In July of 2016, Lucrecia Hernández Mack, a forty-two-year-old public-health advocate, became the first woman to head Guatemala’s Ministry of Health. Her background was in think tanks, not politics, and Mack was cautious about accepting the position. Her mother, the indigenous-rights activist Myrna Mack, had been assassinated by the Guatemalan military, in 1990, during the decades-long civil war, and the country’s newly elected President, a former television comedian named Jimmy Morales, was a controversial figure among Guatemalan progressives, owing to his conspicuously thin credentials. Many of Mack’s friends and associates warned her against joining his administration. Yet years of government mismanagement and corruption had led to a public-health crisis—hospitals and health clinics across the country were short on medications, supplies, and vaccines, and preventable illnesses were spreading—and Mack felt that she had no choice. Before taking the job, though, she extracted a promise from Morales that the ministry would be hers to run without interference.
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“Within the first week, it became clear just how deep the corruption ran in the ministry,” Mack told me recently. She and her staff discovered more than a thousand pending requests from politicians to give various ministry positions to friends, relatives, and associates. Public clinics were paying up to three times more for food and soap than they cost on the open market, because of inflated contracts with private sellers. For a decade, funds in the ministry’s annual budget had been allocated for a hospital in the department of Huehuetenango, in the western highlands, but all that existed of it were the outer walls. The actual hospital was never built.
Mack immediately filed complaints with both the Attorney General’s office and the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, known as the CICIG, an independent anti-corruption agency overseen by the United Nations and supported by the United States. Staffed with Guatemalan and international investigators, the group was founded in 2006, in an effort to root out a group of repressive state-security agencies that had formed during the civil war, which had ended ten years earlier, and it went on to help prosecute more than a hundred cases, leading to charges against nearly seven hundred people involved in more than sixty criminal networks nationwide. “The Guatemalan government could not clean itself up on its own,” Adriana Beltrán, of the Washington Office on Latin America, told me. “It needed the CICIG to help fix its institutions.” In 2015, Guatemala’s Attorney General, Thelma Aldana, working with the CICIG, charged President Otto Pérez Molina and Vice-President Roxana Baldetti with racketeering and fraud, and both resigned. (Pérez Molina is in jail awaiting trial; Baldetti, who was convicted last year, is serving a fifteen-year sentence.) Their resignations paved the way for the election of Morales, who ran as an outsider. His slogan was “Not corrupt, nor a thief.”
As Mack started to remake the Health Ministry, with assistance from the CICIG, she came under attack by politicians and businessmen who had profited under the old order. They accused her of embezzlement and nepotism and launched smear campaigns against her and her staff, online and in the media. “We went in knowing the work would be hard, and we still underestimated the force of the opposition,” she said. Morales was tolerant of Mack’s efforts at first—“he had a health crisis he needed us to fix,” she told me—but within months he and his family had come under investigation by the CICIG for campaign-finance violations and money laundering. He began to criticize the anti-corruption campaign as a usurpation of his power, and he distanced himself from Mack’s efforts in the ministry. In August, 2017, Morales announced that he was expelling the CICIG’s commissioner, a Colombian named Iván Velásquez, from the country, and Mack resigned.
Next month, Guatemala will hold a general election, and Mack is running for Congress under the banner of an anti-corruption party called Movimiento Semilla.“The lesson we learned at the ministry was that if you want to implement health policies, you need healthy institutions,” she said. Last year, Morales announced plans to curtail the CICIG’s operations, claiming that it had engaged in “selective criminal prosecution with an ideological bias.” He attempted to cancel the investigators’ visas and suspend their diplomatic credentials. When a Guatemalan court blocked him, Morales responded by attacking the judges and briefly detaining one of the commission’s investigators. In January, he tried to shut down the CICIG altogether, and the court intervened once again to stop him. Velásquez, the commissioner, remains barred from the country. The CICIG has continued to operate anyway, albeit in reduced form. Its mandate, which was renewed two years ago, is due to expire in September.
