Friday, April 27, 2018

CICIG under fire (April 27, 2018)

Guatemala's Constitutional Court overturned prison sentences for a Russian family convicted on charges of using false identities. The court ruled that the trial judge did not have a firm enough basis for his decision to convict the three adult members of the Bitkov family, reports the Associated Press. Earlier this year Igor Bitkov was sentenced to 19 in jail and Irina and Anastasia Bitkova received 14 year sentences. 

The case against them is part of a wider investigation into a criminal network operating in Guatemala's migration authority, prosecuted by the U.N. backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) and Guatemalan prosecutors. (The Constitutional Court's decision yesterday applies only to the Bitkovs, not the other 36 implicated in the case, notes Prensa Libre.)

But the Bitkovs say they are victims of a shadowy conspiracy by Kremlin allies -- and have found allies in the U.S., who are questioning the integrity of the CICIG and potential Russian influence on the international commission. The case is being heard today in the U.S. Congress's Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission. (Live broadcast of the hearing.)

The allegations of CICIG wrongdoing came to prominence in a recent Wall Street Journal column by Mary Anastasia O'Grady, in which she accuses the U.N. backed international anti-graft commission in Guatemala -- the CICIG -- of acting on behalf of the Kremlin and unfairly persecuting its enemies. The CICIG responded that the prosecution of the Russian Bitkov family was part of a wider case of a criminal network operating within the country's migration authority. (See March 29's briefs.) 

Nómada investigation further unravels O'Grady's allegations -- noting that the investigation started in 2010, three years before a Russian bank tipped off authorities about the Bitkov's illicit immigration status. The January sentence included 36 other people involved in the selling of falsified identification documents. The piece notes that the CICIG receives no funding from Russia. Its $18 million annual budget comes from the U.S., Sweden and the European Union. (See April 10's briefs.)

The U.S. has been key in defending the CICIG from Guatemalan government attempts to defang its anti-corruption efforts. The Morales administration has sought to expel the CICIG head, Iván Velásquez, last year and undermine the anti-graft commission's efforts. Which is why the allegations of Russian influence could be so dangerous for a regional success story, notes the Economist, which says the CICIG has become a pawn in a battle between U.S. financier Bill Browder and the Kremlin.

The fight comes at a critical time for Guatemala's anti-corruption efforts. Last week the CICIG and the Public Ministry accused the ruling party of accepting over a million dollars in illicit campaign financing from a group of business leaders. (See Monday's briefs.) The allegations of Russian influence play directly into the hands of President Jimmy Morales, who has been angling to oust the CICIG since last year -- amid allegations that he and his party benefitted from illicit donations, notes Nómada's Martín Rodríguez Pellecer.

This week Morales and ministro de Gobernación Enrique Degenhart have been accusing the CICIG of misuse of power on social media, reports Nómada separately. The government also launched an inquiry into whether the CICIG acted in accordance to the agreements signed with the country.

All of which comes as Morales must select a new public prosecutor by May 17 from a six-candidate short list selected by a nominating committee. Earlier this month, InSight Crime detailed the inner workings of the commission and potential avenues for interference from those seeking to undercut anti-graft efforts. (See April 11's briefs.) 

Amnesty International highlighted the importance of the prosecutor's office in serious human rights cases, and called on Morales to "appoint an Attorney General who guarantees prompt and effective justice for all, and who complies effectively with Guatemala’s international human rights obligations."

Other Guatemala news
  • Seven inmates were killed and at least 25 wounded in a prison riot near Guatemala City, reports AFP.
News Briefs

Ortega's government on shaky ground
  • Upheaval in Nicaragua has calmed down (see yesterday's post) but the Ortega government is still facing its most significant challenge ever, reports the Washington Post. In the same vein, the Economist writes: "Everything indicates that the ruling couple have lost the consent of their people. It is often forgotten that authoritarian governments tend to depend even more on popularity than democratic ones do."
  • Human Rights Watch documents some of the alleged abuses since April 18, including "credible accounts that suggest that police officers used excessive force to shut down demonstrations in several places across the country and that pro-government groups attacked peaceful protesters."
  • Hundreds of Central America who formed a caravan to cross Mexico will walk en masse on Sunday to the border crossing leading to southern San Diego. Many plan to apply for asylum in the U.S. and will themselves to American border officials, reports the New York Times. Originally numbering over 1,200 people, the caravan would have not attracted much attention were it not for tweets by U.S. President Donald Trump who portrayed it as a national security threat and deployed National Guard troops to the border. (See April 4's post.)
  • By some accounts, up to 4 million Venezuelans have fled their country's crisis. Americas Quarterly has a map illustrating where the diaspora has gone.
  • The U.S. has promised aid for fleeing Venezuelans, but it has nonetheless been quietly deporting Venezuelans who came to the U.S. illegally or overstayed their visas out of fear of returning home, reports the Miami Herald.
  • The Maduro administration is planning a constitutional reform that would create a Cuban-style voting system, where government-controlled “mass organizations” elect local officials who in turn elect legislators, who ultimately pick the country’s top leaders, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos told Miami Herald columnist Andrés Oppenheimer.
  • Foreign influence on Venezuela is intimately tied to oil exports -- Americas Quarterly illustrates.
  • It's not clear what will happen in Venezuela after next month's presidential election -- sorely lacking in democratic credentials -- but eventually rebuilding will have to happen. Americas Quarterly focuses on some of the challenges ahead and some of the leaders from diverse sectors that could help.
Colombian peace deal faltering
  • FARC leader Iván Márquez said he would not take the Senate seat proffered as part of the 2016 peace deal between the guerrilla force and the government. The announcement could further weaken the faltering peace process, argues InSight Crime. The former guerrilla force is divided over how to react to the arrest of one of its leaders on charges of drug trafficking after the peace deal was signed, and the schism could have "dire" consequences for the country's criminal landscape. 
El Salvador's abortion ban remains
  • El Salvador's Legislative Assembly adjourned yesterday without voting on proposals to relax the country's absolute ban on abortion. It's a loss for reformers who sought to allow doctors to end pregnancies under limited conditions, defeated by an alliance of social conservatives and religious organizations, reports the New York Times. Advocates hoped to allow abortions in cases where the pregnant woman's life is in danger, or when she is a minor who was raped. But the window of opportunity before a new, conservative-dominated legislature is sworn in next week, was lost.

  • Mexico First: Presidential front-runner Andrés Manuel López Obrador is proposing energy sector reforms emphasizing independence from the U.S. -- a situation that has U.S. oil companies worried, reports the New York Times. And the proposals are resonating in Mexico after the Trump administration's efforts to restrict immigration and threats against NAFTA.
  • AMLO would however respect a renegotiated NAFTA deal if agreement is reached before the Mexican election in July, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • A Roman Catholic priest was found dead in Mexico, after a presumed kidnapping, the third cleric to die under suspicious circumstances in the country over the past week, reports the Associated Press
  • A Mexican rapper confessed to disposing of the bodies of three missing film students by dissolving them in acid. He said he was paid $160 a week by the Jalisco New Generation drug cartel, reports the BBC. (See Wednesday's briefs.)
Peru's Fujimori accused of human rights violations again
  • Former dictator Alberto Fujimori is set to face charges of alleged forced sterilization again, reports the BBC. Three of his former health ministers will also be indicted, the country's chief prosecutor said.

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