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Guatemala's Diplomatic Crisis with Colombia, Seeking revenge for anti-corruption efforts
January 27, 2022
The Other Americans: Guatemala’s Diplomatic Crisis with Colombia
Seeking revenge for anti-corruption efforts, Guatemala’s powerful far right is further isolating the country amid a progressive wave in Latin America.
BY Jeff Abbott
Progressive.org, January 27, 2023
Guatemala was thrust into a diplomatic crisis with Colombia earlier this month after the Guatemalan public prosecutor’s office escalated their campaign of revenge against anti-corruption efforts in the country.
On January 16, Rafael Curruchiche, the head of the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity in Guatemala, or FECI, announced that the country would be opening an investigation following allegations of “illegal, arbitrary, and abusive acts” against Colombian defense minister Iván Velásquez. The allegations stem from inquiries Velásquez made into accusations of corruption in the Brazilian Odebrecht construction scandal while he served as the commissioner of the now defunct International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, commonly known as CICIG.
Amid the attacks, Colombian President Gustavo Petro has defended and supported Velásquez, generating diplomatic tensions that could impact relations between the two countries, which have been allies for centuries.
“There was absolutely zero strategic planning,” Renzo Rosal, an independent political analyst, tells The Progressive. “It is a very incendiary approach. The next government, whoever it is, is going to have to see how to manage to resolve this because it does a lot of damage, not only to the [Giammattei] government, but to the country [as well].”
In interviews with Colombian media, Curruchiche could not defend the accusations against Velásquez. Curruchiche also has his own baggage—he is included on the Engel list, a U.S. State Department list of corrupt and anti-democratic actors, and had his visa revoked in 2022.
Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei escalated tensions after Colombian President Petro announced he would be recalling his ambassador to Guatemala. Giammattei lashed out against Petro, attacking his position as president and calling for “sanity.”
“I am going to let President Petro continue to make the mistake of a guerrilla [a reference to Petro’s leftist history], but it is not very political,” Giammattei told the Spanish wire service EFE. “I am not going to play the game.”
“There was absolutely zero strategic planning. It is a very incendiary approach.”
He added a few of his own unfounded accusations. “Unlike there (in Colombia), as far as I know—and I don’t get involved in the internal affairs of countries—but they are letting drug traffickers go free, people who murdered people during the armed conflict…. In my country what we have tried is the independence of the powers of the state.”
But Guatemala itself has freed those accused of corruption and drug trafficking—including former presidential candidate Manuel Baldizon, who was accused of corruption in the Brazilian Odebrecht construction scandal and was extradited to the United States. There, he served a prison sentence before returning to Guatemala, after paying millions of dollars to obtain his release.
Petro responded to Giammattei’s attacks by stating, “Sanity in politics means fighting corruption. Those who allow the mafia to take over the state only lead society to genocide.”
Velásquez thanked Petro for his support, referencing corruption as a “monster.”
“I am deeply grateful to the president [Gustavo Petro] for his expressions of solidarity and trust,” he wrote on Twitter. “We know the monster, we have seen it up close and, from different trenches, we have fought it. We know how it transforms and the methods it uses, but it doesn’t scare us.”
By January 20, President Giammattei appeared to have been trying to deescalate the diplomatic division by recognizing Velásquez’s immunity. But the worsening diplomatic crisis has led to international concerns from the United Nations, the United States, and the European Union, especially in light of the worsening human rights situation in Guatemala.
At the root of the diplomatic crisis with Colombia is the influence of far-right ideological dogmatism. A series of election wins for the left across the hemisphere has led to a sense of isolation among Guatemala’s ruling party.
“I think an anti-international sentiment was generated with the declaration of Iván Velásquez as persona non-grata and the request to the U.N. commission to withdraw,” Gabriela Carrera, a Guatemalan political science professor at the Rafael Landívar University, tells The Progressive. “This isolation has to do with creating walls in a region at the moment that there are very hopeful [things happening].”
Throughout Giammattei’s administration, the president has avoided speaking with media critical of him and has largely only done interviews with far-right media in Guatemala and in the United States, such as Breitbart News, Newsmax, The Daily Caller, and Fox News.
The current accusations against Velásquez come from far-right groups that formed in support of Álvaro Uribe, who served as Colombia’s president between 2002 and 2010. His allies in Colombia, who seek to weaken the Petro administration, have clung to the unfounded accusations from Guatemala.
“Former president Uribe in Colombia is probably very excited because he likes everything that is anti-Petro and anti-Velásquez,” Rosal suggests.
“Everything that Guatemala is doing also gives fuel to the fire of division in [Colombia],” Rosal says. He adds that Guatemala’s far right likes to say it is “a rightwing country that is defending the rest of the continent from the siege of the left.’”
It’s part of the same thing as [Giammattei] going to visit the president of Ukraine, the actions [in support of Taiwan], and the actions [in support of] Trump are more or less along the same lines.”
Guatemala has seen a systematic assault on the independence of its judicial system. This revenge campaign emerged in the years following former President Jimmy Morales’s targeting of the country’s anti-corruption body CICIG. His administration’s efforts were supported and strengthened by both conservative media and Republicans in the United States. The CICIG officially closed on September 3, 2019.
“In recent years we have seen a series of state-level persecution towards the people who investigated corruption in order to recapture the state,” Carrera says. “Maintaining impunity was an objective that was maintained by all [pro-corruption] actors.”
These efforts have led to the jailing of those who worked with both the CICIG and FECI, and the exile of attorneys general, prosecutors, investigators, and judges who have been involved in or overseen anti-corruption cases.
Virginia Laparra, a former prosecutor of the FECI, was arrested in February 2022 on charges of abuse of authority for filing a complaint against a judge. She was convicted to four years in prison in December 2022, in a case that has brought international outcry.
Others face criminal prosecution for their part in rooting out corruption in Guatemala. Along with the announcement of the investigation into Velásquez, Curruchiche announced that his office was issuing arrest warrants for former Attorney General Thelma Aldana, former CICIG leadership, including Mayra Veliz, Luis David Gaitán, and Juan Pablo Carrasco de Groote on falsified charges of abuse of authority, obstruction of justice, and conspiracy.
The freezing of diplomatic relations with Colombia also has the potential to significantly affect foreign direct investment in Guatemala, especially as Colombia represents a major source of investment in Guatemala.
According to the Guatemalan Central Bank, investments from Colombia represented the majority of investments in the country in 2022, investing $175.2 million dollars. In comparison, investments from the United States were $121.4 million dollars.
Threatening such a significant source of income, the conflict provoked by those trying to destroy the legacy of anti-corruption efforts will only serve to further isolate Guatemala in the region.
“It’s very terrible damage [to the country],” Rosal says. “What these actions do is isolate us more. We are an unreliable country. We are a country where [it is not desirable] to invest, because it is a high risk. We are a country where you are not even willing to do anything.”
Jeff Abbott is an independent journalist currently based out of Guatemala. “The Other Americans” is a column created by Abbott for The Progressive on human migration in North and Central America.
The Other Americans: Guatemala’s Diplomatic Crisis with Colombia - Progressive.org
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