajadores).[25]  Most recently, on October 9, 2018, and in spite of recent events, Guatemalan prosecutors backed by CICIG were able to obtain a conviction against Guatemala’s former vice-president, Roxana Baldetti, for more than 15 years on corruption charges relating to a multimillion dollar fraud in connection with a purported environmental project.[26]  The Odebrecht case is particularly noteworthy as an example of a complex, cross-border investigation.  The coordination of investigative efforts with Brazilian and U.S. law enforcement authorities, among others, including with respect to complex payments made through intermediaries and shell accounts at foreign banks,[27] marked a new level of sophistication in Guatemala’s prosecution of corruption.

In addition to supporting Guatemala’s prosecutors in their investigations, CICIG was also intended to foster the development of judicial and law enforcement institutions capable of investigating and prosecuting corruption and to empower these institutions to withstand political pressure by providing international support.  In keeping with these goals, CICIG has presented packages of recommended reforms to the Guatemalan legislature, disciplined or reported administrative or judicial personnel deemed corrupt or non-cooperative, and instituted a Special Prosecutors Office – operating within the Guatemalan Public Prosecutor’s office – composed of lawyers, investigators and law enforcement officials selected and trained by CICIG.[28]  This model has yielded some significant successes.  Indeed, one could argue that the statements by Attorney General Porras that she intends to continue investigating potential corruption in President Morales’s campaign finances, and the challenges to President Morales’s actions with respect to CICIG by the Guatemalan constitutional court, speaks to the increased independence of these institutions.

It is undisputed that the partnership between CICIG and Guatemalan authorities has significantly increased anti-corruption enforcement in Guatemala.  Moreover, the CICIG model has been influential beyond Guatemala.  Neighboring Honduras has implemented a structurally similar investigative unit, known as Misión de Apoyo contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras – or “MACCIH.”[29]  Like CICIG, MACCIH is headed by a foreign lead prosecutor, Brazilian Luiz Antonio Guimarães Marrey, and is internationally-backed.[30]  It also operates as a unit of the Honduran Attorney General’s office, thus placing special emphasis on the independence of the prosecutorial wing of the national government.

Recent Challenges for CICIG

CICIG’s dependence on Guatemalan justice institutions has also revealed the limitations of the model.  The high-profile prosecution of former Senior Prosecutor Álvaro Matus was marred by disagreements between CICIG and government prosecutors, who brought only two of the four charges CICIG recommended.[31]  Similarly, lawyers for ex-President Portillo successfully persuaded the trial court that his case fell outside CICIG’s mandate and that CICIG should be precluded from participating beyond the investigative phase.[32]

As discussed above, CICIG has also recently faced significant opposition from Guatemala’s sitting administration.  In August 2017, after Commissioner Velásquez and former Attorney General Aldana announced that there was evidence suggesting that President Morales may have accepted illicit funding in his 2015 election run, President Morales ordered Velásquez to leave Guatemala immediately.[33]  International criticism followed,[34] and the Guatemalan Constitutional Court suspended the presidential decision to expel Commissioner Velásquez.[35]  Subsequently, Commissioner Velásquez returned to Guatemala, and CICIG’s investigation continued.

On May 15, 2018, two days before she was due to leave office, Commissioner Velásquez and former Attorney General Aldana announced new corruption allegations against the Morales administration, alleging that a number of Guatemalan businessmen had provided illicit campaign financing to President Morales’ political party through “Novaservicios SA,” a marketing and communications firm.[36]  A number of individuals identified in these allegations later held a press conference accepting responsibility and stating that they had voluntarily provided documents and information to CICIG and government prosecutors.[37]

However, President Morales’s decision not to renew CICIG’s mandate, along with his decision to deny entry to Velásquez, CICIG’s leader, suggests that the fight against anti-corruption in Guatemala may have reached an inflection point.  While Attorney General Porras has brought the Novaservicios investigation – and the issue of President Morales’s immunity from criminal prosecution – before the Guatemalan Congress, CICIG’s ability to sustain the investigation over the next year before its mandate expires remains in serious question.

[1]       Andrew Hudson & Alexandra W. Taylor, The International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala: A New Model for International Criminal Justice Mechanisms, 8(1) J. of Int’l Crim. Just. 53 (2010); Call, supra note 3.

[2]       Steven Dudley & Felipe Puerta, Guatemala Accusations Amp Up Tensions Between Presidency, AG’s Office,  InSight Crime (May 16, 2018),

[3]       Steven Dudley & Felipe Puerta, 3 Ways to Measure Guatemala’s New Attorney General, InSight Crime (May 17, 2018),

[4]       Héctor Silva Ávalos, New Guatemala AG Puts Jimmy Morales in Her Crosshairs, InSight Crime (Aug. 14, 2018),

[5]       Dan trámite a solicitudes de antejuicio contra Jimmy Morales y Nineth Montenegro, Prensa Libra (Aug. 22, 2018); see also Sonia Perez D., Prosecutors seek to lift Guatemala president’s immunity, Star Trib. (Aug. 10, 2018), (clarifying that this is the third occasion on which the Guatemalan Attorney General’s office has, in conjunction with CICIG, sought to lift President Morales’s immunity).

