GUATEMALA CITY — Recent headlines
about the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a key institution leading the fight against corruption in this country, seem taken straight out of a Cold War playbook: They accuse Russia of subverting the commission in order to further the Kremlin’s interests.
In reality, the U.N.-sponsored anti-corruption body, set up in 2006 to investigate high-level corruption, has been maliciously attacked by groups seeking to degrade its mission. They have used false claims regarding the Bitkovs, a Russian family convicted of identity fraud, to undermine support in Guatemala and in the U.S. Congress for the CICIG.
Some media coverage has reflected a lack of knowledge of the Guatemalan justice system and has echoed a brazen misinformation campaign, driven by a well-financed lobbyist.
Three Russian nationals — Igor Bitkov; his wife, Irina, and their daughter Anastasia — were convicted as part of an investigation by the public prosecutor’s office that targeted a criminal network inside the national immigration agency and other entities that provided fake passports and documents to foreigners and locals. The risks that these types of networks present for regional security (including to the United States) are clear.
The court established that the Bitkovs entered the country legally in 2009 and purchased fake identities that they used to settle in Guatemala, set up companies and obtain travel documents. Igor Bitkov obtained two different identities. The Bitkovs did not request refugee status upon entering the country and, despite later allegations, it seems they never presented any evidence of political persecution by Russia.
The court sentenced the Bitkov family to the maximum sentence according to the Guatemalan penal code for the crimes committed.
The fraud case began in 2010 and convicted dozens of people, including government officials and human traffickers. Nonetheless, some media accounts in the United States and also in Guatemala have reduced the complex case to a single claim: The Bitkovs are victims of the CICIG, which, influenced by Vladimir Putin, manipulated the proceedings and is thus responsible for their conviction. This is a completely baseless accusation.
These accounts attribute powers to the CICIG that are outside its mandate. The commission is an international body born of an agreement between the government of Guatemala and the United Nations to support Guatemalan law enforcement to investigate and dismantle criminal structures that have held state institutions captive for generations, ensuring impunity for a whole range of serious crimes. Two separate Guatemalan government administrations worked with the U.N. to develop the mandate and three subsequent administrations signed mandate extensions so that the CICIG could continue its efforts. The commission has received funds and other support from at least a dozen countries, including strong support from the United States.
The CICIG has been accused by the media and others of being influenced by the state-owned Russian bank VTB, which was the largest creditor of the Bitkovs’ firm, to manipulate the proceedings and even affect the decision over the guardianship of Vladimir Bitkov, the Bitkovs’ young son, or over the conditions of the family’s detention. The CICIG has no authority in these areas, and no evidence has been presented to substantiate these claims.
The Bitkovs have been treated fairly. They were represented by lawyers of their choice and have had access to available procedural and appeal remedies. In April, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court ruled that a criminal court will rehear their case.
Since its establishment, the CICIG has decisively contributed to the strengthening of Guatemala’s institutions. Under the leadership of its current commissioner, Iván Velásquez, the CICIG has supported the public prosecutor’s office in identifying and dismantling networks of corruption. So far, two presidents, several ministers, members of Guatemala’s Congress, judges and influential members of the private sector have been prosecuted. As a result of a joint investigation by the public prosecutor’s office and the CICIG, the current president of Guatemala, Jimmy Morales, is accused of illicit campaign financing. He ordered the commissioner expelled last year.
Powerful sectors affected by these investigations have united in order to preserve the status quo and stop the commission’s work. Lobbying firms financed by influential businessmen, in coordination with the Guatemalan ambassador to the United States, have been working for months on a misinformation and defamation campaign against the work of CICIG and Velásquez. Just a few days ago, a leaked audio clip featured an influential Guatemalan instructing how to lobby
in the U.S. Congress against Velásquez.
These sectors see the Bitkov case as a Trojan horse to undermine the fight against corruption and organized crime in Guatemala. They have found support in billionaire Bill Browder, who, convinced that the Bitkovs have been victims of Russian persecution and determined to secure their release, sees the CICIG as a means of exerting direct pressure among members of the U.S. Congress. Browder should seek to support the Bitkovs without destabilizing Guatemala.
The backing of the United States in our struggle to strengthen the rule of law and democracy is fundamental. As is the preservation of the CICIG.