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In a blow against impunity, Guatemala's top court rules in favor of the return of UN anti-corruption commissioner

Guatemala's Constitutional Court. Photo: Nómada GT, published under Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND).

The next 48 hours will be crucial for Guatemalan democracy. In a unanimous decision, the Constitutional Court of Guatemala ordered the government to allow Colombian jurist Ivan Velasquez to return to the country and resume his work as head of the United Nations-backed International Commission against Impunity (CICIG in Spanish).

Last month, President Jimmy Morales announced that he will no longer renew the mandate of the CICIG aside from barring the return of Velasquez, who is now based in the United States. The decision caused outrage nationally and internationally, prompting protests and condemnation from human rights defenders. The president's decision followed the Commission's allegations of corruption, specifically illicit campaign financing against Morales himself, and against members of his family who are now facing a fraud trial before the Constitutional Court.

The next two days constitute not only a test for Guatemala's democratic institutions, but also for the sectors which backed the president in the past. According to the Court's official document, disobeying the Court's orders could mean the president's removal by constitutional mechanisms.

Journalists like Nina Lakhani and other commentators on social media closely observe and reflect upon the different looming scenarios, especially if Morales refuses to comply with the court order and enlist the support of the Guatemalan army:

Human rights advocates, including the Ombudsman, Jordán Rodas, reacted with relief and satisfaction, but are still worried about the next move of the government and Congress:

An excellent news for the Guatemalan justice system. Welcome, commissioner Ivan Velázquez. Let's continue the struggle against corruption and impunity from Guatemala. It couldn't be otherwise. The honorable Constitutional Court reestablishes once again the public order.

What might happen in the next 48 hours, with the possible return of Ivan Velasquez to Guatemala:

A political deja vu?

These events gain special significance when seen in the light of the long and difficult struggle against corruption in Guatemala and the country's recent political turmoils. In fact, the rise to power of Morales followed an extraordinary popular movement fed up with the corruption and impunity of the political class that ended up with the resignation of President Otto Pérez Molina in 2015.

After the political crisis of 2015, in which the presence of the Commission also had an important role investigating corruption cases, the government of Morales was expected to be under close scrutiny.

As Morales finds himself in the middle of political and corruption scandals, the current crisis is seen as an important moment in which Guatemala could take step forward in protecting its democratic institutions, or a possible slide towards authoritarianism.

Salvadorian journalist Héctor Silva Alvalos points at the contrast between Morales ‘the campaigner’ and Morales ‘the president':

Jimmy Morales assumed Guatemala's presidency backed by emerging groups, some of them with links to military intelligence. He arrived [to power] saying he was neither corrupt nor a thief. Today he's a president who raves over absolute power to avoid being investigated for corruption.

Meanwhile, the hashtag #RenunciaYa (“Step down now”), which was used during the 2015 protests, has started gaining followers again while protests have been organized in the streets. At the same time, international media outlets from the region like Colombian newspaper El Espectador, underscored the importance of seeing the Guatemalan crisis in its regional dimension and urged the international community to pay attention to its development:

Más allá de ese posible cambio de último momento, la situación demuestra las tensiones por las que atraviesa el país y las fibras delicadas que Velásquez ha tocado. Hay un intento innegable por sepultar el tema sin que se llegue al fondo del asunto. Por eso, la comunidad internacional debe acompañar a los guatemaltecos en la protección de sus instituciones y en la búsqueda de la verdad. Los ojos del mundo deben posarse sobre Guatemala, que está en un momento clave de su historia, cuyo desenlace puede influir en la de todo un hemisferio que vive trances semejantes.

Beyond any last minute change, the situation demonstrates the tensions that are taking place in the country and the raw nerve that Velásquez has touched, There's an undeniable attempt to bury the subject without digging deep on it. That's why the international community must accompany Guatemalan people in the protection of their institutions and in the search for truth. The eyes of the world should be put on Guatemala as the country goes through a key moment of their history; and the outcome could weigh on the history of a whole hemisphere going through processes of similar significance.

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