By the time the Presidential campaign began in full, earlier this year, seventy per cent of Guatemalans supported the CICIG, and one of the leading candidates for President was Thelma Aldana, who had worked closely with the group for the four years that she was Attorney General. Last year, she decided to forgo running for another term and, like Mack, she eventually joined Movimiento Semilla. Among the front-runners for President, Aldana was the only one to vow to support the CICIG and continue its mission.
The campaign against Aldana began even before she declared her candidacy. When Aldana left the Attorney General’s office, Felipe Alejos, the leader of a rival political party and the vice-president of the National Congress, filed a raft of lawsuits against her, alleging corruption and influence peddling. (Aldana had brought charges against Alejos when she was Attorney General.) According to the Salvadoran news site El Faro, Aldana had personally led some five hundred investigations into businessmen, drug traffickers, mayors, members of Congress, and government ministers during her tenure. Now some of them were trying to cripple her candidacy. There were accusations that she had overseen the improper purchase of a government building while in office and that she had overpaid cronies with public funds. Some of the claims (including the building purchase) were promptly disproved; others were harder to rebut because charges were brought under special proceedings, and Aldana was not permitted to publicly contest the evidence against her. Mack told me, “If I was in government for thirteen months, trying to clean house at the health ministry, and I made all the enemies that I did, then just imagine what it must be like for Aldana, who spent four years working with the CICIG.”
In March, while Aldana was in El Salvador for a meeting, a Guatemalan judge issued a warrant for her arrest, on charges of paying a consultant for a nonexistent job at a national university, when she was Attorney General. She denied any impropriety, but, because of the charges, her certification as a candidate was revoked. Earlier this month, the Constitutional Court upheld the suspension of her candidacy. She can appeal to the Supreme Court, but not in time to get a ruling before the elections, so the decision has effectively ended her Presidential bid. “This is an enormous step back,” Álvaro Montenegro, an activist who helped organize national protests against government corruption in 2015, told me. “It’s hard to know where we go from here.”
American politicians are not in the habit of paying much attention to what happens in Guatemala, but the recent developments should be cause for concern. For one thing, the United States bears some responsibility for the CICIG’s precarious standing and for the latest bout of impunity that has resulted. For the first decade of the CICIG’s existence, from 2006 to 2016, both Democrats and Republicans in Congress saw political corruption in Central America as a major driver of drug trafficking and migration to the southern U.S. border. During those years, the United States gave close to forty-five million dollars to CICIG, and the State Department defended its mandate against the opposition to it that arose in Guatemala. That began to change under the Trump Administration, however.
In late February, 2017, Morales and a group of political aides and influential businessmen met at a condominium in Guatemala City to devise a strategy to sully the CICIG’s reputation in the United States. Within a few months, this group had expanded to include members of the Guatemalan National Congress, and, according to an investigation by Nómada, a Guatemalan news site, they began paying tens of thousands of dollars each month to two American lobbying firms. One, Barnes & Thornburg, is managed by Robert Grand, who had been a major fund-raiser for the Indiana gubernatorial campaigns of Vice-President Mike Pence; the other, Greenberg Traurig, had multiple offices in Florida, the home state of Republican Senator Marco Rubio. The American hedge-fund manager Bill Browder had also taken interest in the CICIG and had mounted his own campaign to lobby members of Congress against it. A strong and vocal proponent of sanctions against Russia, Browder learned of a Russian family that fled to Guatemala after Russian banks had seized the family’s business. The CICIG launched an investigation into members of the family for alleged passport fraud, and they were later arrested and given lengthy prison terms. To Browder, this was proof that the CICIG was in league with Vladimir Putin. By May, 2018, congressional Republicans were holding hearings on potential investigatory abuses committed by the CICIG; in the Senate, Rubio and the Republican Mike Lee, of Utah, led a push to suspend U.S. aid to the group.
