Democracy in Peril: Facts on CICIG in Guatemala

The International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) is an independent international organization which was established in 2006. Its creation stemmed from Guatemala’s request for help from the UN in the aftermath of the peace accords when illegal armed groups reappeared in the countryside. Its goal is to combat illegal armed criminal networks Cuerpos Ilegales y Aparatos Clandestinos de Seguridad (CIACS) that threaten democratic institutions through corruption, intimidation, and criminal violence. CICIG strengthens the rule of law by supporting Guatemalan efforts to build an independent justice system, investigating corruption alongside the public ministry and, where requested, acting as a co-plaintiff on prosecutions initiated by the fiscal general. It also proposes public policy reforms to strengthen transparency, anti-corruption, and law enforcement institutions, and thereby counters criminal networks, all in accordance with the mandate agreed upon by the UN and the government of Guatemala, as well as requests received by the Guatemalan authorities. Even though it has permission to lead independent investigations, CIGIG’s authority is subordinate to the Public Prosecutor’s Office and the Judiciary; cases and legislative proposals only proceed with the office’s consent. In CICIG’s 12 years of operation, homicides were cut by 32 percent, 60 criminal networks were dismantled, and 680 individuals were indicted (310 convicted thus far, including numerous Zetas, murderers, and traffickers).However, in January 2019, President Jimmy Morales said that the UN body had “24 hours to leave the country,” even though the two-year agreement would not expire until September 2019.

From the standpoint of the U.S. government, initially lukewarm about confronting Morales, given his support to Trump administration’s policy on moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and challenging the Maduro regime in Venezuela, President Morales’ 24-hour ultimatum crossed the line. Privately, U.S. officials sharply questioned the action as contrary to the U.S. bipartisan policy of supporting anti-corruption and the rule of law in Guatemala and accurately noted the likely congressional reaction.

The Constitution Court voided President Morales’ action and the UN Secretary General criticized him for having violated the two-year renewal on CICIG’s mandate that he signed in 2017. The expulsion order was the latest blow against the CICIG. After being accused in the FCN-Nación case in August 2018, President Morales refused to renew Commissioner Iván Velázquez’s visa, barred his return from Guatemala, and later announced he would not renew the CICIG agreement come September 2019. In 2017, Guatemalan public opinion polls show the CICIG as the highest rated organization in the country with 70 percent of citizens expressing trust in its efforts, while citizens’ trust in the president has fallen to less than 20 percent.

The sudden removal of the CICIG could be disastrous for justice reform in Guatemala, a country plagued with organized crime and corruption. It is therefore imperative to lay out the facts in relation to the allegations against the CICIG of ineffectiveness, unconstitutionality, selective justice, and involvement in illegal procedures.

Facts Concerning Allegations against CICIG

Ineffectiveness: When President Morales announced that the CICIG was no longer needed in Guatemala, he stated that it had “jeopardized the security, public order, and governability of the nation.” By saying this, he inferred that CICIG’s goals were not achieved, but reversed. However, there is clear evidence to demonstrate that Morales’ accusations are false. In its first 10 years of action, the CICIG was credited with helping reduce the homicide rate from approximately 44 per 100,000 population to below 28 per 100,000. This accounts for a 5 percent annual decrease in the murder rate, compared to a 1 percent annual rise in a composite of regional peers. Charts distributed by the World Bank show how other factors such as GDP per capita, infant mortality rates, and household consumption have remained consistent, attributing the homicide reduction in large part to CICIG’s reform proposals, which have been accepted by Guatemalan judicial, legislative, or executive officials. These reform proposals include witness protection, wiretapping (only available to the Unit for Special Methods (wiretapping) within the Public Prosecutor’s office), confidential informants, and courts for high-risk crimes. These mechanisms, combined with modern forensic and other investigation techniques, helped dismantle about 60 complex criminal structures and end the perception of impunity of the “intocables,” criminal networks whose influence and power corrupted Guatemalan institutions.

Thanks to CICIG investigators, a prison-run extorsion and money-laundering network of Byron Lima, who had been convicted of assassinating Bishop Juan Girardi, was dismantled. Family-run drug trafficking networks, including the Lorenzana and Mendoza families, have been incarcerated after CICIG investigations. Cases such as these would have been impossible without CICIG’s strengthening of the Ministerio Público. Therefore, the CICIG did not “jeopardize security”; it enhanced it.

Public Order and Governability: CICIG’s main goals are to cooperate in strengthening justice institutions to support Guatemalan democracy, counter corruption, contribute to public order, and increase effective governance. CICIG’s partnership with the Ministerio Público has helped it to become vastly more effective in recent years. It oversaw 145,000 cases in 2008, and 370,000 in 2017. The creation of the Fiscalía Especial contra la Impunidad (Special Public Prosecutor Against Impunity, Spanish acronym, FECI) within the Public Prosecutor’s Office gives the state a better structure to combat the corruption of the CIACS, organized crime, and local armed groups in Guatemala. However, the judicial system in Guatemala is still too weak to stand alone, under attack from organized crime and corruption, and short of both financial and human resources. CICIG has been essential in helping the judicial system overcome those constraints and improve its performance.

