Latin America

Scandal Upstages Guatemala's Leader

The comedian-turned-president Jimmy Morales discovers corruption investigations are no joke.

That joke isn't funny anymore.

Photograph: Johan Ordóñez/AFP/Getty Images

Before he won the Guatemalan presidency on an anti-corruption platform, Jimmy Morales was his country’s best-known comedian. He had a send-up for every scoundrel. “I love you so much I’d swim across the Atlantic, cross the desert without water and face an army with nail clippers,” he declares as an impassioned suitor in a popular sketch lampooning sweet-talking politicians. “So you’ll come see me tonight?” his beloved replies. “Well, if it doesn’t rain, yes.”

It’s been raining in Guatemala lately. On Aug. 27, in a move that jolted this nation of 17 million, Morales declared the head of a crack United Nations investigative unit persona non grata and ordered him to leave the country. Morales is suspected of taking illegal campaign contributions, possibly from drug traffickers, during the 2015 election, and investigator Ivan Velasquez had been closing in on the national leader -- and, in a separate case, his brother and son. Morales is the second Guatemalan leader to run afoul of corruption sleuths in less than two years, and his case is a potential bellwether for Latin America, where an extraordinary civic revolt is helping take down an incorrigible governing class and reset the rule of law.

The move against Velasquez, whose corruption mop-up enjoys overwhelming public support in Guatemala, set off a storm of criticism, street protests and international censure. Three top aides left Morales’s cabinet, including the foreign minister who was sacked for failing to expel Velasquez. Late Tuesday, the country’s Constitutional Court struck down the order to oust Velasquez. The Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on the attorney general’s petition to strip Morales of his presidential immunity, a move that could see him prosecuted for election crimes and clear the way for his removal from office.

Guatemala’s imbroglio has regional implications. Alongside Brazil, the conflicted Central American nation had set the pace in exposing mischief at the top. Eleven years ago, Guatemala made history by welcoming a U.N.-sponsored team of investigators -- the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, known by its Spanish acronym CICIG -- to probe human rights violations in a country still reeling from military rule and three dozen years of armed conflict. Its work has helped strengthen criminal investigations and drove a steep fall in the national homicide rate, one of the hemisphere’s highest. The commission has also inspired a similar initiative in Honduras and talk of starting another in Panama.

As peace and democratic elections became the norm, however, the investigators found their job description changing. The human-rights violators apparently had morphed into procurement pirates, with cashiered military leaders now conspiring with authorities to rig government contracts, capture the courts, and monopolize the legislature. Pivoting from impunity to graft, the commission struck pay dirt, helping underfunded and unappreciated Guatemalan prosecutors and auditors bring shady practices in the highest office to light. “Since change from within was not working, Guatemala essentially outsourced its justice system, and so greatly strengthened its own judiciary,” Giancarlo Morelli, an analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, told me. By 2015, Guatemalans rated CICIG the most trustworthy of all major institutions, including the Catholic Church and the armed forces.

That year proved critical for Guatemala and a watershed in the region’s fight against the rot at the top. A commission-backed probe into a customs fraud and kickback scheme led to the fall of then-president Otto Perez Molina, a former army commander, who was shorn of immunity, forced to resign, and now awaits trial in jail alongside his former vice president. The scandal fueled months of public fury and widespread calls to turf out the country’s corrupt and onetime untouchable political establishment -- a turn of events that Morales parlayed into a compelling script on the stage and on the stump. “Morales was elected because he was the only new candidate, with no ties to the traditional political class, but he has shown himself to be no different,” Manfredo Marroquin of the Guatemalan watchdog group Citizen Action told me.

Morales’s fall is not inevitable. On paper, his ruling National Convergence Front and its conservative allies, also accused of taking illegal campaign funds, still control at least two-thirds of congress, with enough votes to block his removal. Yet with the country’s busy investigators closing in, the public mood curdling quickly, and memories of the fate of the last leader to flout the law still fresh, Guatemala’s tolerance for hubris at the top is wearing thin. It’s the sort of scandal that a comedian could love -- only this time, Morales risks becoming his own punchline.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Mac Margolis at mmargolis14@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Tracy Walsh at twalsh67@bloomberg.net

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