The Ongoing Persistence of Corruption in Guatemalan Politics

Eli Berman

September, 2017

Members of the riot control unit of the Guatemalan National Civilian Police in action during the visit of President George Bush in Guatemala

Members of the riot control unit of the Guatemalan National Civilian Police in action during the visit of President George Bush in Guatemala


The signing of the Peace Accords on December 29, 1996 was a turning point in Guatemalan history, marking the end of a 36-year civil war. The war caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people, some of whom lost their lives to brutal acts of genocide. By the turn of the 21st century, Guatemalan institutions, particularly the judicial system, were severely weakened. At the same time, violent gangs such as M-18 and MS-13 gained prominence in Guatemala. As a result, Guatemala is currently one of the most dangerous countries in Latin America, and its capital, Guatemala City, is among the most dangerous places in the entire world. The prevalence of organized crime, combined with a notoriously ineffective judicial system, has allowed corruption to steadily thrive among political elites since the end of the civil war.

Alfonso Portillo, the President of Guatemala from 2000 to 2004, perpetrated the first major instance of corruption in the post-civil war era. During his time as president, Portillo accepted $2.5 million in bribes from Taiwan in exchange for diplomatically recognizing the controversial island. Only twenty-two countries formally recognize Taiwan, and its independence from China has been a longstanding international conflict; Portillo actively contributed to it by accepting bribes in exchange for diplomatic recognition. Portillo was imprisoned in Guatemala in 2010, but was extradited to the United States in 2013, as he laundered the $2.5 million through American banks. He was released from prison in early 2015, and has returned to Guatemala.

In late 2006, The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, more commonly known by its Spanish acronym, ‘CICIG’, was established. CICIG was created with the support of the United Nations on a request from the Guatemalan government to address its inability to combat organized crime and institutional corruption. CICIG operates independently from local political authorities, and works alongside the office of Guatemala’s Attorney General. While it is staffed and funded by foreigners, CICIG is subject to Guatemalan law.[viii] It has been one of the world’s most successful anti-corruption initiatives, remaining at the forefront of Guatemala’s fight for rule of law and putting an end to long-standing corruption among political elites. Despite consistently facing harassment, attempts at defamation, and even death threats, CICIG can be credited for many successful anti-corruption investigations, including those involving former presidents Álvaro Colom and Otto Pérez Molina.

Álvaro Colom won the presidency in 2007, after one of the most violent elections in Guatemalan history, in which over fifty party supporters and local candidates were killed. Under Colom’s reign, two interior ministers were indicted on corruption charges, and four consecutive leaders of the National Police were ousted as a result of alleged corruption. Furthermore, Carlos Castresana, the former head of CICIG in Guatemala, resigned from his position in 2010 after Colom appointed an Attorney General who was known to have ties to organized crime. By giving multiple known criminals positions in his staff for fear of violent repercussions, it is evident that Colom was unable to dismantle the deeply institutionalized criminal networks among Guatemala’s political elites.

Corruption at the highest levels of Guatemalan politics only worsened after Colom’s tenure. Otto Pérez Molina, Colom’s successor, and Roxana Baldetti, the former vice president, were implicated in a high-profile CICIG investigation. Elected in 2012, Pérez Molina and Baldetti allegedly took part in a scheme where companies would import products at lower customs taxes in exchange for money. The scheme became known as “La Linea” (‘the line’), named after a telephone hotline that businesses could call in order to orchestrate these bribes. La Linea allegedly generated $3.8 million in bribes between May 2014 and April 2015, with Pérez Molina and Baldetti each collecting a modest $800 000.

Tens of thousands of Guatemalans took to the streets to protest these allegations, forcing Baldetti to resign in April 2015. The widespread protests continued for months, and after his own party began to turn against him, Pérez Molina stepped down in September 2015. Although he denied any wrongdoing, he was sent to jail hours after his resignation. Pérez Molina, Baldetti, and several of their closest acquaintances, including the former head of Guatemala’s National Congress, continue to wait trial for their alleged involvement in La Linea.
            Frustrated with the political status quo, Guatemalans elected Jimmy Morales in late 2015 – a former television comedian with no prior political experience. His success is largely attributed to the fact that he was viewed as a political outsider. During the campaign, Morales’ primary political opponent faced his own corruption allegations that undermined his credibility, swaying momentum further in Morales’ direction.Indeed, this is a strangely familiar rise to power.

Displaying just how prominent corruption in Guatemalan politics is, Morales’ campaign slogan was “neither corrupt, nor a thief”. Despite running on an anti-corruption platform and initially expressing support for CICIG, Morales’ attitudes have changed drastically since being elected. In late August of this year, CICIG announced an investigation into Morales’ political party over campaign finance irregularities. These allegations include the acceptance of illegal funding during his campaign, and failing to report anonymous campaign contributions. In an unexpected response, Morales ordered Iván Velásquez, the current leader of CICIG, to leave the country. The United Nations has condemned Morales’ declaration and the Constitutional Court, Guatemala’s highest-ranking court, has temporarily blocked the expulsion.

In early September, Morales announced legislation that would diminish campaign finance rules and allow criminals serving sentences less than ten years to be released from prison in exchange for a small fee. This legislation is particularly troublesome, as CICIG has called campaign finance “the original sin” of the Guatemalan political system, and organized crime is a prevalent issue in Guatemala. The legislation has garnered vast opposition in Guatemalan society, and the Constitutional Court has temporarily suspended its implementation.

The proposed legislation and attempted ouster of CICIG’s leader have sparked widespread outrage among Guatemalans, as many have taken to social media and mobilized in the streets, showing overwhelming support for CICIG. Guatemalans have shown their ability in the past to oppose authoritarianism and corruption through mobilization; Morales could soon find himself in the same position as Pérez Molina.

The people of Guatemala are fed up with decades of corruption in their government, stemming from a judicial system that has been historically ineffective. Characterized by one expert on Guatemala as a “constitutional crisis”, the future of the country rests in the ability of the Constitutional Court to remain impartial. Over the next few weeks, the strength of democracy in Guatemala will be truly tested, and the world will be watching.