MEXICO CITY — Almost a dozen years ago, a panel of international prosecutors backed by the United Nations arrived in Guatemala. Their goal: to team up with the Guatemalan attorney general’s office, strengthen the rule of law and combat the criminal networks that had taken hold after the country emerged from more than three decades of civil war.
It was a bold experiment in outsourcing justice, but given Guatemala’s fragile democracy, its weak institutions and the extent of corruption in the country, the government was prepared to cede sovereignty.
Since the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala began its work in 2007, it has peeled back layers of corruption, helped strengthen the courts and professionalized the attorney general’s office, winning the approval of the Guatemalan people and sending powerful politicians, leaders of organized crime and businessmen to jail.
But when a 2017 inquiry into illegal campaign financing focused on President Jimmy Morales directly, he began to stifle the work of the commission, known as Cicig, according its Spanish initials.
This week, Mr. Morales attempted to shut Cicig down entirely by breaking the agreement with United Nations — a decision reversed by the country’s highest court on Wednesday.
Mr. Morales has defied the court in the past. If he does so this time, Mr. Morales would plunge the country into a constitutional crisis.
Here are some key questions about what this could mean for the country.
Why is the anti-corruption panel so important?
Since the commission began its work, its cases have shown how private groups have hijacked many of the state’s functions to enrich themselves.
The corruption schemes cut a wide swath across the government, tainting legislators, judges, and municipal officials, and infiltrating Guatemala’s customs agency, its main public health care provider, a major port, its passport office and the communications ministry.
But the commission’s contribution toward strengthening the rule of law in Guatemala goes beyond disrupting these schemes and jailing corrupt politicians and their allies.
Guatemala is a vastly unequal country where half the children are malnourished and rural areas are neglected. The country needs effective government agencies to deal with those problems, but corruption saps the state’s ability to improve people’s well-being.
More broadly, Cicig’s work in Guatemala has been a powerful example of a successful anti-corruption battle in Latin America, where citizens have increasingly expressed revulsion against entrenched graft and impunity.
What led to the crisis this week?
Under the leadership of Iván Velásquez, a Colombian prosecutor who arrived in 2013, Cicig has worked closely with two attorneys general.
In 2015, it exposed a customs fraud scheme led by the president, Otto Pérez Molina, who was forced to resign after months of street protests. Disgust with the political class led to the election that year of Mr. Morales, a former television comedian who ran as an outsider on the slogan “not corrupt, nor a thief.”
At first, Mr. Morales allied himself with the anti-corruption movement, promising to work with Cicig and appointing a cabinet of young reformers.
But that changed after Cicig charged Mr. Morales’s brother and son in a fraud scheme. And once Cicig accused Mr. Morales himself — along with some of Guatemala’s most powerful business people — of campaign finance violations, the president tried to stifle its ability to work. He removed some of its police investigators, forced Mr. Velásquez out of the country, refused to renew the visas of some prosecutors and announced that the commission’s mandate would not be renewed when it expires this September.
Because of the agreement with the United Nations, though, the Guatemalan government did not expel Cicig.
That changed this week, when the government declared on Monday that it was withdrawing from the agreement and gave Cicig’s international staff 24 hours to leave the country. In response, the country’s highest court on constitutional matters threw out the government’s decision.
Why did the government act now?
Elections. The country votes for a new president and Congress in June. Although Mr. Morales is ineligible for re-election, he and his allies will oppose any candidate who supports Cicig and the continuation of its investigations into government corruption. Mr. Morales will lose immunity once he steps down from office.
With Cicig out of the picture, the government may find it easier to pressure electoral authorities not to allow presidential candidates who can cause trouble for it — such as Thelma Aldana, the former attorney general who worked with Mr. Velásquez to bring the highest profile prosecutions.
What is the United States’ role in this?
Washington has been the commission’s main source of funding, along with Canada and European countries. The Obama administration was a strong supporter of Cicig, seeing its role in strengthening the rule of law in the region as central to American interests, among them stemming the flow of migrants and drugs from Central America.
That support has cooled under the Trump administration, which has been lobbied heavily by the Morales government.
On Tuesday, the United States Embassy in Guatemala City came out in support of Cicig.
“The U.S. government is concerned about the future of anti-corruption efforts in Guatemala,” the statement said. “Rule of law, reduced corruption and an end to impunity are key to security, stability, and prosperity, not only in Guatemala, but throughout the region.”
What happens next?
It is unclear. If the Guatemalan government perceives that it can continue to defy the court, then it will block the return of Cicig’s international staff, who have left the country for their safety. Without Cicig’s prosecutors, the attorney general’s office may struggle to try the cases it has built with the commission.
Allies of Mr. Morales in the Guatemalan Congress and the courts are maneuvering to remove three of the constitutional court’s five magistrates. If that effort is successful, then the last formal check on the government’s power will be lifted.
That leaves only the international community, including the United States, and Guatemalans themselves to pressure the government to uphold the rule of law.
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