Sovereignty: CICIG has the power to lead independent investigations, which mistakenly has led opponents to assume CICIG has the power to prosecute and detain on its own initiative. In fact, under the 2006 agreement with the UN, ratified by the national assembly, CICIG solely has the power to independently investigate in close collaboration with the Ministerio Público. However, arrests and prosecutions depend on Ministerio Público, with CICIG’s authority limited to supporting the ministry. It has not arrested, prosecuted, or undertaken any search attempt alone, always acting in support of the attorney general’s office and with required court orders. It serves only as an adviser and investigating partner in Guatemala.

Constitutionality: One of CICIG’s most important functions is to recommend new reforms to the legislature in order to build stronger institutions. The Guatemalan state has agreed to that action in Articles II and VI of the agreement with the UN , which state that CICIG will “recommend the adoption of public policies to the State.” President Morales signed the renewal of this mandate in 2017. Critics argued that recommending laws to the Guatemalan state meant that the CICIG was meddling in internal matters, despite specific requests coming from the legislature, executive branch, and judiciary. Additionally, CICIG’s actions in proposing legislative reforms are specifically authorized in the UN mandate.

Selective Justice: President Morales accused CICIG of “selective and partial justice,” claiming that it is a “system of terror . . . whereby those who think differently are persecuted.” On the one hand, critics say CICIG has an ideological preference which favors the left. On the other hand, President Morales emphasized the Bitkov case, in which he stated that CICIG was responding to Russian orders and not to the Guatemalan justice system.

Ideology: There is no evidence to demonstrate that CICG has a left-wing bias. This organization has investigated politicians of multiple political parties. It helped the Ministerio Público bring charges against politicians such as former president Otto Pérez Molina, his Vice President Roxanna Baldetti, and former president Alfonso Portillo, all from the right. Former president Portillo was extradited to the United States, tried, and sentenced to five years in jail. It has also investigated left-wing politicians such as former first lady and current presidential candidate Sandra Torres, former president Alvaro Colom and nine members from his cabinet, and representative Nineth Montenegro.

Sandra Torres is currently being investigated for committing electoral crimes, although the detention order did not take place prior to the Tribunal Supreme Electoral registering her as a presidential candidate, therefore granting her immunity. Her former husband and former president Alvaro Colom and his cabinet were detained in February 2018 for fraud related to violation of norms in the contracting for a new city bus service, “Transurbano.” Finally, Congresswoman Nineth Montenegro was accused of not reporting the financial statements regarding the 2015 elections on time to the Tribunal Supremo Electoral. These cases serve as evidence that the CICIG does not have an ideological preference; it has led investigations of both right- and left-wing political parties.

Bitkov Case: The Bitkov family has been found guilty of paying for false passports in Guatemala in two different trials. However, they insist the accusations come from an alliance between the CICIG and the Russian government. They argue they are victims of an international conspiracy, even though foreign affairs committees of the US Congress found no evidence for any such alliance.

The Bitkovs were not singled out in the migration case. Thirty-nine others, including migration officers, were declared responsible for passport fraud that same day. CICIG did not emit a guilty verdict; it only complied with its function of investigation, presenting evidence on each case. The Constitutional Court and Guatemalan judicial authorities carried out the prosecution. The concerns initially about false passports came from U.S. sources to Guatemalan authorities and the CICIG. They currently are under house arrest while final decisions of their sentences remain to be adjudicated.

Alleging illegal procedures: President Morales indicated that the CICIG has not acted “in good faith”. He argued that the CICIG was involved in “witness tampering, illegal negotiations with convicted criminals, and prolonged preventive prison as a form of psychological torture.”

Illegal acts: No judge has instructed an investigation on any CICIG official for witness intimidation or bribing. Instead, they have endorsed the very effective program of witness protection, which provided support and modernization based on best practices in Colombia to the already existent (but inefficient) witness security program of Guatemala. Now judges continue to request CICIG’s presence in court cases where they are co-plaintiffs. Regarding preventive prison, less than 40 percent of the people investigated by CICIG are in preventive prison, which account for 1.1 percent of the prison population in Guatemala. All cases of preventive prison are dictated by Guatemalan judges. CICIG, responding to UN norms, has pressed for changes in Guatemala detention laws to better accord with international standards.


CICIG is essential to strengthening judicial institutions in support of the rule of law, anti-corruption, and governance. Without it, the progress in reducing homicides, strengthening institutions, and increasing transparency which was made in the last 12 years could be lost. Guatemala is not prepared to face corruption on its own: it needs an independent structure to help strengthen its institutions. Ousting the CICIG, particularly without a needed transition, would leave the country with far less protection against organized crime networks, CIACS, and an often corrupt security and power structure.

Mark L. Schneider is a senior adviser with the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. The author would like to thank former CSIS Americas intern Martina Paz for her research support.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2019 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Mark L. Schneider
Senior Adviser (Non-resident), Americas Program and Human Rights Initiative