The Role of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG)

Alfonso Carillo, Advanced Leadership Program, Harvard

  • What are CIACS?

CIACS is the acronym in Spanish for Cuerpos Ilegales y Aparatos Clandestinos de Seguridad, in English, “Illegal Security Groups and Clandestine Security Organizations”. 

Guatemala’s thirty-six year civil war laid the groundwork for many criminal organizations. These organizations collectively known as CIACS are still operational. They assist criminals in drug trafficking, illegal adoptions, false passport production and contraband. Their connection to the private side security services in addition to their understanding of how to penetrate and corrupt the government make them useful partners and potent individual actors in the underworld.

Although the CIACS had an ideological beginning in the early eighties, they have long since shed their political motivations and ideological raison de être. The CIACS adapted quickly to the new circumstances of civil society. They have come to serve new elites, found new partners and organized new enterprises. Some CIACS are permanent, others are extremely flexible and can be grouped for certain activities and then disappear altogether while their members are rotated. Some have adopted outward legal forms, while others remain strictly clandestine. Yet others have taken on far more complex structures with far reaching political or commercial objectives, and even replicate a State in miniature. UN mission MINUGUA repeatedly recommended the investigation and dismantling of the CIACS in 24 separate reports prepared from 1993 through to 2004. The Guatemala authorities remained imperturbable

2. CICIG’s Accomplishments

CICIG has been a vital ally to Guatemalan victims of impunity and prosecutors of the Public Ministry (the Guatemalan equivalent to the Public Prosecutor’s Office), acting as an anchor for rule-of-law issues and as a catalyst for judicial reform. It has gained the respect of Guatemalan interlocutors in government, the police and in civil society.   

Cases.  CICIG’s efforts showed Guatemalan citizens that properly trained and resourced investigators can attack the high-levels of impunity that undermine citizen confidence in the government. CICIG has, with its Public Ministry partners, implicated 33 criminal structures and 161 government officials in its 204 investigations through to 2014. CICIG has a vital function in assisting CICIG  in dismantling the CIACS. At no time in its history has CICIG been more active in cases with the potential to positively alter the rule of law trajectory in Guatemala, making a strong case for another two-year extension.  

Some recent highlights:

         CICIG investigates the highest ranks of current and former police, government, and justice officials. One of its most notable achievements was holding former President Alfonso Portillo accountable for misappropriation of funds and money laundering. Portillo escaped charges in Guatemala, but the case lead to a 2013 extradition to the United States to serve time for laundering $70 million in US banks. 

         CICIG went after two “untouchable” criminals in 2014: Byron Lima and Haroldo Mendoza. On the eve of a hearing to consider the prison release of convicted murderer Byron Lima, a CICIG investigation announced on September 3 ensured that he would face charges of running extortion and other criminal enterprises from prison. The case also charges prison director Edgar Camargo and other former prison officials. CICIG investigated Haroldo Mendoza, the head of the Mendoza criminal organization, and nine cronies on November 20. More than 220 police and army personnel participated in the arrest of the last remaining narco-criminal family without a high-level arrest. 

         CICIG also investigated corrupt officials in the judicial and congressional branches. On October 9, 2014, CICIG opened a case against Appeals Court Justice Erick Gustavo Santiago de Leon, among others, who allegedly negotiated a payoff between $1 to more than $2 million to reduce a fine against a business from about $12 million to about $387,000. In a separate case, on October 17, 2014, CICIG accused influential Congressman Gudy Rivera of attempting to coerce a decision from a judge in exchange for ruling party backing for her appeals court candidacy, implying conversely that a negative ruling would ruin her candidacy.

Policy Recommendations. CICIG presented two sets of legislative reform packages and has backed other initiatives related to its mandate. The recommendations have made an impact on public debate. Most of them have been taken up by Guatemalan lawmakers, and some have been adopted, with considerable benefits to Guatemalan rule of law. Some highlights:

         The Law against Organized Crime, Decree 21-2006 of Congress, and its amendments, Decree 23-2009 of Congress, included numerous CICIG recommendations. Most notably, the laws provide protection to criminals that share information with prosecutors and the video-conferencing of witness testimony, both of which have been crucial tools in building cases to dismantle criminal organizations.  

         The Law on Criminal Jurisdiction in High-Risk Matters, Decree 21-2009 of Congress, was based on a CICIG proposal that protects the identities of judges, prosecutors, defendants, and witnesses at the greatest risk. The law paved the way for a flurry of cases that have made High-Risk Courts the bane of organized crime.

         CICIG is organizing a series of 2015 roundtables to develop judicial sector reforms that promises suggestions to improve the controverted court selection process and judicial career path. It also plans groundbreaking reports about illicit campaign financing, violence against women, trafficking in persons, and criminal infiltration of customs in 2015.

Technical Assistance. CICIG’s technical advice and assistance projects include training police and prosecutors in corruption and money laundering investigations, training for 48 graduates of the National Civil Police Academy for witness protection programs, and assistance with the establishment and equipping of a telephone tapping system used in sensitive investigations. From 2014 to 2014, CICIG also supported the transformation of the Public Ministry's Criminal Analysis Section, increasing its staff from 12 to 130, creating four specialized divisions, and establishing, for the first time, compartmentalized databases that can be shared with police and prosecutors.

3.  Views on whether they have been able to end impunity

The problem of impunity in Guatemala is of vast proportions. Highly significant progress was made in the struggle against impunity under the leadership of Carlos Castresana and equally significant achievements can be attributed to Ivan Velasquez’ headship of CICIG. 

