Monday, May 7, 2018

Rubio attacks CICIG funding (May 7, 2018)

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio announced a hold on $6 million in funding to the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) last Friday. (Though it is unclear whether he has the power to unilaterally do so.) He said the move was in response to allegations that the U.N. backed commission has been manipulated by the Kremlin against its enemies, reports the New York Times.

But advocates say delays in funding could deal a serious blow to the country's struggle against corruption, and would play into the hands of President Jimmy Morales who has been seeking to oust the body, which has accused him of accepting illicit campaign financing from prominent business leaders.

CICIG head Iván Velásquez responded vía Twitter that the fight against corruption cannot be postponed. He accompanied his message with an image reading: "Do it, and if it scares you, do it with fear." (Hazlo, y si te da miedo, hazlo con miedo.)

Rubio's move could embolden Morales and members of the entrenched political elite who seek to weaken anti-corruption efforts, notes InSight CrimeThe U.S. provides about half of the CICIG's $15 million budget. Russia is not a donor.

Rubio did not specify what action the CICIG would need to take to lift the funding hold, but said he was acting out of concern regarding the case of a Russian family sentenced in January as part of an investigation into a criminal network operating in Guatemala's migration authority. The Bitkovs were found guilty of buying fake passports and forging in order to maintain residency in Guatemala, though the conviction has been sent back to a lower court for review. (See April 27's post.) 

The campaign against the CICIG has involved numerous actors, and has been adopted by Bill Browder, a financier who fell out with Russian President Vladimir Putin and has lobbied against him globally. And members of the Guatemalan government, such as Ministro de Gobernación Enrique Degenhart and President of Congress Álvaro Arzú (son of the recently deceased former president and mayor of Guatemala City) recently travelled to Washington, before a Helsinki Commission hearing regarding potential Kremlin interference in the CICIG, reports La Hora. Both Degenhart and Arzú senior have been linked to anti-CICIG efforts. (See April 27's post.) Last year the Guardian reported on a lobbying firm tied to U.S. Vice President Mike Pence hired by the Morales.

Wall Street Journal columnist Mary Anastasia O'Grady has pushed to discredit the CICIG, and in her latest column she wonders if the "CICIG has gone rogue," and criticizes civil society support for the U.N. commission. She singles out the "many nongovernmental organizations and media operations working in Guatemala that are funded by George Soros’s Open Society Foundations and fellow travelers," and says the CICIG has become a tool for the "NGO left," whatever that means. (Full disclosure: this blog is funded by Open Society Foundations's Latin America Program.)
However, even one of the Bitkovs' lawyers doesn't buy into the Russian meddling explanation, and said anti-CICIG forces are exploiting the conspiracy theory in order to advance an pro-impunity agenda, reported Nómada last week.

Migrant advocates in the U.S. have noted Rubio's touching concern for the Bitkovs, who say they moved to Guatemala without the requisite documentation because they are victims of political persecution. Apparently he sees no parallel with undocumented migrants fleeing to the U.S. in order to escape violence and persecution in Central America.

Other Guatemala Briefs
  • Outgoing attorney general Thelma Aldana spoke to the Associated Press about her successful tenure at the post, in which she aggressively pursued corruption at the country's highest levels -- putting former president Otto Pérez Molina, who appointed her, behind bars. Aldana worked closely with the CICIG and Velásquez.
  • Guatemalan authorities said they detained three current and former army officers on suspicion of corruption involving the Defense Ministry, reports the Associated Press. The suspects are alleged to have obtained illegal commissions totaling over $3 million through anomalous sales and the awarding of military contracts.
News Briefs

  • The U.S. government decided to end a special immigration program that allowed about 57,000 Hondurans, many of whom have been living in the country for decades, to reside and work in the country. The Temporary Protected Status (TPS) system aimed at shielding undocumented migrants from countries suffering natural disasters. The Trump administration argues TPS has become a de-facto permanent program, and has cancelled protections for an estimated 428,000 people from several countries, reports the Guardian. Advocates say he is adding to the ranks of people living in the U.S. without legal status, as the long-term residents -- many parents of U.S. citizens -- are unlikely to leave.
  • HIV an existencial threat to the Warao indigenous community in the Orinoco valley, a grave crisis within Venezuela's broader collapse, reports the New York Times.
Colombian peace
  • Holding FARC leadership strictly accountable for crimes committed after the peace accord is critical, but extraditing former guerrilla commanders to the U.S. before they are judged in Colombia for atrocities committed under their leadership could cause "irreparable harm to victims," writes Human Rights Watch Americas Director José Miguel Vivanco in El Tiempo. "A drug trafficking trial in the U.S. cannot substitute a accountability for war crimes committed by the FARC in Colombia." (See April 10's post. The arrest and potential extradition of a former FARC leader on drug trafficking charges has caused a schism in the FARC's leadership and could threaten the peace deal with the former guerrillas.
  • Right wing presidential candidate Iván Duque, an opponent of the peace deal, continues to lead polls ahead of this month's election, with 38 percent over his closest rival, leftist Gustavo Petro, who has 25 percent, according to Reuters.
  • In the two weeks since clashes between protesters and security forces in Nicaragua, the death toll estimates have only grown. As of Friday advocates estimated at least 45 deaths, and the issue of whether the killings were ordered will likely be key in upcoming discussions between the government, protest movements, and the Church, reports the New York Times. Last week the Organization of American States said the Nicaraguan government had denied its request to conduct an on-site investigation into the killings.
  • Nicaragua's National Assembly created a commission that will investigate the killings over the next three months, reports the BBC. But critics say the commission was set up by government loyalists, and falls far short of the independent investigation they are demanding, reports La Prensa.
  • Nicaraguan protesters were spurred by a social security deficit that could leave the system insolvent. But a network of companies owned by President Daniel Ortega's family, and used to funnel aid from Venezuela, is a far greater potential problem, reports Univisión. The piece builds on previous reporting by el Confidencial, and shows how the Ortega administration shielded itself from international pressure with Venezuelan funding.
  • Honduran journalists face dangers ranging from physical attacks and threats to legal proceedings, reports Al Jazeera. The country is ranked 141 out of 180 in the World Press Freedom Index, and is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for the profession, according to Reporters Without Borders.
Gender violence
  • Femicides increased even more this year in El Salvador -- 154 women have been killed so far this year, up from 127 in the first four months of last year. The government approved an initiative presented by women's rights groups, aimed at combatting gender violence, reports the Associated Press. The police plans to open five new offices dedicated to victims of "machista violence," reports EFE.
  • While sexual assault and femicide are illegal on paper in Peru, in practise victims rarely obtain justice and often face social backlash, reports the New York Times.
  • Guatemalan singer Ricardo Arjona made waves when told La Nación that victims of sexual assault have the obligation to report the crime rapidly, or become "somewhat complicit" in the perpetrator's future transgressions.
  • Five public security cameras en route to Rio de Janeiro councilwoman Marielle Franco's home were turned off on the night she was killed, reports TeleSUR.
  • Last week Rio de Janeiro's city council approved five of Franco's pending bills reports Rio on Watch.
  • Mexican presidential frontrunner AMLO awakens fervent hope for change among his followers, and fear of populist nationalization among his detractors, reports the Guardian in a profile on the candidate.
  • Backlash among the business community against AMLO is growing after he accused them of profiting from corruption and attempting to sway economic policy, reports Bloomberg.
  • Hundreds in Mexico City demonstrated this weekend demanding legalization of cannabis, reports EFE.

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