How Donald Trump took down the Robert Mueller of Latin America
Two television stars turned presidents pledged to drain the swamp. Then they joined forces to kill a powerful anti-corruption commission in Guatemala.
A crusading anti-corruption prosecutor, both U.S. presidential candidates, forged passports, the relocation of an embassy to Jerusalem and accusations of collaboration with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime. This is the story of how the Trump administration turned the United States’ relationship with Guatemala upside down.
At the center of the story is an alleged quid pro quo between Donald Trump and Jimmy Morales, a former television comedian who was elected president of Guatemala.
The man making the allegation: Iván Velásquez, a relentless Colombian prosecutor whom many call the Robert Mueller of Latin America. He’s known for jailing presidents and paramilitaries – and he had the backing of the United Nations and then-Vice President Joe Biden when he took on the challenge of rooting out corruption in Guatemala.
But Velásquez met his match when he took on Morales, and Trump backed up Morales.
“Look what happened in reality. It’s a transaction where both parties seek to win something,” Velásquez told Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting. “You help us by ending this persecution … and we will help you.”
Like the alleged Ukraine quid pro quo that sparked Trump’s impeachment last year, the details can appear confusing – but ultimately, Velásquez says, the exchange was simple: Trump withdrew U.S. support for an international anti-corruption force that was investigating Morales and his family. Morales offered Guatemala’s material support for policies at the heart of Trump’s reelection bid.
Velásquez’s anti-corruption force “was a bargaining chip,” a senior policy adviser in the State Department told Reveal. He said he had no direct evidence of a quid pro quo. But the commission “was clearly something Morales wanted to get rid of, and we were happy to oblige by not backing it, supporting it when it needed us most.”
The key for the administration was securing Morales’ support for policies intended to keep Central Americans from arriving at the U.S. border, the official said. “Nothing mattered except stopping brown people from coming into this country,” the adviser said. “All of our other policies were just subordinate to that goal.”
The turn of events served up political wins for both Morales and Trump.
But in Guatemala, the impact of the end of the anti-corruption force has been undeniable, a collapse of the rule of law reminiscent of the bad old days when military strongmen ruled.
It fed into a feeling that many Guatemalans have felt for generations, that the only way to a better future is to leave and find it elsewhere. So despite Trump’s harsh immigration policies, record numbers of desperate migrants fled the country for the U.S. border, until the COVID-19 pandemic locked down the globe.
Morales’ former presidential spokesperson Alfredo Brito declined to comment for this story, and the State Department and White House did not respond to multiple inquiries.
Our story begins in 2013. That’s the year Iván Velásquez was put in charge of a special United Nations body called the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, better known by its Spanish acronym, CICIG.
The U.N. and Guatemalan government, with the backing of the U.S., set up the commission to root out corruption in Guatemala, after decades of civil war and military rule left 200,000 dead, the vast majority of whom were Indigenous Maya, and the nation’s civil and political systems in tatters. CICIG was a revolutionary development – a rare case in which a country invited in an outside force to help make its society more equitable. The commission created court systems in rural communities, sought to root out bribery in hospitals and brought embezzlement charges against high-ranking members of the former military junta.
“It was a stellar example of what works,” said Stephen Rapp, a former U.N prosecutor who served as U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues under President Barack Obama.
As head of CICIG, Velásquez would be a powerful figure. He could investigate anyone, even the president, and could bring charges in Guatemalan court with the cooperation of Guatemala’s aggressive chief prosecutor, Thelma Aldana – much like a special counsel does in the United States.
At the time, Velásquez, now 65, was already a towering figure in Latin America. After probing allegations of torture and extrajudicial killings in his hometown of Medellín, Colombia, the tall, bearded prosecutor went to work for the Colombian Supreme Court, where he investigated 139 members of Congress for their links to paramilitaries. The so-called “parapolitica” scandal ultimately led to the convictions of seven governors and 60 members of Congress. Some of the closest aides to former President Álvaro Uribe, Uribe’s cousin and the director of state security police were thrown in prison and the intelligence agency was dismantled.
Velásquez had stepped away from public life and was lecturing at universities when the U.N. called about the Guatemala posting. “I thought it would be an interesting experience,” he told Reveal. It would be more interesting than he expected.
When Velásquez arrived in Guatemala, the fight against corruption already was tied up with the issue of outmigration to the United States. By the summer of 2014, more than 50,000 unaccompanied children had arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border, most of them from Central America. Calling it an “urgent humanitarian situation,” Obama turned to his most trusted lieutenant: Vice President Joe Biden.
Biden flew to Guatemala, posed for photographs with then-President Otto Pérez Molina and drew a straight line between migration and corruption.
“We have to deal with immigration, but also the root causes,” he said later, while pushing for an aid package to Central America that ultimately would send more than $1 billion to Guatemala over five years.
The money, Biden said, would go to help farmers and small businesses and professionalize the police, improving conditions so that Guatemalans would stay in their country and not end up at the U.S. border.
But that would work only if the Guatemalan government ensured equal opportunity for everyone. If only those close to the ruling elite could start a business, file a land claim or receive medical care, then families – even unaccompanied children – would continue to flee the country. So, Biden said, the help came with strings attached.
“I made it clear that U.S. funding for Guatemala hinged on CICIG being allowed to continue its work,” Biden wrote after leaving office.
In the years to come, Biden would prove to be a huge supporter of CICIG. What he might not have predicted was that one of Velásquez’s first targets would be the Guatemalan president with whom he’d just shaken hands.
“Justice is not only for the dispossessed,” Velásquez likes to say. For citizens to believe in the rule of law, they must see it also applied to people in power.
