Anti-Corruption Commission Confronts Guatemala’s ‘Continuum of Impunity’

Alex Papadovassilakis |  Mar 14th, 2024
Santiago PalomoSantiago Palomo. Image by @CNCguatemala
This article by Alex Papadovassilakis originally appeared on Insight Crime and is being published by under a Creative Commons 3.0 license.

Santiago Palomo was minutes away from boarding a flight to New York when he got a call from Guatemala’s newly inaugurated president, Bernardo Arévalo.

Palomo, a Guatemalan lawyer, and Harvard University graduate was heading home from a January break in Madrid to return to his job at a top New York law firm. Instead, Arévalo offered him a new role – heading the government’s flagship anti-corruption commission as Guatemala looks to reignite its decades-long fight against graft and impunity.

Both humbled and tantalized by the proposition, Palomo jumped on the first plane to Guatemala after arriving in New York, met with the president, and accepted his offer.

By February, Palomo had moved to Guatemala and launched the National Commission Against Corruption (Comisión Nacional contra la Corrupción – CNC), a rebranded version of the executive body created by Arévalo’s predecessor, former president Alejandro Giammattei (2020-2024).

Palomo takes charge following years of backsliding on corruption that has seen state-embedded corruption networks cynically dismantle the country’s justice system and plunder state coffers, targeting ministries dealing with infrastructure, public health, and education. Prosecutors linked to corruption networks have transformed the Attorney General’s Office into a weapon for persecuting political rivals.

That includes President Arévalo, who traversed a minefield of legal attacks laid by Attorney General Consuelo Porras before taking office in early January.

Against this ominous backdrop, InSight Crime met with Palomo at the CNC’s offices in Guatemala City to discuss what challenges lie ahead.

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InSight Crime (IC): Arévalo has said his government will not tolerate corruption. However, he still hasn’t announced a concrete anti-corruption plan. What is the plan, and where does the CNC fit in?

Santiago Palomo (SP): Part of why the commission was launched was to lay out the groundwork of the national anti-corruption agenda. We haven’t been successful against corruption, partly because we haven’t had political will. We have been ruled by kleptocrats and by people who have seen the state as a means of fulfilling their own economic means. Moreover, you haven’t had a full-throated, effective, national anti-corruption strategy that tackles the root causes of corruption.

We’re not a prosecutorial body because that’s not our constitutional mandate. It’s more of a global view of how to tackle corruption through policy [and] processes that prior governments have lacked.

President Arévalo’s mission is to tackle problems [in the] long term. It’s going to take time, but we can lay the groundwork [for] policy that will result in preventative measures needed to have an effective and impartial government.

IC: Corruption networks have successfully infiltrated most branches of the government. Where will the CNC focus its energy? 

SP: Because it’s such a full-blown issue, we have to prioritize where corruption networks are most deeply entrenched and where they have done most damage. We want to prioritize at least three ministries that have been most exposed to corrupt practices: the Ministry of Communications, Infrastructure, and Housing (Ministerio de Comunicaciones, Infraestructura y Vivienda – CIV); the Ministry for Health and Social Assistance (Ministerio de Salud Pública y Asistencia Social – MSPAS); and the Ministry of Education (Ministerio de Educación – MINEDUC).

Procurement in public works has been a synonym for discretionality. There has been no transparency or accountability as to how contractors are contracted. We are working with the CIV to revise about 1,430 contracts, which by preliminary assessment have shown signs of irregularity. A task force, led by the CIV and accompanied by the CNC and the Public Attorney’s Office (Procuraduría General de la Nación – PGN), plans to identify irregular contracts so that action can be taken.

IC: You recently declined an invitation to meet with Attorney General Consuelo Porras. Do you envisage any collaboration with her, given her office’s attempts to prosecute President Arévalo?

SP: We’re willing to work with any institution or stakeholder in Guatemala that’s truly committed to the fight against corruption. That’s an overarching commitment by the president, myself, and members of the cabinet.

We have not seen that in the Attorney General’s Office. Their actions have shown the opposite. We have seen this continuum of impunity, mostly because there has not been a strong commitment by the Attorney General’s Office.

Obviously, criminal complaints are going to be put where they belong – the Attorney General’s Office. They have a job to do there. But until we see otherwise, I don’t see how we can extend the conversation to a broader national anti-corruption agenda.

IC: What will happen to the 1,430 potentially irregular public works contracts, or reports of corruption denounced by ordinary Guatemalans, if the Attorney General’s Office isn’t willing to investigate them? 

SP: That’s the challenge. We’re going to do everything in our institutional capabilities to expose acts of corruption in the government while being respectful of the broader legal framework. And we’re going to show the Guatemalan people what has been found.

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They will know the Attorney General’s Office should be accountable for whether cases have been investigated or not. History will tell if they’re going to commit to their constitutional mandate and respond to this kleptocracy that has taken over the Guatemalan state.

IC: The judicial sector has been infiltrated by political mafias who will seek to position allies in top magisterial posts during high court elections later this year. Does the CNC have a plan to promote a clean selection process?

SP: Everything that’s within the mandate of the commission will be done. The greatest institutional battle this country faces is judiciary selection. Without a strong judiciary, we can’t advance a robust anti-corruption agenda.

We’re going to be closely monitoring the process. When there’s an opportunity to coordinate within the margins of our legal mandate, we’re going to do it. We plan on making communication strategies that lay out the implications of this process and why transparency has to be at the forefront.

IC: The line between politics and drug trafficking is often blurry. What will the CNC do if it receives tip-offs about high-level politicians linked to the drug trade? Is anyone untouchable? 

SP: No. It shouldn’t be a limit of the commission. Part of our job will be mapping out key [criminal] actors within the broader institutional framework. And obviously once this type of behavior is identified, we’re going to use the executive branch and the judiciary, as well as cooperation with international institutions, so that actions can be taken.

IC: How would you evaluate the health of key government ministries?

SP: I would say it’s critical. I think we have to be honest with the impression we’ve had from the first couple of months in government.

The [CIV] was used as the main source of political spoils. We know that public works have been a means of financing corrupt networks. It has been a means of financing the pockets of public officials and local politicians in different parts of Guatemala. The initial diagnosis in the CIV is full-blown corruption.

The Ministry of Health [is also suffering]. Hospitals have no medicine. Doctors have been working in subhuman conditions. The [corrupt] business around medicines has grown significantly during the last three or four administrations.

This is the trend in every ministry. The cabinet knows it’s a critical position, but they also know the threshold is so low that there’s significant room for improvement.

IC: What goals does the CNC have for this year? 

SP: It’s going to be challenging to create a [anti-corruption] dynamic that is effective and produces results.

We’re going to present a whistleblower protection initiative in the upcoming weeks. One of the goals for this year is to get the law approved by congress as legislation that will help in the anti-corruption fight. Right now, whistleblowers don’t feel comfortable filing claims against public officials for corrupt acts because they feel there’s no physical, labor, or identity protection.

[We will also] revise the 1,430 [CIV] contracts to identify onerous ones that affect the interests of the Guatemalan government and that have no public utility. [We want] to set a precedent that this will not be tolerated.

*This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

This article by Alex Papadovassilakis originally appeared on Insight Crime and is being published by under a Creative Commons 3.0 license.

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