A Soft Coup in Guatemala

A Soft Coup in Guatemala

President Jimmy Morales kicked out an international anti-corruption commission established at the end of the country’s decades-long civil war. In doing so, he provoked a constitutional crisis.

Protestors make their way to Quetzaltenango's Central Park to protest Gutemalan President Jimmy Morales's national address on January 14, 2019. (Miriam Pensack)

The Guatemalan Congress suspended a vote on March 13 for final approval of legislation that would free dozens of military officials convicted of genocide, torture, and crimes against humanity during the civil war that ravaged the country between 1960 and 1996. The prosecution of more than thirty military officials was made possible by the Law of National Reconciliation integral to the 1996 peace accords that ended the thirty-six-year conflict. But as the proposed amnesty bill suggests, while the conflict itself is over, the struggle over its legacy is not.

Accountability for past war crimes and the problem of endemic corruption are closely linked in Guatemala. The political system put in place during the peace process enabled widespread graft. Recent moves by Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales—who dismantled the country’s UN-backed anti-corruption commission before unilaterally ousting it in January—exemplify the link between the crimes of the country’s past and the corruption of its present.

Public concern over Morales’s expulsion of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG, was palpable in the streets of Guatemala City following the president’s January 7 proclamation that the panel’s international prosecutors had twenty-four hours to leave the country. The following week, on January 14, 7,000 policemen stood guard outside the national congress as Morales delivered his third annual informe de Gobierno, the country’s equivalent to the State of the Union address. The speech, and the visibly heightened policing that accompanied it, coincided with a day of nationwide protests against Morales’s decision to preemptively end CICIG’s mandate.

Morales’s opposition to CICIG is personal: in 2017 the commission helped send his brother and son to trial for fraud. That same year it began an investigation into illegal campaign financing during the 2015 elections that targeted Morales directly. Many of the president’s critics see CICIG’s banishment as an act of self-preservation.

Morales’s maneuver rings all the more sinister given his support of the commission during his 2015 electoral bid. A former comedian, Morales entered politics as an outsider and campaigned on his distance from the notoriously corrupt system. His slogan then was “ni corrupto, ni ladrón”—“neither corrupt, nor a thief.”


CICIG has worked alongside the Guatemalan attorney general since 2006 to investigate, prosecute, and remove dozens of current and former members of congress and justices from the nation’s supreme and appeals courts. The commission’s investigations have helped dismantle several drug and extortion rings and led to the imprisonment of former president Otto Pérez Molina and former vice-president Roxana Baldetti, both arrested on corruption charges in 2015.

But while the investigation may threaten Morales’s political future, it is the Guatemalan people who find themselves most vulnerable following CICIG’s ousting.

For Carlos Barrios, an activist and congressional candidate in the upcoming national elections this June, the relationship between corruption and large-scale socioeconomic marginalization is clear. “Corrupt governance means taking resources directly from various public ministries,” he said in January. “If we think about public health, for instance, corruption will continue to undermine the healthcare system in a country where the majority of the population doesn’t have the economic capacity to pay for private services.”

It came as no surprise to Barrios that the powerful business lobby CACIF, the Coordinating Committee for Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial, and Financial Associations, quickly and heartily endorsed Morales’s decision to expel CICIG. Barrios pointed to Morales’s recent refusal to raise the national minimum wage in the interests of CACIF—the “national oligarchy” he called it—as yet another example of corruption’s harmful effects on the public.

Barrios’ activist work with the organization Servicios Jurídicos y Sociales (SERJUS) seeks to address wide-scale underdevelopment, economic inequality, judicial and political reform, and the erosion of democratic processes—the consequences of which affect the country’s most historically vulnerable rural and indigenous sectors. Like many activists working on behalf of these groups both during and after the armed conflict, Barrios considers the CICIG decision a “soft coup.”

The description is apt, not only because Morales seeks to free the government’s executive from international oversight, but because the decision to unilaterally end CICIG’s mandate before its scheduled conclusion in September of this year disregards rulings from Guatemala’s Constitutional Court, undermining the system of checks and balances that have, in part, maintained an extant, albeit feeble, democratic apparatus following the transition to civilian rule in the last years of the armed conflict.

Despite the current administration’s slow and steady undermining of democratic processes, “the coming election results are more sensitive than the electoral process itself because the current administration has fomented so much support for a regressive agenda that undermines the public interest,” Barrios said. The consideration of legislation that would free convicted war criminals is but one particularly startling example of that regression.

For Meilen Ninette Godínez, the regional coordinator of women’s rights advocacy organization Asociación Ixoqib Miriam, the hostile conditions facing activists in Guatemala is another. In 2018, twenty-six organizers were killed, many of them members of rural development organizations advocating for indigenous Maya populations against which the Guatemalan state unleashed a genocidal wave of violence during the civil war.

