The Guatemala Rule of Law Accountability Act

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SEATTLE, Washington — Most of the undocumented migrants entering the United States are coming from the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Many of these migrants are asylum seekers, fleeing gang violence exacerbated by poverty and enabled by corruption and a weak rule of law. With corruption and impunity exacerbating both poverty and crime in Guatemala, the country is desperately in need of foreign aid. An effort to address these problems at their source has led to the creation of H.R. 1630, also referred to as the Guatemala Rule of Law Accountability Act

Guatemala’s Corruption Crisis

Since the country was destabilized by civil war in the 1980s, Guatemala (along with Honduras and El Salvador) has been plagued by gang and drug violence and enabled by systematic corruption that goes as high as the presidency. Impunity and a weak rule of law not only embolden local gangs and their regional leaders but also international drug cartels that use the Northern Triangle as a shipping route to the United States. In Guatemala in particular, faith in public officials and institutions is low from the local to the national level under the shadow of the ruling political party’s years-long corruption scandal.

Numerous efforts led by both foreign governments and NGOs have had a measure of success in holding Guatemala’s elected officials accountable for their corruption. The most successful of these efforts is the U.N.-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). Since its establishment in 2007, CICIG has successfully prosecuted hundreds of high-level corruption cases, including one in 2015 that brought down then-president Otto Perez Molina and most of his administration. CICIG has endured with robust financial support from both the Bush and Obama administrations. However, funding has slowed in the Trump Administration.

Morales and CICIG

After riding to victory in the polls on an anti-corruption platform, Guatemalan president Jimmy Morales quickly found himself under investigation by CICIG for alleged violation of campaign finance laws. In late 2018, the Morales Administration made the unilateral decision to terminate CICIG’s mandate before it expires automatically in September 2019. The move drew widespread criticism in Guatemala, sparking a wave of protests in January that have continued through the country’s presidential elections this past July.

In investigations unrelated to the president, CICIG also exposed corruption scandals that had been buried by presidential candidates in the spring, leaving Guatemalans with a familiar choice for their elections: an establishment, center-left representative of the country’s ruling party or a hard-right challenging party. Voter turnout in July was low, an expression of the lack of faith Guatemalans have in their government and electoral processes.

The Guatemala Rule of Law Accountability Act

The Guatemala Rule of Law Accountability Act is sponsored by Democratic Representative Norma Torres of California’s 35th district. It was introduced to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on December 13, 2018. As of September 2019, no legislative action on the bill has been taken. The purpose of the bill is to use the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act to fight government corruption in Guatemala.

The text of the bill begins with the investigation of Guatemalan president Jimmy Morales in August 2018. It mentions that the country’s supreme court found sufficient evidence to investigate Morales for campaign finance violations. The bill’s text also addresses the Morales’ administration’s attempt to shut down the CICIG commission as a justification for sanctions against Guatemala’s government.

The Magnitsky Act

The Magnitsky Act was passed in 2012 for the purpose of imposing heavy sanctions on several Russian government officials accused of human rights violations. It was named after a Russian lawyer who was found dead after exposing a massive tax fraud scheme. In 2016, the original law was expanded to create the Global Magnitsky Act, which gives the president broad “power to block or revoke foreign visas” or impose property sanctions on foreign individuals. Sanctions can be applied to any individual that is responsible for “extrajudicial killings, torture or other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.” They are also invoked if a government official or senior associate is involved in “significant corruption.”

In the text of the Guatemala Rule of Law Accountability Act, the Magnitsky Act is the specific mechanism named to sanction any Guatemalan government official involved in the kind of corruption that the Act references. Rep. Torres’ (a native of Guatemala) remarks in the House were hopeful that Guatemal would again be a strong, uncorrupted nation “and one day, the United States Government will once again support the fight against corruption in Guatemala.” Rep. Torres’ use of the phrase “the United States Government will once again support the fight against corruption” references the lack of support that the Trump administration has provided CICIG during Morales’ efforts to force it out of the country.

Since the Magnitsky Act requires presidential authority to enact sanctions, the Guatemala Rule of Law Accountability Act would force the president to make a definitive statement on whether or not his administration intends to take the Morales administration to task for their corruption. The outcome of this bill could mean a lot to the citizens of Guatamala. By finally holding those in power responsible for their corruption, Guatamala could start to see some positive changes.

Robert Sprankle
Photo: Flickr

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