Arun Venugopal: Throughout his administration, President Trump has continued to place immigration at the forefront of his policies. In this, he found an unlikely ally.
President Trump (recorded speech): We've had a tremendous relationship over the last two years on the border. We've signed agreements with Guatemala that have been tremendous in terms of really both countries, but our country, with respect to illegals coming into our country. We just can't have it. It's been very much slowed up. Guatemala has been terrific.
Arun: Guatemala's former president, Jimmy Morales, cozied up to Trump from the start of Trump's presidency. Now, a new investigation from Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting shows that there's credible suspicions for a quid pro quo between Morales and President Trump, where Morales agreed to a US immigration policy in exchange for the US's support in ousting an anti-corruption commission and it's top official.
This former top official, Ivan Velasquez, used to be at the head of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, also known as CICIG. CICIG initially received funding and support from the US government to do away with corruption in the country. Last year, when CICIG began investigating allegations against Morales, the anti-corruption body was shut down. Now, Ivan Velasquez is alleging that the US government helps support the shuttering of the commission in exchange for support from Guatemala with the Safe Third Country Agreement, a policy to stop migration flows to the US.
I spoke with Anayansi Diaz-Cortes, a reporter and radio producer with Reveal, who helped break down this alleged quid pro quo.
Anayansi Diaz-Cortes: What Ivan Velasquez alleges that in exchange for getting the commission and him ousted out of Guatemala threateningly, Ivan Velasquez says, look at the reality of what Trump got in exchange, like you don't need me to allege it. Look at the reality after there are jeeps circling the CICIG offices, shortly after we see a blossoming relationship between Morales and Trump. Right after Ivan Velasquez is taken out, you see that Trump gets an open door policy into Guatemalan migration policy.
Arun: What was the result of that migration policy for people who forget what happened?
Anayansi: The result of that migration policy is basically that before people coming from El Salvador and Honduras, before they can go up North to claim asylum in the US, they have to claim asylum in Guatemala. What this effectively does, it states that Guatemala is a safe third country. What that means is that it's safe for immigrants to claim asylum, but our question throughout this whole time was like, if this is a safe country, then why in 2019 the 280,000 Guatemalans get deported from the southwest US border back to Guatemala? If it's so safe, why are people fleeing in the hundreds of thousands every single year?
Arun: Let's go back to the roots of this situation, at least to the roots of this new anti-corruption commission that was established in Guatemala, and was championed by the previous administration and Vice President Joe Biden. When was it put in place and why?
Anayansi: The thing to understand here is that it was put in place in the early 2000s. It was seen as a reckoning between the United States and Guatemala after decades of civil war. Through the Cold War, and since 1954, we know well-documented US involvement in support of merciless military dictatorships that went on to commit genocide, and this was all supported by the US. When the Peace Accords get signed in 1997, not to go to into the weeds, Bill Clinton goes to Guatemala and apologizes. He's like, this is a new beginning.
The CICIG, this anti-corruption commission, is set up as a reckoning to be like, okay, what are the root causes of migration? Why do people continue to want to come? Because when you live in a failed state, when you live in a place rife with corruption, where you can't go to the cops, where there's no access to medical care, where there's no accountability for those in power, the logical places like you look North, you look to the North where you can make a life for yourself where you can have hope in the future.
This commission was set up to do the very boring labor of institution building, of investigating, of making the link between corruption and people in power. It was a success. It started under Bush, and it was funded by the US. It was UN appointed, funded by the US with the support of the Guatemalan Congress. You needed this dream team approach, where everyone was working together, where this commission can make recommendations, but they had to be implemented by Guatemalan Congress and the money came from the US.
Arun: Anayansi, what exactly happened when Ivan Velasquez, the head of CICIG, caught wind of the alleged corruption from Morales and his family?
Anayansi: Velasquez catches wind, that there's some fraud going on with these receipts and these checks that were never cashed. It involves the President's family. He calls Jimmy Morales out. Jimmy Morales accepts this, goes on national television, condemns impunity, but obviously, that's not enough for Velasquez. Velasquez wants Jimmy Morales to stand before a judge. This is where the rift really starts to happen.
