The United Nations has issued a statement expressing “concern” after Guatemala announced it was opening an investigation into a former anti-corruption investigator assigned to the country.
Iván Velásquez, a Colombian who led the UN’s anti-corruption efforts in Guatemala from 2013 to 2019, is under investigation for “illegal, arbitrary and abusive acts,” prosecutors in Guatemala said.
But critics have warned that the investigation is the latest attempt by the Guatemalan government to backtrack on anti-corruption efforts.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres “expresses concern at the numerous reports suggesting criminal charges are being brought against those who sought to shed light on corruption cases and worked to strengthen Guatemala’s justice system,” a spokesman said on Wednesday.
The UN also underlined that “justice officials and officials” of their former anti-corruption campaign “continue to enjoy privileges and immunities” even after their positions are terminated.
The campaign began in 2006 when the UN and Guatemala agreed to create the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). The commission’s goal was to root out “criminal groups believed to have infiltrated state institutions” in the aftermath of Guatemala’s decades-long civil war.
In 2007, when the commission was ratified, Guatemala was in the grip of a police scandal, with reports of extrajudicial killings, and fears that corruption would undermine the country’s democratic achievements.
Velásquez, a Colombian who was previously an assistant magistrate at his country’s Supreme Court, was appointed head of the CICIG on August 31, 2013.
Under his leadership, the commission conducted investigations into some of Guatemala’s highest authorities, including the government of then-President Otto Perez Molina.
Both Molina and his vice president eventually resigned amid allegations that they participated in a corruption scheme known as “La Linea”, which allegedly used customs officials to solicit bribes in exchange for evading import duties.
Molina was sentenced last month to 16 years on charges of fraud and conspiracy. He has denied any allegation.
The UN Commission’s investigations are estimated to have resulted in the conviction of more than 400 people and the disruption of at least 60 criminal networks.
But the CICIG’s work came to a sudden halt in 2019, when Guatemala announced its withdrawal from the 2006 agreement with the UN. The government had previously tried to declare Velásquez “persona non grata” and bar him from entering the country.
The move sparked fears that 12 years of government reforms would be reversed. “The old actors who manipulated the judicial system have been empowered and will try to weaken the system again,” a Guatemalan constitutional lawyer told Al Jazeera at the time. But supporters of the move said the CICIG had become an instrument of political persecution.
In the years since, the Guatemalan government has faced criticism for retaliating against former members of the CICIG and other anti-corruption figures. The Associated Press estimates that about 30 judges, magistrates and prosecutors have been forced into exile under Guatemala’s current regime.
One of the most high-profile cases was that of Juan Francisco Sandoval. Former head of the Guatemalan Special Prosecutor’s Office against Impunity, was fired in 2021 and fled the country.
And last February, another prominent anti-corruption prosecutor in Guatemala, Virginia Laparra, was arrested. She was charged with abuse of power and received a four-year prison sentence in December.
“The targeted prosecution of justice and media actors undermines the rule of law, democracy and prosperity in Guatemala,” US State Department spokesman Ned Price said in response to Laparra’s conviction.
Guatemala is now investigating Velásquez, the former CICIG head, in connection with a partnership agreement with Brazilian construction company Odebrecht, a company previously implicated in an international bribery scandal.
The case is led by Guatemalan prosecutor Rafael Curruchiche Cacul, who was previously charged by the US State Department with “disrupting high-profile corruption cases against government officials and making apparently false claims”. He succeeded the exiled Sandoval as leader of the Guatemalan Special Prosecutor’s Office against Impunity.
The investigation has led to tensions between Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei and his Colombian counterpart Gustavo Petro, who appointed Velásquez as defense minister.
Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, Petro said he would not accept an arrest warrant for the defense minister.
Giammattei, meanwhile, told the Spanish news agency EFE that Velásquez is currently facing an investigation, not criminal charges.
“It would be nice if someone informed Mr. Petro of the difference,” Giammattei said. Both presidents have summoned their ambassadors to each other’s countries to discuss the diplomatic incident.
Meanwhile, Velásquez took to Twitter on Tuesday to thank Petro for his support.
“I am very grateful to the president [Gustavo Petro] for his expressions of solidarity and confidence,” Velásquez wrote.
Referring to corruption as a monster, Velásquez stressed that he and Petro shared a common goal: “We know the monster, we’ve seen it up close and we’ve fought it from different trenches. We know how it transforms and what methods it uses, but it doesn’t scare us.”