[6]       The Trump administration has not issued any public statements against President Morales’s efforts to dismantle CICIG, despite the fact that the U.S. supplies 40% of CICIG’s funding.  See Why Is Trump Tacitly Supporting Corruption in Guatemala?, N.Y. Times (Sept. 21, 2018),  The U.S. also declined to sign a joint statement by the G13 donor group against the Morales administration’s recent actions concerning CICIG.  Kenneth Monzón, Sin Estados Unidos, el G13 lamenta decisión sobre Cicig y ofrece mediar, Prensa Libra (Sept. 5, 2018),  To the contrary, U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo’s September 6, 2018 press release “reiterated the United States’ support for Guatemalan sovereignty” and pledged the support of the U.S. “for a reformed CICIG and committed to continue working with Guatemala on implementing the reforms in the coming year.”  Press Release, Secretary Pompeo’s Call With Guatemala President Jimmy Morales, U.S. Dep’t of State (Sept. 6, 2018),; Sandra Cuffe, Guatemala’s Army Breaks Ranks With President Over Court Ruling, Al Jazeera (Oct. 1, 2018),

[7]       U.N.: Guatemala and Guterres Won’t Appoint CICIG Head Together, Telesur (Oct. 3, 2018),

[8]       A look at Guatemala’s UN anti-corruption agency, Associated Press (Aug. 28, 2017),

[9]       Hudson & Taylor, at 57.

[10]     Crutch to Catalyst? The Int’l Comm’n Against Impunity in Guatemala, Int’l Crisis Grp. (Jan. 29, 2016),

[11]     See Call; Against the Odds, at 3-4.

[12]     The threat to Central America’s prosecutors, The Economist (May 10, 2018),; Support to the extended mandate of the Int’l Comm’n Against Impunity in Guatemala, The European Commission (Mar. 2016),

[13]     Hudson & Taylor, at 55.

[14]     Id.

[15]     CICIG (Int’l Comm’n against Impunity in Guatemala), United Nations, (last visited Oct. 12, 2018).

[16]     Id.

[17]     See id.; The CICIG: An Innovative Instrument for Fighting Criminal Organizations and Strengthening the Rule of Law, Washington Office on Latin America, 10 (June 2015), (hereinafter “WOLA”); and Frequent Questions 11-15, CICIG (Apr. 10, 2018),

[18]     Hudson & Taylor, at 55; WOLA, at 10.

[19]     See Crutch to Catalyst? The Int’l Comm’n Against Impunity in Guatemala, Latin America Report Number 56, Int’l Crisis Grp. (Jan. 29 2016), 2-5.

[20]     Id. at 6.

[21]     Call, at 3.

[22]     Francisco Goldman, From President to Prison: Otto Pérez Molina and a Day for Hope in Guatemala, The New Yorker (Sept. 4, 2015),

[23]     Hudson & Taylor, at 55.

[24]     Guatemala says Odebrecht agrees to pay $17.9 million over bribes, Reuters (Jan. 24, 2018),

[25]     CICIG, June 2018 Newsletter (English), available at

[26]     Guatemala’s Former Vice-President Jailed for 15 Years on Corruption Charges, The Guardian (Oct. 9, 2018),

[27]     Odebrecht Caso (Fase 1), CICIG (Jan. 24, 2018),

[28]     Hudson & Taylor, at 68-71.

[29]     Parker Asman, Honduras Anti-Corruption Probe Implicates President, Opposition, InSight Crime (June 15, 2018),

[30]     Jeff Ernst & Elisabeth Malkin, In a Corruption Battle in Honduras, the Elites Hit Back, N.Y. Times (July 1, 2018),; see also id.

[31]     Hudson & Taylor, at 66.

[32]     Hudson & Taylor, at 66.

[33]     Guatemala president holds back in push to expel U.N. graft head, Reuters (Aug. 28, 2017),

[34]     Guatemala President Jimmy Morales under fire for UN expulsion, BBC News (Aug. 29, 2017),

[35]     Angelika Albaladejo, Guatemala Court Rules President Cannot Remove Anti-Corruption Head, InSight Crime (Aug. 30, 2017),

[36]     The businessmen accused of illicit financing are Felipe Antonio Bosch Gutiérrez, José Miguel Torrebiarte Novella, José Fraterno Vila, José Guillermo Castillo Villacorta, and Salvador Paíz del Carmen.  Dudley & Puerta, Guatemala Accusations Amp Up Tensions Between Presidency, AG’s Office.

[37]     Empresarios dan un paso al frente, aceptan hechos y asumen compromisos, La Hora (Apr. 19, 2018),