As the media focuses on the recent horrible volcano explosion in Guatemala, a lobbying campaign spreads apparent disinformation and puts a key institution at risk.
In a piece from the Washington Post yesterday, two concerned Guatemalan citizens urge the U.S. not to use their country as a pawn in a lobbying battle against Vladimir Putin. Specifically, one of their key institutions, the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), is under threat. Since 2006, CICIG, a crime-fighting body backed by the UN has assisted the country in uprooting corruption and fighting organized crime. In the past month, this bulwark against illegal activity has been placed in jeopardy as Senator Marco Rubio has announced that congress intends to defund the commission. He is responding to claims that the commission itself is a corrupt tool of Putin, that Russia is using the crime-fighting body to exert influence in the region. The Economist suggests that Rubio may be an unwitting agent of lobbyists at Guatemala’s expense.
If CICIG is a corrupt organization whose main purpose is to serve the Kremlin, then surely it should be defunded. But if this is not the case, and harming the organization would merely serve to strengthen corruption and organized crime, then the commission must be defended.
There are some complexities to this issue that I will attempt to lay out one by one to illuminate the current scenario (also discussed in the links above).
- The president of Guatemala, Jimmy Morales, is currently being investigated by CICIG for allegations of corruption. Last year, he tried to fire CICIG’s head after it accused him of accepting illegal campaign funding. On April 20, he demanded that CICIG be investigated.
- The discovery of a coca farm in Guatemala suggests that organized crime may be planning an expansion in the area, making the existence of CICIG potentially more important now than ever.
- While many of the men in Guatemala’s congress have been under investigation by CICIG, part of the reason they cannot unilaterally remove the commission is because half of its funding comes from the US, which (perhaps until now) has advocated keeping it.
- Bill Browder, an American billionaire who has been mounting a global lobbying campaign against Vladimir Putin, has found a Guatemalan angle for his agenda.
- A Russian family, fleeing from Putin, was imprisoned in Guatemala. They claim that this is because Putin paid CICIG to go after them.
- The Bitkov family received a harsh 19-year sentence after CICIG found them guilty of identity fraud: belonging to a passport-forgery network, and using fake documents and identities.
- The Bitkovs, who claim they are innocent victims appealed to Bill Browder, who has demanded that CICIG be defunded by the U.S. until they are released (something CICIG has no control over, as the Guatemalan courts sentenced them and get to hear their appeals).
- On May 4, Senator Marco Rubio announced that the U.S. should put a hold on funding of CICIG.
- On May 10, the Guatemalan government told Sweden to replace its ambassador, a strong supporter of CICIG.
The Guatemalan authors of the Washington Post piece cited above say that the Bitkovs’ claims to innocence are part of a disinformation campaign to move forward a well-financed lobbyist’s agenda. The Bitkovs were legitimately convicted of identify fraud, as those who actually followed the case know, and we should be concerned about the national security implications of a successful fake-passport network. We should be. Dozens of other actors were also convicted in the same case, including government officials and human traffickers.
Defunding CICIG would be the near equivalent for Guatemala of Mueller’s commission being let go: a victory for corruption over the rule of law. The difference between the investigation commission in the U.S. and the one in Guatemala is that CICIG is attempting to reign in entrenched criminal elements that have been dominating a country for decades, so in that sense, its disintegration would be even worse.