CICIG: legacy, challenges, and lessons for future anti-corruption mechanisms

By Tony Castellanos*

Guatemala’s fragile security and justice systems experienced short-lived improvements in the fight against corruption and impunity. The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG, by its Spanish acronym) was established after an agreement by the United Nations at the request of the Guatemalan government and eventually ratified by the legislature in the wake of a high-profile police scandal in 2007. Funded by donor countries and stakeholder organizations and headed by three different commissioners, the CICIG was given investigative powers with the objective to dismantle illegal bodies and clandestine security apparatuses (CIACS) as well as political-economic networks that pursue collusion with corrupt state officials.

A legacy mechanism

As part of its original mandate, the CICIG did not have prosecutorial powers, nor it could execute raids, arrests, or wire taps on its own[1]. To be clear, the commission was intended to operate as querellante adhesivo (co-plaintiff) and support the Public Prosecutor’s Office in conformity with Guatemala’s Code of Criminal Procedure. Overall, the CICIG supported judges and prosecutors from the Public Ministry in filling more than 120 cases that led to an estimate of 400 convictions. It has been assessed that the commission’s efficiency rate was close to 85 percent, well above the general average of other Guatemalan prosecutors.

Eventually, the commission became an indispensable mechanism to strengthen an environment marked by weak institutions, initiating a new era of sophisticated investigations. One of its first contributions was to push for the creation of a dedicated division within the prosecutorial service (Fiscalía Especial Contra la Impunidad, FECI) to be its domestic partner on prosecutions[2]. Together with FECI and other allies, the CICIG pushed for legal reforms that enabled the use of phone records, lawful surveillance, and plea deals, thus achieving the systematization of CIACS modus operandi. Through joint efforts by the CICIG and the FECI, the country improved its witness protection system and created special courts in Guatemala City to protect judges from organized crime. These efforts contributed to a steady 53 percent decline in national murder rate between 2009 and 2019 and a 11 percent decrease in impunity rate for violent crimes between 2008 and 2016, making the CICIG one of the most trusted public institutions in the country[3].

A widely experienced success and steadfast support from the UN gained momentum for Guatemala’s courts to open investigations against several presidents. In 2015, joint investigations by the CICIG and the Guatemalan Public Prosecutor’s Office unveiled collusion between the Pérez Molina administration and high-ranking officials in a customs corruption ring known as La Línea, a scheme that generated millions of dollars annually. This investigation prompted the resignation of sitting President Otto Pérez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti, both sentenced to prison.

Two years later, the CICIG exposed evidence that President Jimmy Morales, who was initially supportive of the commission, and his party, the Frente de Convergencia Nacional, accepted illegal campaign financing after failing to provide all monthly and bimonthly financial reports to the Tribunal Supremo Electoral (Supreme Electoral Tribunal)[4]. President Morales’ hostility escalated after CICIG initiated investigations against his son and brother for fraud and embezzlement. The Morales administration declared commissioner Iván Velásquez persona non grata and did not to renew the CICIG’s mandate evoking its alleged participation in abuse of authority and acts against the Constitution. The agreement between the UN and Guatemala expired in September 2019.

A number of costly challenges

As a hybrid mechanism, the CICIG had a few shortcomings. The commission experienced multiple challenges in accessing state information sources with official institutional data. This was in part a result of lack of recognition in its creation agreement, which failed to rightfully authorize the CICIG to collect necessary information and request collaboration from any official or administrative authority from state agencies and their autonomous entities[5]. In this sense, initiating effective collaboration processes represented a painstaking effort since the commission did not count with an acceptance criterion or a previous case history to base its criminal investigations.

The CICIG was incapable to maintain continuous international financial support. As a short-term mechanism, the commissioner and other leaders had little certainty regarding support from donor countries and stakeholders in the long run. And although the commission’s operational budged for its 200-person staff was set at around $15 million annually, a relatively inexpensive number, much of its international funding was lost over time. Part of this can blamed to the commission’s inability to maintain relationships with all sides in different political settings.

The CICIG undermined the magnitude of policy changes the switch to the Trump administration brought. As a result, support from the United States grew to an apathetic level as Washington lost interest in the anti-corruption mechanism. Similarly, the commission did not count with leaders of stature to work with the EU and other regional bodies such as the Organization of American States (OAS).

