The United Nations has issued a statement expressing “concern” after Guatemala announced it would investigate a former anti-corruption investigator assigned to the country.
Iván Velásquez, a Colombian who led the UN’s anti-corruption efforts in Guatemala from 2013 to 2019, is under investigation for “illegal, arbitrary and abusive acts”, according to prosecutors in Guatemala.
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But critics have warned the probe is the latest effort from Guatemala’s government to backtrack on anti-corruption efforts.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres “expresses his concern at the numerous reports suggesting that criminal prosecution is being exercised against those who sought to shed light on cases of corruption and worked to strengthen the justice system in Guatemala”, a spokesperson said on Wednesday.
The UN also underscored that “justice operators and officials” from its former anti-corruption campaign continue to “enjoy privileges and immunities” even after their positions have come to a close.
The campaign started in 2006 when the UN and Guatemala agreed to launch the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). The aim of the commission was to root out “criminal groups believed to have infiltrated state institutions” in the wake of Guatemala’s decades-long civil war.
In 2007, at the time when the commission was ratified, Guatemala was in the grip of a police scandal, with reports of extrajudicial killings, and there were fears corruption could erode the country’s democratic gains.
Velásquez, a Colombian who formerly served as an auxiliary magistrate to his country’s Supreme Court, was appointed to head the CICIG on August 31, 2013.
Under his leadership, the commission pursued investigations into some of Guatemala’s highest authorities, including the administration of then-President Otto Perez Molina.
Both Molina and his vice president ultimately resigned amid accusations they participated in a corruption scheme known as “La Linea”, which allegedly used customs officials to solicit bribes in exchange for evading import duties.
Molina was sentenced last month to 16 years on fraud and conspiracy charges. He has denied any wrongdoing.
The UN commission’s investigations are estimated to have led to the sentencing of more than 400 people, as well as the disruption of at least 60 criminal networks.
But the CICIG’s work came to a sudden halt in 2019, when Guatemala announced it would withdraw from the 2006 agreement with the UN. The government had previously tried to declare Velásquez a “persona non grata” and deny him entry to the country.
The move prompted fears that 12 years’ worth of government reform would be reversed. “The old actors that have manipulated the judicial system are empowered and will look to debilitate the system again,” a constitutional lawyer from Guatemala told Al Jazeera at the time. But proponents of the move said the CICIG had become a tool of political persecution.
In the years since, the Guatemalan government has faced criticism that it has retaliated against former members of the CICIG, as well as other anti-corruption figures. The Associated Press estimates that about 30 judges, magistrates and prosecutors have been forced into exile from Guatemala under its current administration.
One of the most high-profile cases was that of Juan Francisco Sandoval. Formerly the head of the Guatemalan Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity, he was sacked and fled the country in 2021.
And just this past February, another prominent anti-corruption prosecutor in Guatemala, Virginia Laparra, was arrested. Charged with abuse of authority, she was given a four-year sentence in December.
“The targeted prosecution of justice and media actors undermines Guatemalan rule of law, democracy and prosperity,” the US State Department’s spokesperson Ned Price said in response to Laparra’s sentencing.
Guatemala is now investigating Velásquez, the former CICIG head, in connection to a cooperation agreement with the Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht, a company previously involved in an international bribery scandal.
The case is being led by Guatemalan prosecutor Rafael Curruchiche Cacul, whom the US State Department has previously accused of “disrupting high-profile corruption cases against government officials and raising apparently spurious claims”. He succeeded the exiled Sandoval as leader of the Guatemalan Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity.
The investigation has sparked tensions between Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei and his Colombian counterpart Gustavo Petro, who appointed Velásquez as defence minister.
Speaking from the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, Petro said he would not accept an arrest warrant for the defence minister.
Giammattei, meanwhile, told the Spanish news agency EFE that Velásquez is facing an investigation and not a criminal prosecution at this time.
“It would be nice if someone enlightened Mr Petro on the difference,” Giammattei said. Both presidents have summoned their ambassadors to each other’s country to discuss the diplomatic incident.
Velásquez, meanwhile, took to Twitter on Tuesday to thank Petro for his support.
“I am deeply grateful to the president [Gustavo Petro] for his expressions of solidarity and trust,” Velásquez wrote.
Referring to corruption as a monster, Velásquez emphasised that he and Petro shared a common goal: “We know the monster, we have seen it up close and, from different trenches, we have fought it. We know how it transforms and the methods it uses, but it doesn’t scare us.”