Chronicle of a Guatemalan Crisis Foretold

Guatemalan president Jimmy Morales is in the midst of a crisis of his own making. Will he relent, or dig in and plunge the troubled country further into crisis?


Last week, Guatemala president Jimmy Morales flew to New York to speak to UN secretary general António Guterres about the work of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG).  As Guterres travelled on to Kuwait, Morales returned home to sow the seeds of another constitutional crisis in his country.

On Sunday August 27th, Morales demanded Ivan Velásquez, head of the CICIG, to leave the country immediately. Hours later Morales’ decision was blocked by the Guatemalan Constitutional Court.

According to Guterres, Morales never asked for the removal of CICIG head Ivan Velásquez. This was potentially because news leaked on the evening of the 23rd about his intentions, forcing a rethink.  Similar noises of the president’s plan had been made earlier in the year, between March and May.  The rumors started after the president had learned about investigations into illegal campaign finances from the 2015 election and when his brother and son faced the start of legal proceedings for alleged fraud.

Instead, at the UN, Morales is believed to have given a list of issues as to why governing Guatemala is so hard.  This included gang violence, economic woes and the lack of foreign investment.

On Sunday morning, Guatemalans awoke to a video on the government Twitter account announcing Morales was declaring Velásquez persona non grata and that the Colombian should leave the country immediately.  Morales blamed CICIG and Velásquez for expanding outside its UN mandate and for pressuring Congress into accepting judicial reforms.  Morales’ accusations were vague and plagued with procedural mistakes—errors with dates and the lack of a co-signee from the cabinet—that proved crucial.  The judicial reforms had been sidelined in Congress and haven’t been discussed for the past four months.

Morales’ opponents attempted to block his efforts.  Lawyer Alfonso Carrillo presented an amparo, a legal remedy for the protection of constitutional rights before the court.  Carrillo argued that public officials cannot benefit from rulings nor give third-party benefits, something that the president would be doing for his son and brother by removing Velásquez.    [Note: yes the logic is a little murky.]  On Sunday morning, Guatemala City held a 21-kilometer road race which made it difficult to reach the capital’s Zona 1, where the majority of government buildings and the country’s Constitutional Court are located.  As a result, a substitute judge filled in for the court’s president, Francisco de Mata Vela.  The provisional ruling—3-2 against Morales’s declaration—appeared to catch the president by surprise.

Political repercussions followed.  The president fired Foreign Minister Carlos Morales (no relation to Jimmy) for refusing to follow a presidential order.  Health Minister Lucrecia Hernández Mack resigned, as well as Enrique Godoy, a presidential adviser and close associate of the president .

Thousands of Guatemalans (current estimates place the total between three and ten thousand) turned up to protest at CICIG’s headquarters in Zona 14. The protestors blocked a motorcycle dispatch rider from entering and delivering a message from Morales (presumably the news that the president was declaring Velásquez persona non grata). Protesters then moved onto the CC and finally to Plaza de la Constitución.  Counter protesters, numbering only a few dozen and led by Ricardo Mendez Ruiz of the Fundación Contra el Terrorismo (Foundation against Terrorism), turned up at CICIG in the late afternoon sunshine.

After the CC reversal, Jimmy Morales appeared again on TV and repeated his demand to remove Velásquez.  Relative calm held until Tuesday, when the Constitutional Court made their decision permanent with another split 3-2 vote.  The court granted new Human Rights (PDH) commissioner Jordán Rodas’s motion that noted numerous procedural errors in the president’s persona non grata declaration.  Rodas had memorably described the president’s strategy as “hepatic” (a reference to the liver and an insinuation that the president had been drunk when cooking up the legal maneuver).

“It [the verdict] re-establishes the constitutional order and [that] nobody is superior to the law.  It is up to the Guatemalans to create bridges to seek cordiality, respect, harmony and social peace,” added Rodas. Additionally, the Constitutional Court attempted to ensure Morales cannot return to seek Velásquez removal from the country by saying their decision was final.  They chose to point out the procedural errors that Morales made.

According to Article 12 of the CICIG mandate, any disagreement between Guatemala and CICIG should be mediated by negotiation between parties or a mutually agreed alternative.  Article 2c of the same mandate allows CICIG to make policy recommendations to the State of Guatemala.

There are currently two petitions before the Guatemala’s Supreme Court (CSJ) to investigate Morales for various crimes allegedly committed during the weekend.  These include obstruction of justice and abuse of authority.

Crisis over?  Not yet.

Morales has not talked to the country’s press in almost two weeks and generally avoids talking at all these days.  When he has, he has managed to worsen the already boiling crisis, such as after the Hogar Seguro fire at the children’s home where 41 teenage girls died. Morales’s public address managed to potentially incriminate himself and others. Eventually, as the crisis has unfolded, the president released a Facebook message in which he said he’d abide by judicial decisions in the CICIG case.

His actions since then suggest a more populist, aggressive track.  On Tuesday Morales held a rally with roughly half of the country’s 340 mayors.  Álvaro Arzú, former president and current mayor of Guatemala City declared, “I signed the peace, but I can also make the war.”

On Wednesday Morales met with diplomats and Guatemala’s business elite (CACIF), who proposed using the UN technical route (presumably to complain about Velásquez) and dialogue.  However, no details of these meetings have been made public.  Across the board, organizations have been promoting dialogue in an attempt to walk Morales back from the cliff.

Whatever Morales chooses to do next, it’s clear he is in the middle of a political crisis entirely of his own making. Those still with him—reportedly a mixed group of ex-Guatemala military, businessmen and evangelical allies—are preparing for a fight with the Constitutional Court.

However, it is unlikely that Congress would vote to strip Morales of immunity, as it did with former president Otto Pérez Molina. Reaching the required threshold of 105 votes will be difficult; Morales’s party has 37 votes, and there are enough independents and members of Congress facing legal issues to get the remainder.  To date 31 members of the 158 in Congress are facing miscellaneous trials and an unknown number—between 25 and 50—could be swept up in Odebrecht investigations.  According to the government watchdog Congreso Transparente, 50 percent of the 158 seats have at least one legal process or a request for a preliminary hearing by the Ministerio Público, Guatemala’s judicial investigatory body.

Currently, Congress and Morales are pitted against the courts, civil society and the international community.   The President’s next move is anyone’s guess.  Given that the Constitutional Court has limited his options, the embattled president himself appears to have a few options: he could simply resign; he can await the slow march of Guatemalan justice until he inevitably faces losing immunity; he can fight back and gain popular support to blunt CCIG investigations and/or save himself; or he could go authoritarian and order a state of siege, (something the government has had practice with recently in a land dispute in San Marcos throughout July and August).  Presumably, the government’s activities in San Marcos were designed to show the U.S. that Guatemala could secure its borders. However, it may have a more significant internal outcome.  A state of siege would remove the rights of assembly and manifestation, give emergency powers to the president and make him a de facto dictator.

On Monday the first test of the infirm detente will take place as Guatemala’s Supreme Court hears the two antejuicios against Morales, which would strip the president of the immunity usually granted to public officials.  It is possible a ruling could be made then on whether or not to send the matter onto Congress and the question of the president’s immunity rears its head.

Morales’s 2015 campaign slogan, “Ni corrupto, ni ladrón (neither corrupt, nor a thief)” seems like a distant memory in Guatemala’s turbulent recent history. The president who wanted to go down in history as Juan José Arévalo 2.0 could turn out to be the second coming of Jorge Serrano Elías and his infamous self-coup.  The president’s next steps will decide if and how the country can extricate itself from a very Guatemalan mess.

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