Guatemala’s army breaks ranks with president over court ruling

Guatemala City – The Guatemalan army will obey a recent constitutional court ruling overturning the government’s decision to ban an international anti-corruption commissioner, a Ministry of Defense spokesman confirmed to Al Jazeera, signalling a blow to President Jimmy Morales, who rejected the ruling.

“At no point will a Constitutional Court ruling be disobeyed,” Oscar Perez told Al Jazeera over the weekend. 

The ruling stems from Morales’s battle against a UN-backed commission investigating him for corruption. In late August, the president announced that he would not renew the mandate of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) and then barred the body’s head, Ivan Velasquez, from the country, alleging he is a security threat.

Last month, the Constitutional Court ruled against the Velasquez ban, saying the commissioner may return anytime. The court, which has the last word on all constitutional matters, also ordered Morales and his administration to refrain from any further actions or statements against Velasquez.

The government openly announced it will not permit Velasquez to return, despite the ruling, initially saying it did not have to due to the fact the commissioner was not named in the decision.

But the court then clarified its position, saying that the government must allow Velasquez back into the country. It has not and Morales has so far been unsuccessful in his demand for the UN to appoint a new commissioner.

Perez said that the military has “not requested any court action to prevent the entry of commissioner” as was reported by local media after the Ministry of Defense filed a motion with the Constitutional Court to contest being named in the ruling. 

The ministry “is at all times respectful of constitutional order and is respectful of the competent courts”, he said. 

A clear message?

It remains unclear whether the ministry is going directly against the wishes of the president and what its decision means for the potential return of Velasquez. Morales’s spokesman did not respond to Al Jazeera’s repeated requests for comment. 

Oswaldo Samayoa, a constitutional lawyer, said the Ministry of Defense’s position, which was first reported by local media, “is definitely a clear message to the president”.

“The army has to obey civilian rule and the Constitution, and the authentic interpreter of the Constitution is the Constitutional Court. So what the army is saying regarding the court is what is right,” he said.

Miguel Itzep, Q’anil Tinamit National Victims Movement coordinator, is not sure whether or not to fully trust the news of army support for the Constitutional Court ruling.

“If it is an honest truth from the high command, [Morales] will have lost an ally. It would change the political picture of the situation,” Itzep told Al Jazeera.

He leads a movement of victims of the country’s 36-year civil war between the military and leftist rebel forces.

During the conflict, which ended in 1996, an estimated 200,000 Guatemalans were killed and another 45,000 were forcibly disappeared. More than 80 percent of victims were indigenous Mayan civilians, most of whom were killed by the military. 

Last week, a tribunal ruled that genocide occurred during the 1982-1983 reign of General Efrain Rios Montt, who came to power through a military coup. The judges acquitted Rios Montt’s head of military intelligence. Much of the 20th century was marked by authoritarian rule.

The Ministry of Defense’s current position reflects the newer army officials who were trained after, not during, the armed conflict, Samayoa said.

“Jimmy Morales’s advisors are old military officials who had their power during the military dictatorships,” said Samayoa, adding that the Ministry of Defense’s recent decision “demonstrates the new team of officials in a context of peace and democracy”. 

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