Guatemala’s Campesinos and Indigenous Communities Fight Rampant Government Corruption

Heather Gies June 22, 2018

Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales. (JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

The bid to root out gov­ern­ment cor­rup­tion in Guatemala is on uncer­tain ground after a new Attor­ney Gen­er­al took the helm and Pres­i­dent Jim­my Morales and his allies con­tin­ue to resist inves­ti­ga­tions. But social move­ments, includ­ing rur­al orga­ni­za­tions that view cor­rup­tion as one piece of a puz­zle of deep inequal­i­ty, are exert­ing pres­sure for accountability.

As high-lev­el cor­rup­tion unrav­els, campesino groups are also increas­ing­ly moti­vat­ed by soar­ing vio­lence against their social lead­ers and the state’s fail­ure to pro­tect the poor com­mu­ni­ties smoth­ered in the ear­ly June vol­cano dis­as­ter that killed at least 112 peo­ple, left at least 197 miss­ing, and dis­placed thousands.

Attor­ney Gen­er­al Maria Por­ras took office May 17. Her pre­de­ces­sor, Thel­ma Aldana, attract­ed praise for land­ing a for­mer pres­i­dent behind bars for cor­rup­tion. Aldana also inves­ti­gat­ed Pres­i­dent Morales for fail­ing to report more than $1 mil­lion in con­tri­bu­tions to his 2015 pres­i­den­tial campaign.

Aldana’s last act in office — announc­ing a third phase of inves­ti­ga­tions into Morales for illic­it elec­toral financ­ing — will be one of Por­ras’ first tests. The out­go­ing top pros­e­cu­tor said the new evi­dence jus­ti­fies ask­ing Con­gress to strip Morales of immu­ni­ty from pros­e­cu­tion for the sec­ond time in one year. 

It’s a chal­lenge for the new Attor­ney Gen­er­al,” said Leiria Vay of the Com­mit­tee of Campesino Devel­op­ment (CODE­CA), an orga­ni­za­tion that has fought for land rights and just wages for rur­al work­ers for more than two decades.

Pow­er­ful busi­ness lead­ers have admit­ted to fun­nelling hid­den mon­ey into Morales’ cam­paign, but the pres­i­dent denies wrong­do­ing. Last week, Guatemala’s elec­toral com­mis­sion ordered the body that over­sees polit­i­cal par­ty reg­is­tra­tion to begin the process of sus­pend­ing Morales’ par­ty over the scandal.

Maya K’iche indige­nous activist and lawyer Ben­i­to Morales, a mem­ber of the Mayan People’s Coun­cil (CPO), told In These Times that, giv­en the open inves­ti­ga­tions against the pres­i­dent, Morales named Por­ras in a very com­pli­cat­ed con­text” ripe for spec­u­la­tion. He stressed that Guatemalan peo­ple will play an impor­tant part in ensur­ing cor­rup­tion inves­ti­ga­tions do not falter.

For CODECA’s Vay, social move­ments not only have a role in chart­ing the future of anti-cor­rup­tion efforts: They also face an oppor­tu­ni­ty to deep­en the debate.

CODE­CA spear­head­ed a march in the cap­i­tal city June 12 to call for Morales’ res­ig­na­tion, to pres­sure the new attor­ney gen­er­al to cham­pi­on cor­rup­tion inves­ti­ga­tions and to demand an end to polit­i­cal per­se­cu­tion of land and human rights activists. Activists protest­ed the assas­si­na­tion of at least sev­en campesino lead­ers, includ­ing four mem­bers of CODE­CA, in the span of one month, and slammed the gov­ern­ment for neg­li­gence in han­dling the dev­as­tat­ing June 3 erup­tion of the Fuego vol­cano that killed at least 110 peo­ple and dec­i­mat­ed entire vil­lages. The slo­gan Resign now” tar­get­ing Morales has been a ral­ly­ing cry for anti-cor­rup­tion move­ments since evi­dence of the president’s shad­owy elec­toral deal­ings came to light last year. The chant echoes the mas­sive anti-fraud move­ment that rat­tled the gov­ern­ment for months in 2015, forc­ing Pres­i­dent Otto Perez Moli­na and Vice Pres­i­dent Rox­ana Baldet­ti to step down over a mul­ti-mil­lion dol­lar embez­zle­ment scan­dal. Both await tri­al in jail.

But for CODE­CA, based in Maza­te­nan­go about 100 miles west of Guatemala City, the anti-impuni­ty move­ment must go beyond calls to dis­pose cor­rupt politi­cians and instead tack­le the roots of a sys­tem built on the dis­pos­ses­sion of the many for the ben­e­fit of a few.

Res­ig­na­tion is an imme­di­ate action,” Vay told In These Times. As a campesino move­ment, we are work­ing on a pro­pos­al and strug­gle for struc­tur­al changes because the entire sys­tem is cor­rupt in Guatemala.”

CODE­CA pro­pos­es a pop­u­lar and pluri­na­tion­al” con­stituent assem­bly process to rewrite Guatemala’s Constitution.

