Thursday, September 14, 2017

Guatemalan lawmakers reform criminal code to protect Morales (Sept. 14, 2017)

Guatelmala's lawmakers approved a "national emergency" decree to curb penalties for illegal election financing. The bill passed yesterday seems tailor-made to protect President Jimmy Morales from allegations involving over $800,000 in unexplained campaign funds in 2015. The reform passed by 105-19, just days after Congress voted to shield Morales from being investigated in the case headed by the U.N. backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) and the Public Ministry. (See Tuesday's post.)

The change eliminates criminal responsibility for "authorizing" electoral funds that prove to be illegal and makes party accountants responsible for irregularities rather than party leaders, reports Reuters. The reform also reduces the penalty for illegal election financing to a maximum of ten years in jail, and allows that to be commuted by paying a fine.

Lawmakers argued they and senior party leaders can’t be held responsible for campaign finance violations because they are often unaware of the details of the campaigns, explains the Wall Street Journal. The bill was presented by lawmaker Orlando Blanco Lapola, himself former secretary general of the UNE political party during the questioned 2015 campaign, and target of a financing investigation, reports El Periódico.

The decision is a slap in the face to the CICIG, which has been at the center of a political battle since last month, when it asked the Supreme Court to lift Morales' immunity so he could be investigated. Morales attempted to oust CICIG head Iván Velásquez, but was blocked by the national Constitutional Court and criticized by the international community which has supported the anti-corruption commission.

Critics say the measure is merely targeted at protecting the president and his allies. "The congress appears determined to legalize corruption and campaign finance fraud," Woodrow Wilson Center expert Eric Olson told the WSJ. Others noted that lawmakers have acted quickly on this matter, postponing votes on school meals and other issues, reports the Associated Press.

The U.S. Embassy reacted harshly, with a mocking Twitter post saying the Guatemalan Congress considers reforming election financing crimes a national emergency, but not schools, hospitals and roads.

Within Guatemala business associations, including the Comité Coordinador de Asociaciones Agrícolas, Comerciales, Industriales y Financieras and the Cámara de Industria de Guatemala, were critical of the lawmakers' swerve towards impunity.

The CICIG called illegal electoral financing the "original sin" of Guatemalan democracy, reports El Periódico.

The case of illicit campaign financing has however unified political parties that had until now bitterly opposed each other: Morales' FCN and UNE, notes Nómada.

More broadly, yesterday's reforms to the Criminal Code allow jail sentences for over 400 crimes -- 89 percent of those contemplated in the penal system -- to be commuted with fines, reports Prensa Libre. The effect is to defang efforts to disarticulate large criminal networks, argued a Public Ministry official cited in the piece.

The new reforms essentially roll back measures implemented against corruption after 2015, when social pressure and a CICIG investigation helped topple then-President Otto Pérez Molina, argues Paola Hurtado in Nómada.

Separately, Nómada reported this week that Morales cashed a check for 50,000 Quetzales (about $6,800) from the armed forces, in addition to his presidential salary. The check from the Guatemalan Military was cashed in March of this year and cannot be justified legally, according to experts consulted by Nómada. Morales is among the best remunerated executives in the region, with a monthly salary of $20,000. Nómada notes that the check's timing occurred as Morales publicly complained he was facing legal costs of defending his brother and son from judicial investigations into corruption.

Yesterday it turned out that the check from the military was actually a monthly payment -- "bonus" -- indeed aimed at supporting the president's mounting legal bills, reports Nómada.