The struggle against impunity does not depend exclusively on investigation and prosecution, however. The factors that cause continued impunity in Guatemala are numerous. All three State branches must be involved if impunity is to be curtailed definitively. It is thus important for the Legislative to approve laws that provide a working platform for the Public Ministry and the Courts. It is important for central government to allocate adequate resources to the Public Ministry and Judicial Branch. And it is of utmost importance for the Justice System to be independent, impartial, staffed with highly competent professionals and free of corruption.

It is vital to understand that in Guatemala there are a number of power groups and criminal organizations that have infiltrated and/or corrupted the Legislative, the Executive and particularly the Justice System. Many of these organizations are multinational organizations with nearly unlimited resources. 

A particularly grave instance of how these groups infiltrate State institutions became apparent during last year’s process of selection and election of justices of the Supreme Court and of the Court of Appeals. The process was carried out in violation of the requirements and procedures established by law designed to guarantee the impartiality and independence of the Judicial Branch and despite international and generalized public opposition to such violations as manifested in the press, in legal action taken by civil sector associations and by individual citizens in order to curb illegalities and undue influence from political pressure groups during the nomination and election process. The justices took office after the Court of Constitutionality failed to invalidate the selection and election processes in spite of their many vices and widespread public protest and concern evinced by international observers. On September 27, 2014, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights reiterated its concerns in connection to the process, and on October 8, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers recommended the repetition of the selection and election process because of the ultimate impact that an irregularly conducted process would have on judicial impartiality and independence. The process was not repeated. 

Ultimately, this means that through the irregularly elected justices and through the judges appointed in turn by these justices, some power groups will have more control and influence than all State institutions put together. A Justice System that lacks independent, impartial, well trained and honest judges and justices ensures continued corruption and impunity of Legislative and Executive branch irregularities. Guatemala is, in consequence, deprived of the rule of law. The System of Justice ends up operating for the benefit of those power groups the influence of which was instrumental in the appointment of corrupt justices.

The problem is widespread, of vast proportions and has tremendous implications. Alone, Guatemala is helpless. Only a multinational effort and the support of the international community will be able to eradicate the negative forces in existence in Guatemala today. We cannot expect the citizens of Guatemala to end impunity while the forces causing impunity are transnational criminal organizations with the ability to influence and impact the institutions of justice. We cannot expect Guatemalan institutions to put an end to impunity while the forces continue to infiltrate and corrupt and thus weaken the very institutions that are supposed to guarantee justice and put an end to impunity.

Guatemala needs the assistance of the International Community to ensure that CICIG remains in Guatemala and that the procedure for the selection and election of judges is repeated as recommended last year by UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers.

Impunity will not be eradicated while the System of Justice lacks independent, impartial and competent judges.. Guatemalan citizens are unable to do this alone. Without international support, the Guatemalan problem can only deteriorate further and, what is more, will continue to spread throughout Guatemala and into neighboring countries. Impunity is contagious. It is in the interest of the international community as a whole that these power groups and mammoth criminal organizations are deterred and prevented from growing and spreading further. And it is worthwhile to ask whether the United Nations will be able to comply with its worldwide peacekeeping mission if these criminal organizations continue growing and spreading.

CICIG is needed to continue battling against forces that are substantially stronger than the local authorities who lack the elements and resources needed to fight against them. In addition to its duties of investigation and prosecution, CICIG has supported the fight against impunity with recommendations for legislative reforms; it has been outspoken in publicly listing judges and justices who are known to be corrupt and has participated vocally in signaling irregularities in the last process of selection of candidates and election of justices to the Supreme Court of Justice and Courts of Appeals. CICIG has been an invaluable factor in the struggle against impunity in Guatemala. But CICIG is still needed in Guatemala.

4. What lessons should be learned from this?

Perhaps the first point that should be underlined is that organized crime is not static and does not remain localized. It is a problem of gargantuan proportions that spreads and takes over countries and systems.

Secondly, the most basic human rights of the citizens of any country with the level of impunity we have in Guatemala, where organized crime has multiplied exponentially, are severely restricted.

Thirdly, continued support from the international community in its struggle against impunity through CICIG is vital to Guatemala. It is critical that such support should include continued protection of immunity deriving from the United Nations for CICIG and all its employees. If the mandate of CICIG is not renewed is would also be fundamental to consider a plan of support for all Guatemalan citizens who have worked with CICIG, lest a serious problem is caused to those citizens and their families.

Guatemala has become a mature nation to the extent it has understood its incapacity to deal with impunity alone. It can develop further only by understanding its continued need of international assistance from bodies like CICIG for the implementation of the rule of law and in order to recover its sovereignty from those power groups who pillage the country and have smeared our nation with crime and corruption. It has been foolhardy to claim international interference into national sovereignty when sovereignty has already been compromised from the inside to the extent that it has been taken over by power groups supported by CIACS and infiltrated by criminal structures with the complicity and backing of many corrupt government officials and justices.

The problem of Guatemala is beyond the capacity of action of Guatemalan citizens. Moreover, it is not simply a matter of duty for Guatemalans. It is a matter of both interest and duty for the International Community as well. Without the full support and intervention of the International Community there is not shred of hope of a solution. CICIG is the first step that has been taken with palpable effects both as far as the Guatemalan citizenry and the International Community are concerned. CICIG requires continued and increased international support and resources. Such support and resources will help CICIG and Guatemala to put an end to impunity and corruption, and therefore, in the long run, they assist the International Community as well. 

Fourthly, an International Court for Central America to deal with cases of corruption and crimes against humanity, duly integrated with independent, impartial and protected justices should also be considered as a viable alternative to the current Judicial System. 

CICIG cannot resolve the problem alone. The establishment of such an International Court endowed with independent, impartial and competent justices together with CICIG assisting the Public Ministry with the task of prosecution would probably be the most effective route to put an end to corruption and impunity.