The State Department was also abandoning its previous position. That month, following the Trump Administration’s example, and despite international condemnation, Morales moved the Guatemalan Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Nikki Haley, then the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., travelled to Guatemala to personally thank Morales. The embassy move “helps explain our full-throated defense of Morales, even in the face of corruption charges and his efforts to abolish the CICIG,” a former State Department official told me. Morales’s rhetoric on how the CICIG had “overreached” in Guatemala was taking hold at the State Department, as a recent report in Foreign Policy documented. Another former State Department official told me that “there was a significant gap between how career people”—diplomats with expertise in the region—“saw the implementation of the U.S. anti-corruption program in Guatemala and how political appointees did.” The political appointees, who entered government with the Trump Administration, kept claiming that “the CICIG was a violation of Guatemalan sovereignty,” the official said. They eventually won out: the Americans remained quiet when Morales announced that the Guatemalan government would end the CICIG once its mandate officially lapsed.
All of this raises questions about American interests in the region. What does the Trump Administration want, exactly? Earlier this week, the acting Secretary of Homeland Security, Kevin McAleenan, travelled to Guatemala to sign a new security pact with the Guatemalan government, in an effort to curb rising emigration. McAleenan has maintained that the United States needs to address the “root causes” of migration through targeted aid, a position that is at odds with President Trump’s announcement, in March, that he will cut all foreign aid to three Central American countries. Either way, binational security compacts seem unpromising if the State Department is unwilling to call out the corruption of American partners.
One of the paradoxes of the U.S. reversal on the CICIG is that it directly undercuts the Administration’s goal of limiting immigration. Entrenched corruption—obvious impunity, in particular—is a widely recognized cause of emigration. Last month, more than a hundred thousand migrants were apprehended at the southern border while trying to enter the United States, most of them seeking asylum; the largest share of those people was from Guatemala. “Corruption is what prevents the state from forming and implement public, social, and economic policies that can improve the conditions of the population,” Lucrecia Hernández Mack told me. “When there aren’t highways or productive infrastructure, when we don’t have a health-care or education system in place that responds to the needs of the population, or that can even provide them with some measure of security . . . people are forced to look for better opportunities elsewhere, like in the U.S.”
In March, the CICIG partnered with Nómada and the Myrna Mack Foundation, a non-governmental organization based in Guatemala City, to produce a detailed report about “illicit networks and the political crisis” in Guatemala. The specific focus was on the Congress and how a “core group” of legislators voted in blocks to further private interests. According to the analysis, some two thousand federal contracts for a range of public spending projects, worth roughly 1.9 billion quetzales, were affected by corruption schemes between January, 2016, and April, 2017; that could mean anything from bribes to kickbacks or special deals. The regions with the highest rates of poverty and emigration did not receive the largest amounts of federal funding, but much of the money that did reach such regions was siphoned off, anyway. Huehuetenango, for instance, has the highest number of people leaving for the U.S. each year. In 2017, the federal government allocated three hundred and twenty-seven million quetzales to the department, fifty-four per cent of which was, according to the report, “captured” in some special-interest deal.
Thelma Aldana has yet to return to Guatemala, and the Presidential race continues without her. There are currently more than twenty candidates and no clear front-runner. The person expected to benefit most from her absence is Sandra Torres, a former First Lady who is in the lead in the most recent polls. The country’s current Attorney General has an open investigation into Torres, as well, but she had declared her candidacy before the charges were brought, and, by Guatemalan law, political candidates are immune from prosecution. At present, a hundred and fifty other candidates running for national office next month have been cited for campaign irregularities; some of them face charges ranging from receiving suspicious government contracts to drug trafficking. In Aldana’s case, a constitutional court ruled that the charges against her were filed before she declared her candidacy but were only made public afterward. The time line is obviously suspect. To Guatemalans, the muddled outcome comes as no surprise.