Guatemala's corruption should be at the top of Trump's agenda

The White House director of media affairs, Helen Aguirre Ferré, told a Guatemalan news radio program that G...

Posted: Aug 9, 2018 1:52 PM
Updated: Aug 9, 2018 1:52 PM

The White House director of media affairs, Helen Aguirre Ferré, told a Guatemalan news radio program that Guatemala's decade-long anti-corruption drive is "absolutely paramount" to improving the conditions there that contribute to migration to the United States.

Up until recently, Guatemala's anti-corruption probes have had broad bipartisan support in the US Congress. But with attacks ramping up against the investigations in Guatemala, and through lobbying in Washington, concerns are growing that President Donald Trump's administration and several prominent Republicans in the US Congress could be swayed to stop supporting the drive.

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If Trump and members of Congress weaken US backing for Guatemala's fight against corruption, it will only worsen the purported immigration crisis they say they want to solve.

The number of migrants from Guatemala and its Central American neighbors El Salvador and Honduras entering the United States has in fact grown in recent years. So far this year, more Guatemalan families and unaccompanied children have been apprehended at the US border than in all of 2017.

Endemic corruption in Guatemala directly fuels the conditions that have forced tens of thousands of migrants to flee the country seeking safety and stability, often in the United States. With Guatemalan elites allegedly funneling government funds into their own pockets through fraud, bribery, money laundering, and irregular contracting of services, there has not been adequate investment in health care, education and other basic services. Public trust in the government has been decimated, while criminal networks and gangs have found boundless opportunities to expand and co-opt officials.

Corruption is also a key reason why Guatemala's government has been incapable of addressing the violence plaguing its communities or punishing offenders for crimes, which migrants often cite as reasons for fleeing to the United States.

Since the United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (known as the CICIG) started work in 2007, CICIG investigators and Guatemalan prosecutors have successfully brought down criminal networks involving the richest and most powerful entrenched elites in the country who for decades have fleeced the government coffers, allowing poverty and insecurity to grow.

But powerful Guatemalan politicians and businessmen accused in the investigations have been repeatedly trying to undermine the CICIG and stop the investigations against them and their allies, including through recent overtures to Washington.

Among them is Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales. Although Morales ran his 2016 presidential campaign on the platform "not corrupt, not a thief," Guatemala's Attorney General's Office has since accused him and many in his inner circle of a range of corruption crimes.

In April, Guatemala's Attorney General's Office confirmed that they are investigating whether Morales might have received illicit campaign financing, including from a known drug trafficker. Morales has denied any wrongdoing. But in response, he began attacking the investigations at every turn, perhaps based on fears he might end up like his predecessor Otto Pérez Molina, who was ousted, jailed and awaits trial on allegations, which he denies, of involvement in a wide-reaching network of corruption schemes.

According to CICIG head Iván Velásquez Gómez, Morales' support for the commission has "ceased to exist" since he and his family members were accused. Last August, Morales tried and failed to expel Velásquez. But he may be having more success in his overtures to the United States.

For years, Morales and his allies have been lobbying hard in Washington against the anti-corruption drive. Recently, the Morales government and its allies have even taken steps to hire a US-based firm linked to Vice President Mike Pence to strengthen their relationship with Trump's administration.

Morales' administration has recently supported or turned a blind eye to several of Trump's controversial policies, particularly when it comes to Israel and immigration, which could be an attempt to curry favor and potentially support to undermine the anti-corruption investigations.

Morales recently followed Trump's lead in moving his country's embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Just days after the US embassy was relocated in mid-May, Guatemala became the first country in the world to follow suit.

Morales is an evangelical Christian and he and his administration have said that the embassy move was a show of support for Israel. But the mode of travel used to get there points to a deepening of ties with Trump's allies. Morales' foreign minister publicly acknowledged in May that the Guatemalan president and his delegation traveled to Israel for the opening in a jet owned by US magnate and major Trump campaign financier Sheldon Adelson.

Guatemala's Attorney General's Office is currently investigating whether or not the use of Adelson's plane by officials could be considered a bribe. But according to the foreign minister, Adelson did not cover the costs of the trip and the Morales administration's legal team determined beforehand that the use of the plane was not illegal. Adelson's representatives did not respond to a request for comment.

But looking at the opening ceremony attendees suggests an overlap for Morales between his developing relationship with Trump's inner circle and his desire to dim scrutiny of corruption accusations against him and his family. Morales' brother and son both had to be temporarily released from house arrest for the occasion. The two are in the midst of a trial where they stand accused of fraud. They both deny any wrongdoing. Samuel Morales admits to facilitating the falsification of receipts to account for thousands of dollars defrauded from Guatemala's national property registry as a "favor" to his nephew, but said he did not benefit from the scheme.

Given the fact that Trump has repeatedly denounced investigations of him and his allies as a "witch hunt," it's easy to see how Morales could convince Trump's administration that the investigations in Guatemala are similarly "rigged," in spite of clear evidence to the contrary.

Beyond the Israel embassy move, Morales also appears to be throwing Trump a bone on immigration policies, likely motivated in part by concerns that Trump's administration could cut US aid to Guatemala, which the US President has threatened.

When it comes to US immigration policies that are ineffective at tackling root causes and harm Guatemalans, Morales has more often than not turned a blind eye. In the wake of the "zero tolerance" policy that led to the separation of babies and children from their parents, Morales stayed quiet for weeks, then said he "respected" the policy. Morales only condemned it after facing intense backlash from Guatemalans and in tweets from US Congresswoman Norma Torres.

Even then, the foreign minister for Morales' administration claimed after visiting several US immigrant detention centers that she "could see that they really treat the children very well" and insisted photographs of migrant children in cages were "fake." While US politicians and media outlets have discussed how best to describe what the photos depict, with some taking issue with the word "cages" to characterize the enclosed holding areas made of chain link fences -- the photos themselves are very real.

Although the Trump and Morales administrations both say they want to solve the causes and effects of Guatemalan migrants seeking refuge in the United States, it is concerning to see them building rapport around controversial policies that could potentially be leveraged into support against CICIG.

A growing contingent of prominent Republican members of Congress have recently begun to flip on the issue, with some questioning the CICIG's legitimacy and claiming without evidence that the UN-backed body has been corrupted. Congressional hearings have been held and Senator Marco Rubio, who calls Morales a "great friend," even capitalized on the moment to put a hold on US aid for the CICIG. The US government has provided nearly half of the CICIG's budget since its inception. A decision to withhold these funds could effectively shut down the commission, unless other donors step in.

A State Department spokesperson recently told McClatchy that any reforms to the CICIG "should only serve to strengthen the commission," but it's hard to see how changing the mandate one year before its expires would do anything but disrupt the commission's efforts to get corruption and impunity in check. Any changes to the mandate would have to be approved by the United Nations General Assembly and Guatemala's Congress. With one in five of these Congress members under investigation for corruption allegations, it's unlikely they would support a stronger mandate, given their recent efforts to pass a so-called "impunity pact" and protect Morales' immunity from prosecution.

Morales and other Guatemalan elites accused of corruption are likely thrilled that the previously solid US support for the CICIG is being dented by new opposition in both the White House and Congress. But among Guatemalans, the anti-corruption body is the country's most trusted institution.

If the Trump administration and the US Congress truly want to address gang violence and reduce the number of Central American migrants turning to the United States as a safe haven, ending corruption should be at the top of their agenda. If recent developments are any indication, it looks like that's unfortunately far from the case.

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