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Mar 21, 2016 | Publications

Introduction | Executive Summary

The report outlines the background to the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG)’s creation, explains its mandate and discusses prevailing obstacles in the commission’s work. Based on this analysis, the authors provide recommendations to Guatemalan institutions on how to sustain the commission’s work, as well as to the international community on its contributory role in the process.

Guatemala experienced armed conflict for 36 years, which finally came to an end in 1996. This left the country vulnerable to violence, inequality and poverty. The actors in the conflict were clandestine groups controlled by members of the military, intelligence, and police, known as Cuerpos Ilegales y Aparatos Clandestinos de Seguridad (CIACS). These networks continue to destabilize the state through their desire for economic power, warranting the need for comprehensive reforms and investigations to end impunity. The government of Guatemala signed an agreement with the United Nations creating the International Commission Against Impunity, which began operating in 2007. The fight against corruption has become a priority under Guatemala’s new President, Jimmy Morales.

The fight against corruption 

The CICIG is a politically independent body funded by a trust fund administered by the UN Development Programme (UNDP), in particular contributions by the United States, European Union, Sweden and others. The United Nations Department for Political Affairs (UNDPA) provides political monitoring and advice. In addition, the UN Secretary-General is responsible for nominating the commissioner. Although it was primarily mandated to investigate the CIACS, the commission has become an important contributor in recommending police reforms, creating witness protection programmes, denouncing public employees who interfere in its work, and acting as a third-party in proceedings. It has additionally taken on a capacity-building role by working together with national prosecutors and police, providing them with technical expertise to enhance their skills.

The early stages of the commission’s work saw challenges such as the acquittal of former President Portillo of embezzling $15 million, failures in other high-profile cases, as well as political disputes over the appointment of attorney generals. Nevertheless, Guatemalan citizens view it as an effective tool in combating violent crime and corruption. This has risen from activities ranging from tightening gun control laws and creating rules for the use of wiretaps, to charges against former government and security officials.

Following the appointment of its current commissioner, Iván Velazqués, in 2013, support for the commission has been bolstered by significant accomplishments. Having served as an investigating judge on Colombia’s Supreme Court, Velazqués had vast experience in tackling corruption caused by networks between politicians and paramilitaries. In 2015, the commission arrested nearly 200 officials for corruption, including a multi-million scheme to secure illegal discounts on custom duties. This momentum culminated in evidence against President Otto Pérez Molina and led to an unprecedented social awakening among the Guatemalan population and fueled a peaceful movement for justice reform. The report highlights that the anti-corruption wave united a broad range of actors in Guatemalan society ranging from businesses to labor unions and indigenous peoples. Their efforts led to Pérez Molina’s resignation and the election of TV comedian Jimmy Morales as President.

Challenges to the commission’s work

Despite the fact that the CICIG finds itself in a position of power and is Guatemala’s most trusted institution with the support of 66% of Guatemalan society, the report underscores that its effectiveness is threatened by persisting institutional shortcomings. The authors note that the civic movement has risen as a result of frustration with corruption and fraud rather than concrete demands for reform. Likewise, President Morales has thus far not provided proposals how to guarantee the independence of judges and prosecutors, create stricter campaign funding laws and enhance the effectiveness of the police.

The highest priority is in the judiciary where the selection of judges for the Supreme Court remains opaque, together with a lack in the regulation of careers and insufficient prosecutorial independence. The public prosecutor’s office lacks skilled litigators, proper training for judges and more importantly remains overloaded and absent in many parts of the country. The lack of resources stems from inefficient fiscal and tax policies, particularly extremely low tax burdens compared to other countries in Latin America. This has also negatively impacted the functioning of a professional investigative police force, which is currently lacking. President Morales has proposed to dismantle the National Police Reform Commission due to a lack of results andprogress in security sector reform, but the report underlines he has failed to provide an alternative strategy for reform.

Recommendations – building on the CICIG’s success

Based on the above observations, the authors conclude that it is crucial for the Guatemalan government to assume ownership in the fight against corruption by approving delayed justice and security reforms as well as strengthening domestic institutions through improved financial management. With the CICIG’s mandate set to expire in 2017, the authors stress that international assistance cannot be indefinite, but recommend that the United States, the European Union and its members states, and other international donors continue to provide the commission with necessary resources to finish its work.

The authors call on the Guatemalan government to adopt necessary legislation to professionalize prosecutors and judges, implement reforms to make the selection process more transparent and transform civilian police into a professional entity. In order to facilitate this process the Guatemalan Congress should work across party lines to devise a strategy for reform implementation, tighten campaign-financing rules to avoid corruption and reconvene the working group on justice reform to pool experts from the judiciary, Public Ministry, and CICIG to create initiatives to strengthen judicial competence and independence, and provide additional training for judges.

Finally, the report acknowledges that the CICIG provides a valuable model that could be applied in other countries struggling with similar issues, and that international donors should encourage this. The success of the commission under Velazqués demonstrates the cross-country value of this mechanism and highlights the importance of appropriate professional knowledge. The authors highlight that the Organization of American States has already signed an agreement in January 2016 to create a similar body in Honduras. The Mission to Support the Fight Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH) will also see an international presence, as it will be led by internationally recognized jurists of high levels of competence, who will work with state institutions and civil society in tackling impunity.

Moreover, such a mechanism could provide hope for stability in neighboring El Salvador, dubbed as the “most violent country in the world” with suspicions of extrajudicial killings committed by the police and military. Although the UN Office on Drugs and Crime has recently established an anti-corruption program this body will not enjoy the same investigative powers as the CICIG. The establishment of a body using the CICIG as a model could therefore provide hope to address the impunity that destabilizes countries in the region. At the same time, as noted throughout this article, national ownership of the fight against impunity is a key component for long-term success. Therefore, although the creation of more CICIG-like bodies is a positive step, it must be ensured that such bodies launch the necessary momentum for a long-term eradication of impunity in the judicial sector.


Tereza Steinhüblova is a Centre for Security Governance intern and a recent graduate of the University of St Andrews with an M.Litt in Peace and Conflict Studies. She has previously interned with non-governmental and diplomatic organizations in the UN system and her main research interests include international security, post-conflict reconstruction, disarmament, and natural resource governance.