AP Interview: Guatemala graft body’s chief happy despite end

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Although he did not head the anti-corruption mission in Guatemala starting with its creation in 2007, Iván Velásquez became known internationally about a half decade ago due to the high-impact cases he was able to uncover during his leadership.

The Colombian lawyer took over the U.N.-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala in 2013, though he has been forced to live outside the Central American nation due to tensions with President Jimmy Morales since 2018.

Still, the impact of his work remains intact and although Morales was successful in putting an end to the body after 12 years of operations, Velásquez says he is satisfied.

“We nearly reached the nucleus of the problem of the capture of the Guatemalan state,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press on Friday.

The 64-year-old was born in Medellin, Colombia, and currently lives in the South American nation’s capital, Bogota, where he met with AP.

For Velásquez the pressure put on Guatemala’s government was what led Morales to end the mandate of the commission, whose last day of operation is Tuesday.

During its dozen years, working with Guatemalan prosecutors, the body helped jail hundreds of people, including three ex-presidents accused of corruption and other offenses.

Guatemalans see graft as one of the country’s worst afflictions, as it aggravates poverty and social exclusion in their poor nation.

According to Velásquez, the “nucleus” of the problem is impunity in power, and for that reason he thinks 2016 was crucial to his labors.

That year, the commission’s investigations brought to the public exposure of illicit electoral financing from the influential business sector to the political party that Morales rode to office. While such practices did not begin in that government, the executive branch was stung.

“We landed a strong blow against the impunity of power,” Velásquez said.

“Impunity felt that it was wounded,” he added. “The circle of corruption results when there are not effective controls. It is very important in the phenomenon of great corruption. That allows those who have the great power to finance, to even determine the policies of government.”

The breach with Morales began in 2017 when the commission and Guatemalan anti-impunity prosecutors presented a fraud accusation against the president’s son and brother, citing the alleged falsification of invoices and the simulation of an event that never took place to benefit an associate.

The president’s son confessed, but both he and his uncle were absolved by a Guatemalan court that ruled there was not sufficient evidence against them.

Later that year, the commission and Guatemalan prosecutors brought a separate accusation against Morales himself along with business executives alleging illicit electoral financing. The president responded by trying unsuccessfully to expel Velásquez from the country.

With that move, Velásquez said, Morales “decided to definitively declare himself an enemy of all progress.”

Before becoming president, Morales was a TV comedian who while campaigning repeatedly promised voters that he was “neither corrupt nor a thief.”

Morales faced off not only with Velásquez, but also with then-top Guatemalan prosecutor Thelma Aldana, who had supported the body and whose term in office ended in 2018.

Morales chose as her successor María Consuelo Porras.

“When that designation by the president happened, naturally he had to name a person who agrees with what was his great hatred for the commission,” Velásquez said.

Upon becoming top prosecutor, Porra declined to have contact with Velásquez, ending the long coordination between the commission and prosecutors.

Velásquez thinks the fight against corruption in Guatemala can offer lessons for other countries in similar circumstances.

“There is no regret, but the experience taught me that in a battle against systemic, structural corruption — not against episodes of corruption, but against corruption that is truly rooted in the state — it is indispensable to begin by having an independent, honorable system of justice,” Velásquez said.

“It is not possible to fight effectively against corruption if there is not first an action with respect to the system of justice, for the judges to truly be independent, for them to attend to the existing evidence and not the influences or powers that are being exercised over them,” he said.

Velásquez sees his work in Guatemala as not being over, even though he has been away from the country for over a year already. He plans to continue to remain close through a project examining issues of justice and democracy in both his home country and Guatemala.

But he says Guatemalans have their own work to do, including finding greater unity in society.

“A union between all Guatemalan sectors that are for democracy is needed, so that they join together and establish the minimum conditions for democracy,” Velásquez said.


Associated Press writer Sonia Pérez D. reported this story from Guatemala City and AP writer Joshua Goodman reported in Bogota.