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US wavers as crisis unfolds in Guatemala

Kate Linthicum, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

MEXICO CITY -- The last time a Guatemalan president tried to cut off a United Nations-backed anti-corruption commission that was investigating him, the United States quickly intervened.

In 2015, Vice President Joe Biden flew to Guatemala to meet with then-President Otto Perez Molina, who was accused of being part of a customs corruption scheme. Biden threatened to withdraw U.S. aid from Guatemala if Perez refused to extend the two-year mandate of the commission, which the U.S. funded and viewed as a successful crime-reduction model that could be replicated around the world.

But last week, when current President Jimmy Morales abruptly expelled the commission while it was in the middle of investigating him for illicit campaign financing accusations, the Trump administration wavered.

While Canada, Germany and the European Union have fiercely condemned the commission's expulsion, an act that defied rulings from the country's highest court, the U.S. offered a four-sentence statement from the State Department that expressed vague support for Guatemala's anti-corruption efforts but didn't mention the commission at all.

"The U.S. has maintained an ambivalent attitude," said Helen Mack, a Guatemalan human rights advocate who supports the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, known as CICIG. "The whole world is asking: 'Where are they?'"

The feeble U.S. response may be linked to multiple factors.

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For one, Guatemala has gone to lengths to curry favor among Washington conservatives in recent years. The Central American nation was one of only a handful of countries worldwide to follow the U.S. in moving its Israeli embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem last year. Since 2017, the year the CICIG opened its investigation into Morales, Guatemala's government and business leaders had contracts worth at least $2 million with D.C. lobbyists, according to U.S. government documents.

At the same time, criticism of the CICIG has been growing among Republican lawmakers who are angry about its investigation into a Russian family that obtained false passports from a Guatemalan crime ring. After a prominent critic of the Russian government questioned whether the CICIG had acted at the behest of Russian President Vladimir Putin, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., announced a hold on $6 million in funding for the commission until questions about the incident were addressed, helping strengthen claims by President Morales that the commission was politically motivated and violated Guatemalan sovereignty.

On Tuesday, Rubio tweeted his support for the Guatemalan government's decision to expel the CICIG.

"I've had concerns about CICIG's abuse of power and its role in the mistreatment of the Bitkof family," he said. "Guatemala, a strong ally of the U.S., has every right to terminate this agreement with the U.N."

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