Crisis flares in over corruption and organised crime

Demonstrators shout slogans against Guatemala’s President Jimmy Morales at the National Palace of Culture in Guatemala City.

Guatemala has fallen into deep political crisis after the president declared the United Nations-backed anti-corruption chief investigating him and his party persona non grata, only to have the expulsion order blocked hours later by the country’s constitutional court.

Jimmy Morales, a former comedian who was elected president two years ago after the previous government was toppled by corruption charges, was left fighting for his political survival – and freedom – on Sunday after the failed attempt to oust head of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), Iván Velásquez.

Morales announced the expulsion of the respected Colombian prosecutor via a video posted on his Twitter account in the early hours of Sunday morning. He also announced that he was firing the foreign minister for failing to carry out the expulsion, replacing him with an ally who is under investigation for illegal adoptions.

The announcements were made less than 48 hours after Velásquez and Thelma Aldana, the attorney general, asked the court to strip Morales of his political immunity in order to proceed with charges linked to illegal campaign funds allegedly received by his political party the National Convergence Front (FCN) during the 2015 election

Prosecutors allege that Morales has refused to account for more than $800,000 (£620,000) in campaign financing and had hidden his own party’s accounts. Morales, who ran for president under the slogan “neither corrupt nor a crook”, has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.

The investigation of election campaign funds is part of a sweeping inquiry into Guatemala’s deep-seated problem of political parties accepting money from organised crime groups and powerful business leaders in exchange for public contracts, kickbacks and protection from the law.

Prosecutors moved against Morales while he was in New York trying – but failing – to persuade the UN secretary general to fire Velásquez.

Judges will rule on the immunity request on Monday. If it is lifted and congress votes in favour of impeachment, Morales could be arrested within days.

But activists fear Morales and his military advisers are unlikely to accept the same fate that led to the fall of former president and military general Otto Pérez Molina and vice-president Roxanna Baldetti. The pair were jailed immediately after being impeached in 2015, amid an unprecedented wave of mass protests.

Thousands took to the streets of the capital, Guatemala City, amid growing fears that Morales is poised to declare a state of siege. An internal police memo seen by the Guardian revealed all leave has been cancelled for the country’s elite special forces.

“There’s a huge risk that Morales and his close circle of old military guard could order a state of siege to try to stop the justice process,” Anabella Sibrian, director of the NGO International Platform against Impunity, told the Guardian in a telephone interview from outside the CICIG offices in Guatemala City.

“What we’ve seen today is an arbitrary act against internationally backed anti-corruption figureheads, but it is also a strong message to the country’s increasingly robust social movements that they could be next.”

The FCN was formed by a group of hardline military officials suspected of grave human rights violations during the Central American’s country’s 36-year civil war in which 200,000 people, mainly indigenous civilians, were killed.

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 Demonstrators protest against the Guatemalan president, Jimmy Morales, outside the constitutional court in Guatemala City. Photograph: Reuters

CICIG was created to help dismantle parallel security structures and organised crime rings dating back to the civil war. Velásquez has come under attack in recent months as investigators close in on economic and military links to the current government.

International embassies including those of the US and EU countries came out strongly in his support on Sunday, as several ministers resigned in protest at Morales’ bid to fire him.

Velásquez is believed to be inside the office of the human rights prosecutor, who called for urgent protective measures for the three judges who voted against the expulsion order.

“This is a dark day for justice in Guatemala, a constitutional crisis triggered by the president, his military allies and organised associates who are already facing trial or fearful that they could be next,” said Jo-Marie Burt, a Guatemalan justice expert and senior fellow at the Washington Office at Latin America (WOLA).

“But even if important figureheads are forced out, while this would be a serious blow it would not the end of the world. The anti-corruption investigations would continue.”