Many Guatemalans alive today have endured in part—or in its entirety—the horrific armed conflict following the CIA-backed coup that toppled democratically elected leader Jacobo Arbenz in 1954. Caught in the crosswinds of early Cold War communist phobia and material threats to private U.S. capital, what had been a ten-year experiment in Guatemalan democracy came crashing down. Six years later, that violence gave way to unspeakable military repression predominantly targeting the rural and indigenous populations whose access to healthcare, education, employment, and security are undermined still today by the type of government corruption CICIG sought to stifle.


The Trump administration has remained relatively mum in response to Morales’s move to oust CICIG, a silence that serves as its own form of tacit approval. Morales, however, has received vocal support from a few Republican legislators, including Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker, who lauded CICIG’s expulsion on the Senate floor in January. Wicker, along with Florida Senator Marco Rubio and New Jersey Representative Chris Smith, pointed to CICIG’s ostensible infringement on Guatemalan national sovereignty as the central justification for the commission’s expulsion.

In light of the long history of U.S. intervention in Latin America and the GOP’s own recent, explicit appeals for a coup in Venezuela, such sudden concern on the part of Republicans for Guatemala’s sovereignty is obviously farcical. And behind the Trump administration’s out-of-character reticence, a recent Foreign Policy investigation revealed several top appointees’ imbrication in attempts to thwart CICIG’s operation in Guatemala. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley sought to cut funding to CICIG and urged U.S. Ambassador Luis Arreaga to curb public displays of support for the commission. In 2017, Marvin Mérida, an aide to Jimmy Morales, signed a contract with an Indiana-based lobbying firm whose managing partner has been among Mike Pence’s top fundraisers.

The idea that Washington cares about Guatemalan popular sovereignty but CICIG undermines it would be a laughable, were it not for the number of rural and largely indigenous Guatemalan lives compromised, destroyed, and ended by the hand of U.S. empire. “Guatemala hasn’t been sovereign since colonization,” said Herbert Loarca, an economics professor at the historically radical public University of San Carlos. “Guatemala has always had to respond to private interests. To talk about sovereignty as it pertains to CICIG is a lie.”

As historian Alejandro Velasco recently wrote about the current crisis in Venezuela, geopolitical showdowns typically harm the populations that competing nations and supranational organizations claim to serve. Guatemala is no exception. The United States laid much of the groundwork and provided no small amount of material support to Guatemala’s violent military regimes over the latter half of the twentieth century. The civil conflict the United States largely helped create led to the death and disappearance of some 200,000 predominantly indigenous Guatemalans. Today, Washington’s attempt to subvert international anti-corruption initiatives is undermining the potential empowerment of these same historically dispossessed communities. A poster stuck to the wall of a building adjacent to Quetzaltenango’s central park during the January 14 protest renders the historical and political connections between these forces clear. It calls for national mobilization in big red capital letters: “because corruption and impunity are robbing us of public services, education, health, security, work, and a dignified life.”

It would be an oversimplification to assume that national sovereignty inevitably assures a higher quality of life or meaningful self-determination for ordinary Guatemalans. Even so, the connection between a country’s sovereignty and its population’s access to democratic and social protections is real. The tendency of the United States to justify foreign intervention in the name of granting popular self-determination across national borders, however, is the White House’s imperial illogic par excellence. One need only look to the U.S. border with Mexico to see what American politicians’—and in particular Republicans’—concern for the lives of Central Americans from marginalized backgrounds looks like. And these migrants are of the same demographic groups that anti-corruption initiatives like CICIG are meant to protect. That U.S. participation in the Central American dirty wars of the 1980s exacerbated the conditions of violent and material dispossession for the populations it now persecutes at the southern border is not coincidence, but continuity.

Since the dirty wars, the United States’ repeated destabilization of Latin American countries has proved consistent even in its cast of characters. As Washington appears poised for a more explicit form of intervention in Venezuela, it is none other than Elliott Abrams, former assistant secretary of state for human rights under Ronald Reagan, who was appointed as special envoy to the country—the same Elliot Abrams convicted during the Iran-Contra scandal and who, under President Reagan, fought in Congress for U.S. military and diplomatic support to back Efraín Ríos Montt, perhaps Guatemala’s bloodiest dictator. Ríos Montt was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity and was awaiting a retrial on those same charges when he died in April of last year.

U.S. officials’ clandestine support for Jimmy Morales’s anti-CICIG maneuvers is yet another manifestation of the propensity of U.S. empire to produce the very problems it seizes upon to justify further intervention. And the somewhat obfuscated means by which Washington is acting this time to affect Guatemalan politics weaves a web all the more consistent with the United States’ dark history of fueling conflict in Latin America.

“Visible militarization has always been the Guatemalan state’s preferred means to stifle dissent,” Herbert Loarca said of Morales’s decision to swath the congressional building in thousands of police on the day of his speech in January. “The government figures there’s no need to bolster public health or education when it could simply send more police and soldiers into the streets.”

Miriam Pensack is writer and researcher covering Latin America and U.S. foreign policy, human rights, and national security. She lives in Brooklyn.