On May 4, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) announced a hold on $6 million in aid to the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a United Nations-sponsored body that works with local prosecutors to investigate organized crime and corruption. Rubio said he wanted answers to “serious questions” regarding “possible collusion” between the commission and the Russian government. He urged Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales to investigate.
Rubio is an outspoken advocate for the rule of law in Latin America and elsewhere. So it’s striking he would take a step that could sabotage what is widely seen as the most successful anti-corruption initiative in the region. Since 2007, CICIG has helped secure the arrest of scores of suspects once considered untouchable — including a reputed drug lord and three former presidents, one of whom was forced from office after the commission exposed a corruption ring run out of the presidential palace.
The commission’s success largely has been due to support from Washington — which, until recently, has been bipartisan and effusive. Vice Presidents Joe Biden and Mike Pence have praised the commission. During a 2016 visit, the State Department’s top anti-drug official, William Brownfield, said it had made “more impact in combating and resisting impunity and corruption than any other institution, not just here in Guatemala, but on the planet.” Last August, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haleydeclared that the commission had “the full support of the United States.”
Most Guatemalans share this enthusiasm. But not their president. Jimmy Morales, a former TV comedian, won the 2015 election running as an anti-corruption, pro-CICIG outsider. But he turned on the commission after it brought fraud charges against his son and brother and began investigating the financing of his campaign. First he tried expelling the head of the commission from Guatemala. Then his political party and its allies sought to pass legislation that would allow corrupt officials to avoid prison. CICIG supporters thwarted both efforts, helped by U.S. government pressure.
Morales next set out to curry favor with the White House. On the heels of President Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, Morales announced that Guatemala would do the same. He attended the National Prayer Breakfast, where he met briefly with President Trump. For months, he seemed to be making little headway with undermining the commission’s support in Washington, and the investigation into the financing of his campaign steadily advanced.
But then help arrived for Morales from an unexpected source: Bill Browder, a U.S.-born financier and tireless campaigner on behalf of the victims of persecution by the Russian government. These victims include his own tax accountant, Sergei Magnitsky, who was tortured and died in a Moscow prison. (In response, Congress passed the Magnitsky Act to sanction human rights abusers.) The victims also include — Browder believes — members of a Russian family the commission prosecuted in Guatemala.
In January, a Guatemalan court sentenced Igor and Irena Bitkov and their daughter, Anastasia, to prison for using false passports obtained from a crime ring in the Guatemalan migration authority. In response, Browder opened a campaign to persuade U.S. lawmakers that CICIG had persecuted the family at the behest of the Russian government. His efforts led to a hearing in Congress in April, titled “The long arm of injustice: Did a UN commission founded to fight corruption help the Kremlin destroy a Russian family?” A week later, Rubio secured the hold on the commission’s funding until questions regarding its ties to Russia could be resolved.
No evidence of any such ties has emerged. A Russian state-owned bank, VTB, filed a criminal complaint for identity fraud and other crimes against the Bitkovs in Guatemala in 2013 and took part as a third-party complainant in pretrial proceedings against them. But the investigation that led to their arrest began three years earlier. And in the Guatemalan system, the third-party complainant operates independently of the state prosecutors and CICIG.
Browder and Rubio also have raised questions regarding what they call “inexplicable” aspects of the Bitkov prosecution. Yet the commission has has provided sensible explanations. The one question that does raise valid concern regards the harshness of the Bitkovs’ sentences: 19 years in prison for Igor, 14 years each for Irene and Anastasia. It was the public prosecutor, not CICIG, who recommended the maximum allowable penalties, as prosecutors do the world over, often to encourage plea bargains.
In Guatemala, Rubio’s announcement was seen as a major victory for Morales. Not only did it mean that the commission might lose a substantial portion of its $21 million budget for 2018, but it also meant the commission no longer could count on a consensus in Washington to protect it from President Morales. On May 10, six former Guatemalan foreign ministers wrote the U.S. Congress, warning that withholding the funds would embolden the enemies of accountability. That same day, as if on cue, the Morales government told Sweden — the commission’s other major funder — to replace its ambassador, a vocal supporter of CICIG. The government since has warned that it will expel the ambassador if Sweden doesn’t voluntarily remove him.
Senator Rubio can’t possibly expect to rely on an investigation of CICIG by President Morales to provide credible results. Instead, Rubio and his congressional colleagues should press the U.S. State Department and intelligence agencies to provide any relevant information as soon as possible. And in the absence of evidence of collusion with the Kremlin, they should restore funding and reaffirm their bipartisan support for the commission without delay. It would be the height of folly to allow fears of a non-existent threat from Russia to feed the very real and growing threat that Guatemala’s own president poses for the country’s remarkable efforts — with CICIG’s help — to fight corruption and impunity.
Daniel Wilkinson is managing director of the Americas division at Human Rights Watch.