News Briefs
  • ConfidencialHN has an explosive investigation alleging that Honduran President Juan Orlando benefitted from a criminal network that funneled public funds and collaborated with drug trafficking cartels in order to win the presidency.
  • U.S. lawmakers have reiterated their support for anti-corruption efforts both in Guatemala and Honduras -- and seem prepared to back that sentiment with cuts to aid and potentially sanctions, reported InSight Crime earlier this week.
  • Governments in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador are far more interested in cracking down on gangs than on instances of political corruption, notes InSight Crime. Northern Triangle authorities arrested nearly 500 gang members in recent days on charges of extortion, homicide and other criminal activities. But "the mass arrests are unlikely to have any substantial long-term impact on gangs' ability to operate in these countries. And perhaps more concerningly, operations like these may be drawing resources and attention away from investigations into mounting allegations that high-level elites across the region have engaged in criminal activities."
  • Pushback against corruption initiatives is hardly limited to Central America. In Brazil President Michel Temer has successfully evaded corruption charges so far, supported by the country's lawmakers. And critics say Supreme Court justice Gilmar Mendes is pushing back against the judiciary's strong anti-corruption efforts, reports the Wall Street Journal.  
  • Honduran journalist Carlos William Flores was killed in the Cortes department, near the Guatemalan border, reports Tiempo. Flores directed a television program, "Sin Pelos en la Lengua," that was critical of major agribusiness enterprises that lead to deforestation in the area, reports C-Libre. OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro condemned the "social communicator's" assassination, reports Proceso.
  • Northern Triangle organizations of civil society asked the IACHR to develop concrete measures to protect deported migrants who return to situations of violence and insecurity, reports Radio Progreso. (See Sept. 6's briefs for more on the Mexico City IACHR hearings.)
  • On the issue of gangs, Pacific Standard has a feature on women -- girls rather -- who are increasingly participating in the criminal networks, spurred by a lack of opportunity and the dangers they are exposed to in El Salvador. "In a patriarchal society increasingly controlled by violent, male-dominated organized crime groups, rape, domestic violence, and the murder of women have become commonplace."
  • "Autocracy doesn’t happen overnight; it’s a slow transition," writes Venezuelan activist Lilian Tintori in a New York Times op-ed"A regime that violates the rights of its people to fuel its own power and greed can’t be considered legitimate. And without an honest commitment to human rights, democracy in Venezuela will die." She notes the extent of the Venezuelan crisis, and how the displacement it's causing will increasingly affect the country's neighbors. "The long-term solution to our woes is clear: We need the full restoration of our democracy. This includes the release of all political prisoners, respect for the democratically elected National Assembly, and general elections managed by a newly appointed, independent electoral commission. The international community can help by refusing any dialogue that gives leeway to the Maduro regime."
  • U.S. officials were critical of Colombia's peace deal with the FARC in a U.S. congressional hearing this week, in which participants argued the fight against drug trafficking had been sacrificed for the cause of peace. "Opinions voiced during the hearing do not necessarily have direct implications for official US policy. But they add to signs of growing tensions between the policy preferences of important US actors and the Colombian government's preferred approach to the peace process," explains InSight Crime.
  • Ecuador is on the brink of a potential "democratic transition" from former President Rafael Correa's populist authoritarianism to current President Lenín Moreno's democratically minded government, argues César Ricaurte in a New York Times Español op-ed. Correa and Lenín, formerly allies in the same party, are now on opposite sides of an increasingly acrimonious schism. 
  • Jamaica's authorities are carrying out a new militarized anti-gang initiative in Kingston based on erroneous data, reports InSight Crime. The neighborhood of Mount Salem has been designated the first Zone of Special Operations (ZOSO), but appears to have been deployed based on data exaggerating gang presence and homicides in the area. It's hotspot policing -- but in the wrong place. "To be sure, the decision to maintain the ZOSO in Mount Salem even after having to publicly admit its error, illustrates that the government is ready to adapt the reality to match the policy rather than the other way around."
  • The U.S. Virgin Islands likely won't have electricity for months in the wake of Hurricane Irma -- but residents are showing their resiliency, reports the Washington Post.
  • A new Pew Research Center survey shows 65 percent of Mexicans view the U.S. unfavorably, up from 29 percent two years ago in the Obama era, reports the Washington Post.
  • That can hardly have been helped by Trump's failure to quickly offer condolences for an earthquake that killed nearly 100 people last week in Mexico, reports the New York Times.
  • Strange health symptoms experienced by U.S. diplomats in Havana, initially believed to be the result a sonic weapon, defy attempts to identify a culprit or device, reports the Associated Press.Some victims now have problems concentrating or recalling specific words, several officials said, the latest signs of more serious damage than the US government initially realized. 
  • The infamous ice pick used by a Stalinist secret agent to assassinate Leon Trotsky in 1940 in Mexico City has emerged from decades in the shadows. It's slated to go on display next year at Washington’s International Spy Museum, after spending 40 years under the bed of the daughter of a Mexican secret police officer, reports the Guardian, in a piece that vividly recounts the bloody climax of the political fight between Josef Stalin and Trotsky. 

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