It’s not just chang­ing or mak­ing a new con­sti­tu­tion,” Vay explained. She argued that past con­sti­tu­tions have nev­er rep­re­sent­ed the country’s indige­nous major­i­ty, who face struc­tur­al racism and soar­ing pover­ty rates, accord­ing to the Unit­ed Nations. What we want now is to direct change from the com­mu­ni­ties, that it be the peo­ple who meet and define an agree­ment for coex­is­tence in a par­tic­i­pa­tive way.”

Guatemala’s Con­sti­tu­tion was adopt­ed in 1985 on the heels of a geno­cide against indige­nous peo­ple dur­ing the blood­i­est peri­od of the 36-year-civ­il war under the dic­ta­tor­ship of Gen­er­al Efrain Rios Montt.

Ben­i­to Morales believes cor­rup­tion cas­es cre­ate a huge oppor­tu­ni­ty” for Guatemala to grap­ple with big ques­tions of how to trans­form the polit­i­cal sys­tem. He said many social sec­tors now define their demands more clear­ly com­pared to dur­ing the 2015 protests against Perez Moli­na, but that there is more work to be done in under­stand­ing cor­rup­tion as a struc­tur­al issue.

For Vay, polit­i­cal edu­ca­tion is key to bring peo­ple who mobi­lized for Perez Molina’s res­ig­na­tion — includ­ing urban mid­dle class youth — into the larg­er con­ver­sa­tion on how to cre­ate real change.”

In the mean­time, the strug­gle to keep cor­rup­tion inves­ti­ga­tions on track is set to be an uphill battle.

Con­trary to Attor­ney Gen­er­al Por­ras’ claims that Morales is a good ally against cor­rup­tion,” the pres­i­dent has bucked fraud probes. Morales has repeat­ed­ly tried to dis­cred­it the UN-backed body lead­ing high-lev­el inves­ti­ga­tions, the Inter­na­tion­al Com­mis­sion Against Impuni­ty in Guatemala (CICIG), and kick out its chief com­mis­sion­er, Ivan Velasquez. 

Among oth­er high-pro­file cas­es, CICIG has col­lab­o­rat­ed with the prosecutor’s office in inves­ti­gat­ing Morales for ille­gal cam­paign financ­ing and charg­ing Morales’ broth­er and son in a sep­a­rate fraud case.

Mean­while, if Por­ras fol­lows her predecessor’s lead and seeks to strip Morales’ immu­ni­ty, the buck will stop with Con­gress, where a major­i­ty bloc of law­mak­ers that crit­ics call the Pact of the Cor­rupt” already vot­ed to pro­tect Morales from prosecution.

San­dra Moran, a mem­ber of Con­gress with the pro­gres­sive Con­ver­gence par­ty, told In These Times that the bloc’s ini­tia­tives have two goals: con­trol­ling the pop­u­la­tion and ensur­ing impuni­ty for them­selves and their cronies.

What this group that now we iden­ti­fy as the Pact of the Cor­rupt’ does is [cre­ate] laws to con­trol the pop­u­la­tion, laws of impuni­ty for them and their friends, [and] laws that ben­e­fit a deter­mined group,” she said.

Just days after the erup­tion, before the vol­canic ash had cleared, Con­gress resumed dis­cus­sions about reforms to mod­i­fy the crime of illic­it elec­toral financ­ing, of which Morales is accused.

Polit­i­cal ana­lyst Dr. Manuel Vil­la­cor­ta told In These Times that pro­po­nents of the reforms aim to favor the politi­cians already con­vict­ed of illic­it financ­ing and pre­pare for the next elec­tions so they can receive illic­it cap­i­tal with­out fear of crim­i­nal prosecution.”

He added that Con­gress’ fail­ure to hold the exec­u­tive account­able under­mines democ­ra­cy, while Morales’ reac­tionary” stance threat­ens insti­tu­tion­al sta­bil­i­ty by gen­er­at­ing social frag­men­ta­tion that could lead the coun­try to a sit­u­a­tion of ungovernability.”

Ben­i­to Morales warned that Morales and his allies’ pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with dodg­ing account­abil­i­ty will have far-reach­ing con­se­quences, includ­ing leav­ing aban­doned” sec­tors and ser­vices includ­ing health­care and edu­ca­tion to fall fur­ther by the wayside.

Despite the chal­lenges, cor­rup­tion inves­ti­ga­tions have opened a pandora’s box that has already pro­pelled social move­ments forward.

Accord­ing to Moran, What they [polit­i­cal elites] are try­ing to do is have the state in their ser­vice. What we are try­ing to do is build demo­c­ra­t­ic rule of law.”

Heather Gies is a free­lance jour­nal­ist who has writ­ten on human rights, social move­ments and envi­ron­men­tal issues for Al Jazeera, The Guardian, In These Times and Nation­al Geo­graph­ic. Fol­low her on twit­ter @HeatherGies.
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