Riesenfeld Symposium Special: Profile for Ivan Velasquez
Article by Kevin Cacabelos
Colombian jurist and diplomat Iván Velásquez will deliver the keynote speech at the annual Stefan A. Riesenfeld Symposium presented by the Berkeley Journal of International Law on March 1, 2019. Velásquez is the current head of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG).
Born in Medellín, Colombia, Velásquez studied law at the University of Antioquia in Medellín. From 1991 to 1994, Velásquez worked as the Deputy Prosecutor for Antioquia where his work included investigations into torture, extrajudicial executions and abuses against the civil population.
In 1996, he worked as an assistant magistrate in the state council and was elected the Regional Director of Prosecutor’s Office in Medellín from 1997 to 1999. As a prosecutor, his investigations identified 43 shell companies and 495 bank accounts in the departments of Antioquia and Córdoba that paramilitary groups used to store more than 25 billion pesos. He eventually was elected to be an auxiliary magistrate of the Colombia Supreme Court of Justice in 2000.
Between 2006 and 2012, Velásquez led the Investigative Supportive Committee of the Criminal Chamber. This committee investigated the corruption between members of Colombia’s Congress and the paramilitary, eventually ending in the sentencing of approximately 50 members of Congress. The investigation found that the paramilitary groups controlled health services, public contracts and local community governments. During this work, Columbia’s secret police, “El Das” closely monitored Velásquez’s activities, resulting in close surveillance and harassment of him, his family and people close to him.
In 2006, the United Nations (UN) created the CICIG, an independent body established through an agreement between the Guatemalan government and the UN. The CICIG’s mission centered aroundridding Guatemala of organized crime that infiltrated the Guatemalan government.
As an independent international body, the CICIG mandate allows it to conduct independent investigations, to act as a complementary prosecutor and to recommend polices to combat the criminal groups involved in its investigations.
Mike Allison, a Central America specialist from the University of Scranton stated that the CICIG “grew into one of the most effective arsenals in the fight against corruption and impunity in the region … It was often talked about as a model that could perhaps be exported to Honduras or El Salvador.”
In 2013, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed Velásquez as the CICIG Commissioner. Under Velásquez’ leadership, the CICIG uncovered corruption schemes that include a customs racket that resulted in the conviction of former Guatemala President Pérez Molina, the manufacturing of fake passports, the creation of “phantom congressional jobs,” and the “siphoning of funds” from the capital’s bus system.
In September 2018, Guatemala President Jimmy Morales announced his decisions to prohibit Velásquez’s entrance into Guatemalan territory and requested the UN Secretary General to name a substitute head of the CICIG. Morales accused Velásquez for “attacking public order and security” and “affecting the governance, institutions, justice and peace of the country.”
Morales is under investigation by the CICIG and the Guatemala’s Attorney General Office for alleged illicit campaign financing. Since the ban of Velásquez’s entrance into Guatemala, Guatemalan Foreign Minister Sandra Jovel met with UN Secretary General António Guterres and gave him a letter expressing Guatemala’s decision to terminate the agreement – a move that is feared to be a step towardstransforming Guatemala into dictatorship. Guterres rejected the termination and stated that the Guatemalan government is expected to “fulfill its legal obligations” under the agreement.
Velásquez has continued to work outside of Guatemala in his efforts to lead the CICIG’s investigations. According to news reports, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court has upheld the CICIG agreement in contravention of Morales’ wishes.
In the midst of this flurry of activity, in November 2018, Velásquez received The Right Livelihood Award for his time with the CICIG. The Right Livelihood Foundation honored Velásquez alongside former Guatemalan attorney general Thelma Aldana “for their innovative work in exposing base of power and prosecuting corruption, thus rebuilding people’s trust in public institutions.”
Velazquez emphasized the timely nature of receiving the reward, “This prize comes at a particularly dramatic moment in the fight against impunity and corruption … It is very important because it will turn the keys of the world to Guatemala.”
In a press release, Velásquez found a fight against corruption to be central to guaranteeing human dignity, “Corruption is a crime against humanity and human dignity. The fight against it is the fight for a dignified life for all people and especially those who are marginalized.”
Past recognition includes the International Bar Association’s 2011 World Human Rights Prize and the Association of German Judge’s 2012 recognition for his commitment to fight against impunity.
“This is where I see myself until my dying day, devoted to the fight against corruption in all its aspects,” Velásquez said in a 2011 International Bar Association interview. “The dirt should be swept out from under the rug. I see myself as always trying to remove the dirt from under the rug.”