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The forces of impunity in Guatemala are roaring back with a vengeance and their closing of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (known as CICIG by its Spanish acronym) on September 3, 2019 is a stark manifestation of that.  For the past 12 years the CICIG has been an exceptionally effective initiative in the fight against entrenched corruption. It was the brainchild of Guatemalan human rights defenders and civil society activists who approached the United Nations with the idea of backing a hybrid justice entity to dismantle the “state capture” of Guatemala, a situation in which corrupt forces had cemented control of the state’s decision-making processes to their own advantage.

The CICIG model that emerged was comprised of an independent Commissioner from outside Guatemala selected by the UN and a crack international team of investigators selected by the Commissioner.  The CICIG in turn would work closely with the Guatemalan Attorney General and justice system in its investigations of political corruption cabals and narco-cartels with tremendous effect: 120 cases resulting in charges against 1,540 people in 12 years of work, with over 70 criminal structures dismantled. Three ex-presidents, one former vice president, crooked judges, politicians, and business leaders were jailed. And almost all of those indicted were eventually tried and convicted with overwhelming support from the Guatemalan public (as high as 70%). (See our film 500 Years for the dramatic toppling of President Otto Pérez Molina, and the CICIG’s role, available via streaming services including Amazon.) 

This combination proved very effective because the Attorney General, judges, and investigators in the Guatemalan justice system felt both protected and pressured by the international support for the work CICIG was doing. The Obama administration in particular saw how the CICIG could ultimately stanch the flow of migrants to the U.S. by bringing down the structures controlling the captured state and laying the groundwork for truly representative democracy and economic opportunity to take hold. Under Obama, the U.S. was the biggest financial supporter of the CICIG, and exerted strong pressure on the Guatemalan economic, political, and military elites to not get in the way of the Commission’s work.  

But after the election of Trump that has all changed. Emboldened by Trump’s disregard for human rights, environmental protection and corruption, and support of authoritarian governments, Guatemalan forces of impunity have roared back. Scores of environmental and human rights defenders are being systematically killed and the shutdown of the CICIG unfolds as the U.S. sits back. The return to violence and lawlessness in the country has come with a vengeance and determination to erase all those who challenge the power of the elites. This promises misery and desperation for millions of Guatemalans who will see no alternative but to flee to the U.S. for their survival. The migration from Central America will only become more acute, and no wall will withstand it.  

Yet the CICIG will not disappear without leaving a legacy of resistance in millions of Guatemalans who saw the powerful effect that it had on their society.  There has been an outpouring of support for the CICIG with emotional public demonstrations in front of its headquarters as it prepares to shut down in its final days, with the promise that its memory will be kept alive until another political window opens to bring back the justice model it created.  In Borderlands, the film we are producing about Americans standing up to the inhumane immigration policies of the Trump administration, we also want to include the root causes driving migration from Central America. We want to tell the story of how smart policies like support for institutions like the CICIG are in the interest of the U.S. and that of the Guatemalan people.

Members of the group #ElijoDignidad celebrating the mural they just painted. When they shared it on social media, CICIG Commissioner Iván Veláquez tweeted back: “THANK YOU GUATEMALA! GUATEMALA WILL BLOSSOM!”

Featured image: a spontaneous mural painted by citizens outside of the now shuttered International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala reads “The people will not forget.”

Paco de Onís

Paco is the Executive Director and Executive Producer of Skylight, a human rights media organization dedicated to advancing social justice through storytelling by creating documentary films and media tools that can applied in long-term strategies for positive social change.

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