If you elect a clown, expect a circus Guatemala’s comedian-president fights the corruption-fighters

BEFORE he ran to be president of Guatemala two years ago, Jimmy Morales pretended to be a presidential candidate in a television sitcom called “Moralejas” (“Cautionary Tales”). Neto, the bumbling office-seeker, clad in a white suit, red bandanna and cowboy hat, decides that after telling “a boatload of lies” he will withdraw from the race. He offers the remaining (fictional) candidates some parting wisdom: “Haven’t you realised that people aren’t dumb? That people see how you go to sleep poor and wake up rich?”

In the real-life election of 2015 Mr Morales levelled the same sort of accusations at his rivals. It came soon after the country’s president, Otto Pérez Molina, and vice-president, Roxana Baldetti, were arrested on corruption charges. Running as an outsider with no connection to the discredited political class, Mr Morales won 67% of the vote in a run-off that October.

Now Guatemalans are feeling duped. Mr Morales soon showed Neto-like ineptitude in exercising the powers of his office. Worse, many voters now see him as beholden to the system he ran against. On August 27th he ordered the expulsion from the country of Iván Velásquez, the Colombian head of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala(CICIG), a UN-backed body that has been investigating corruption for more than a decade and helped bring down Mr Pérez and Ms Baldetti. Mr Morales’s order came less than two days after Mr Velásquez sought to strip him of immunity from prosecution, alleging that he had failed to disclose $900,000 in contributions to his presidential campaign.

Foreign groups, including the UN and the United States, condemned Mr Morales’s order. The constitutional court has now blocked it, so Mr Velásquez can continue his work. But the confrontation has shown that the accused can strike back at their accusers. And it leaves the country in a political limbo; the president has lost his moral authority, but no alternative leader commands widespread respect. The next national elections, due in 2019, are unlikely to provide one.

Things have got worse since the heady days of 2015, when perhaps 100,000 Guatemalans filled the streets to demand the removal of Mr Pérez and Ms Baldetti from office. Then, ordinary citizens and much of the country’s elite were united in disgust at the alleged wrongdoing that CICIG, working with the country’s attorney-general, Thelma Aldana, had uncovered. The two politicians were implicated in a scandal called La Línea, which involved taking bribes from businesses to let them avoid paying customs duties. Few Guatemalans were sorry to see them go.

Nasty networks
Since then, the scope of CICIG’s investigations has widened. One probe revealed that Mr Pérez’s Patriotic Party had set up shell companies for the sole purpose of soliciting donations from banks, oil firms and other companies in exchange for favours after they were elected. Such scandals have implicated dozens of businessmen. A fifth of congressmen are under investigation. Many of these have links to Guatemala’s vast underworld: more than two-thirds of the cocaine that enters the United States passes through the country. It is these networks, which have their origins in the country’s 36-year civil war, that CICIG was set up to investigate. A report by CICIG estimates that a quarter of campaign money comes from organised-crime groups.

Now it is going after Mr Morales’s National Convergence Front (FCN), which was founded in 2008 by former army officers and became a political home for legislators from Mr Pérez’s defunct Patriotic Party. Keeping such company has damaged Mr Morales’s reputation. Some of his advisers have been accused of committing atrocities during the war. A recent cartoon in a local newspaper portrayed Mr Morales as a puppet
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