Another challenge was CICIG’s two-year renewable mandate. This undermined its capacity to build enduring institutional reform. During a historic 12-year period, the agreement between the UN and Guatemala was renewed five times. These efforts resulted in undivided attention from staff members to sustain the commission in the short term, distracting them from fighting corruption and impunity through lasting reform and building stronger domestic legal institutions. The CICIG was never intended to be a permanent international body, that would absolve its goal to transfer long-lasting capabilities to the Guatemalan government to build stronger national security and justice systems, but the constant fight for extensions obstructed the commission from focusing on critical work and performing to its full capacity.

Lessons for future mechanisms

As the nation has switched to the Giammattei administration, some of the improvements the CICIG accomplished are now at risk of being rolled back. Crime is high, corruption is unchecked, and the rule of law is feeble[6]. The historic 12 years the CICIG operated in Guatemala serve for the identification of some lessons learned in the creation of anti-corruption mechanisms.

A long-term mandate and short-term commissioner

Policymakers should ensure the CICIG’s mandate extends beyond presidential terms. Perhaps a five-year period would have enabled the commission to focus on more critical work and maintain continuous relationships with international stakeholders in order to secure long-term funding. On the other hand, both the UN and Guatemala overlooked at the ramifications of placing a commissioner for an indefinite amount of time. The case of Mr. Velásquez, the third and last commissioner who allegedly abused of his power and authority to pursue specific investigations as a tool to advance his personal agenda, is the reason why a mechanism like this must replace its commissioner within a short period of time (preferable every two years).

Capacity building from international to national levels

The commission failed to effectively transfer technical capacities to domestic institutions. Any mission aimed to strengthen the rule of law in a country should be based on the assumption that when a state signs the agreement with an international or regional organization, it does so because the state is unable to assertively address current challenges. Therefore, one of the principal objectives then becomes capacity-building to national-level institutions. A rather effective approach required rigorous training and preparation of civil servants (such as prosecutors and investigators) through the coordination of semi-autonomous institutional partnerships.

Accountability through performance metrics and annual reports

There was no methodology to identify whether the CICIG was on or off course of its investigations. This undermined the capacity from both the Guatemalan government and the donor community to effectively determine what success or progress looked like. The lack of a performance metrics system deprived the commission to continuously evaluate its work and reorient its activities and resources over time[7]. For instance, instead of measuring progress based on the total number of cases and convictions, a much more reliable performance indicator could have been the Corruption Perception Index, which placed Guatemala as the 111th least corrupt country in the world in 2007 and the 146th least corrupt country in 2019. Clearly, the commissioner and staff members diverted from what real success and progress looked like. So, from the start of its mandate, the CICIG should have published an annual public report stating its priorities for the next period with a clear, well-defined methodology to identify and measure progress.

Guatemala is far from eradicating CIACS and corrupt political-economic networks. Recent data shows the country is experiencing record levels of corruption. However, the CICIG experience has clearly shown the quality of advances that can be obtained when there is political will. This mechanism has even inspired other international bodies to fight corruption and impunity, such as Honduras’ MACCIH. I think future models will require a more structured approach, prioritizing long-term mandates with short-term commissioners, capacity-building from international to national levels, immediate availability of institutional resources, and a clear agenda with well-defined performance metrics.

[1] WOLA. (2019, August 27). Fact Sheet: the CICIG’s Legacy in Fighting Corruption in Guatemala. Retrieved from https://www.wola.org/analysis/cicigs-legacy-fighting-corruption-guatemala/

[2] Angelo, P. (2020, February 6). Why Can’t Central America Curb Corruption? Retrieved from https://www.cfr.org/in-brief/why-cant-central-america-curb-corruption

[3] Beltrán, A. (2018, June 6). Is Guatemala’s Fight Against Corruption Under Threat? Retrieved from https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/guatemala/2018-06-06/guatemalas-fight-against-corruption-under-threat

[4] Dudley, S. & Silva, H. (2018, August 23). President Jimmy Morales’ (and Guatemala’s) Original Sin. Retrieved from https://www.insightcrime.org/investigations/president-jimmy-morales-guatemalas-original-sin/

[5] CICIG. (2019). Informe de Cierre: El Legado de Justicia en Guatemala. Retrieved from https://www.cicig.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/InformeLegadoJusticia_SI.pdf

[6] The Economist. (2020, January 9). Guatemala’s new president, Alejandro Giammattei, outlines his plans. Retrieved from https://www.economist.com/the-americas/2020/01/09/guatemalas-new-president-alejandro-giammattei-outlines-his-plans

[7] IBI Consultants. (n.d.). The End of the CICIG Era. Retrieved from https://www.ibiconsultants.net/_pdf/cicig-report-final.pdf

*Tony Castellanos has a B.A. on International Relations and Global Business from the University of Southern California. Personal contact: anthonyfcastell@gmail.com.

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