It was the beginning of the end in some ways of the commission and Guatemala. When you ask Velasquez why go after them, his response is, if the law isn't powerful, if the law is only there for the dispossess, then is it law? His stance is very-- The law is the law is the law. [crosstalk]
Arun: Purist. In some ways, when I read this fact that this very powerful independent prosecutor is willing to go after what is clearly a crime, but also involves several thousand dollars. We're not talking about a massive amount of corruption. It did initially strike me as, does this guy understand how to navigate power? Or is he going to prove to be partly his own undoing?
Anayansi: That's exactly the right analysis, Arun, because he went and got into a lot of hot water for not being able to handle politically the situation of who to go after and how. I think his perspective is he went after like rings of corruption, where you would pull on one thread and then the $11,000 led to like a larger campaign finance situation with Morales. He would keep on pulling that way, but in terms of the stakes of this led to basically the commission being squashed, was it worth it? We asked him, and his stance is the the rule of law. Basically, this is what he says as his calling.
At this point in the story, Morales starts to really send signals and do lobbying efforts from Guatemala to the US to curry favor with the Trump administration, and be like, hey, you have Robert Mueller. Right around the same time, Robert Mueller was investigating Trump. Velasquez talks about this conversation that his staff, people told them about where it was like, you have Robert Mueller, I have Ivan Velasquez. We share the same suffering in some ways.
Arun: You have this nexus between the American president and the Guatemalan president. For Morales, as he starts pushing back against this anti-corruption effort in his country, how was this playing out nationally? Did you have a base there that was really rallying around him? Or was it seen as his interference with a very necessary system of anti-corruption crusaders?
Anayansi: What you do have, and you do one Google search, and it's when you follow this timeline of the persona non grata, and then when he eventually gets kicked out, you have civil society on the street protesting in support of Velasquez. What you created is the beginnings of a culture of rule of law and accountability. He was strongly supported. The CICIG was strongly supported by civil society within Guatemala.
I think just the persistence of Velasquez to continue what some would call like a fixation of going after Morales and not backing down. What ends up happening is that after the embassy of Guatemala moved to Jerusalem, after the US embassy moved as well. After Nikki Haley goes to Guatemala and it's like, "Velasquez, tone it down, stop it with the 'I heart CICIG' bumper stickers, chill out on the press conferences."
The FBI doesn't make the paper everyday like you need, and then it went from there to like you're affecting the business in Guatemala, you're effecting the sovereignty of Guatemala. There was a slowest fixation that was happening of the CICIG while this campaign in Washington was brewing around Ivan Velasquez and the CICIG being an arm of Vladimir Putin, and Ivan Velasquez being a Russian agent. Now, this sounds fringy room, but hold on a second, this thinking makes it to the pages of The Wall Street Journal. It makes it to the halls of Congress around this time. There is like Chris Smith; there's people in Congress advocating to end the CICIG, because they believe that it is an arm of Russia, and that Ivan Velasquez is a Russian agent.
We asked Ivan Velasquez this, if he was a Russian agent, and in his own words, he's never been to Russia. He doesn't have communications with any Russians. It hasn't been proven that he has connections to Russia, but this thinking makes it to Congress and the foundation that the US uses to pull financial support, only $10 million supporting this commission. This is what they use to pull the plug, like the justification for this commission not to continue.
Arun: What is the benefit as you see it because it's not only Republicans like Marco Rubio who come out with this elevated scrutiny of CICIG, and what's happened in Guatemala. Also, there are some Democrats as well. There is this kind of dark cloud that suddenly hangs over this foreign policy effort.
Anayansi: It was a bipartisan effort from the beginning to support it, and in pulling the plug. It was also a bipartisan effort. I think what happens is that there's a huge lobbying support in taking out the CICIG, and saying, "Okay, they had their turn. Let Guatemalan civil society takeover," and that's what CICIG was intended for was for Guatemalans to take ownership of their own judicial system.
In January of this year, Jimmy Morales left office, and since CICIG was kicked out of the country, we've seen a return to the way things used to be. Guatemala's new president, Alejandro Giammattei, has deep ties to drug mafias and former military officials. He used to oversee the prison system, and CICIG even went after him for illegally killing prisoners. So, why would you let in a commission that has already gone after you? Since he took office, 12 human rights defenders have been killed in Guatemala, and others have fled the country. There is a return, and the CICIG building, like the physical building, is scheduled to be demolished this year.
Arun: Anayansi Diaz-Cortes is a reporter and radio producer with Reveal. Anayansi, thank you so much for your reporting.
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