When evidence surfaced that Pérez Molina was involved in a multimillion-dollar customs fraud ring at the airport, Velásquez authorized wiretaps that led to bribery and fraud charges. Just one year after Biden’s visit, Pérez Molina landed in prison. The former president is still in prison awaiting trial today.
To Rapp, the former ambassador on war crime issues, the Guatemalan president was a case well chosen. Before the peace accords, as a senior military officer, Pérez Molina was implicated in the scorched-earth policies of dictator Efraín Ríos Montt in the 1980s.
But those older alleged crimes were not part of CICIG’s purview. “I’m a great fan of the Al Capone approach,” Rapp said, referring to the American gangster who eventually was imprisoned for tax evasion. “I’d much prefer to get them for the worst thing they did, but either way, impunity has ended.”
With Pérez Molina behind bars, Guatemala held new elections, giving rise to a political figure whom many have compared to Donald Trump.
Jimmy Morales was a television comedian famous for his crude and racist humor.
On almost every episode of his weekly show, Morales appeared in blackface or brownface. One episode opens with Morales on a flying carpet, and in the space of a single minute, he makes fun of Black people and blind people and makes a joke about female anatomy.
Like Trump, Morales also positioned himself as a reformer. While Trump pledged to drain the swamp, Morales’ campaign slogan was “Ni corrupto, ni ladron” – “neither corrupt, nor a thief.”
That slogan not only convinced the Guatemalan electorate, but it also drew plaudits from Washington. When Morales was sworn in to office Jan. 15, 2016, Biden returned to Guatemala to attend.
Morales met him on the tarmac, and the two leaders later sat in heavy armchairs just a few feet apart at the InterContinental hotel in Guatemala City. The mood was congratulatory. “I want to compliment you on your head-on commitment to take on corruption in your country,” Biden told Morales, announcing another U.S. aid package. “We are all in.”
The U.S. money kept flowing. A year later, in January 2017, just a few days before Obama and Biden left office, Velásquez was photographed holding an oversized check to the anti-corruption commission, made out by the U.S. Embassy, for $7.5 million.
“I also believed that he could have good intentions,” Velásquez said of Morales. “But I, too, was fooled.”
Velásquez’s relationship with Morales started to unravel over breakfasts.
Velásquez was investigating a case of fraud in which someone charged the government about $12,000 for 564 breakfasts that were never served. As the probe unfolded, some familiar names turned up, including one of the president’s sons, Jose Manuel Morales, and the president’s older brother, Sammy, a close adviser.
So Velásquez reached out to the president.
“I told the president, ‘Did you hear about this investigation?’ ” he recalls. “ ‘Your son’s name appeared and it seems he has committed fraud.’ ” Velásquez says he told Morales that his son should stand before a judge.
“But my son is studying in the U.S.,” Morales responded, according to Velásquez. “Should he come back?”
“Yes,” Velásquez replied, he should.
It wasn’t a lot of money, but for Velásquez, that wasn’t the point. To end the culture of impunity, there had to be equal justice for everyone. “In this country, what we have known and seen is that justice does not reach the powerful,” he told Reveal.
On Jan. 18, 2017, two days before Trump was sworn in as president, Velásquez and Aldana had Sammy Morales and Jose Manuel Morales arrested for fraud.
Both proclaimed their innocence. In a recent interview, Sammy Morales claimed Velásquez was “only interested in publicity.” “He sent a SWAT team to my home,” he said. “He made a scandal over $11,000.”
The president stood by Velásquez and CICIG. “The support to my family is 100 percent,” he said. “My respect for the law, as a citizen and president, is also 100 percent.”
What Jimmy Morales didn’t know at the time was that Velásquez also was investigating Morales himself.
On Aug. 25, 2017, Velásquez joined with Aldana in asking the Supreme Court to strip Morales of his presidential immunity. The prosecutors said they identified at least $825,000 in illicit, anonymous contributions to Morales’ presidential campaign – and they wanted him to stand trial.
Morales lashed out. He took to Twitter and, in a video message, declared Iván Velásquez “persona non grata” and ordered him expelled from the country. “With that decision, the masks came off,” Velásquez said. “Everyone was who they really were.”
Velásquez refused to leave the country, and thousands of people took to the streets to support him. Guatemalans young and old – grandmas and students – clamored outside the presidential palace, banging drums and carrying signs. They were worried that without Velásquez, the country would return to an era in which the powerful could do anything, even kill people, and get away with it.
Morales found himself increasingly isolated. Several members of his cabinet – including the foreign minister – were forced out or resigned after declining to implement the expulsion order. Guatemala’s constitutional court, the United Nations and the U.S. government all sided with Velásquez, too. Eventually, Morales backed down.
But a few weeks later, there was another blow. After the Supreme Court ruled that Morales could be prosecuted, the Guatemalan Congress stepped in, and by a margin of 2 to 1, lawmakers voted to shield Morales from prosecution. Lawmakers also voted by an equally large margin to protect themselves, passing a new law exempting members of Congress from prosecution for campaign finance violations. According to The Wall Street Journal, senior members of the country’s two largest political parties also faced potential prosecution from CICIG.
The commission would be able to continue its other anti-corruption work, but high-ranking government officials now would be off-limits. It was an uneasy stalemate. And it wouldn’t last.
Donald Trump’s election fundamentally changed U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America. Gone were Joe Biden and his commitment to address the “root causes” of immigration, such as poverty and corruption. In its place was Trump’s promise to build a “big, beautiful wall” at the border to halt Central American migration altogether. Those who were able to get past border agents were to be detained, separated from family and deported.
Those harsh policies cast a pall over relations between the U.S. and many Latin American leaders. But Jimmy Morales held his fire, instead cultivating political ties with Trump.
In December 2017, three months after Morales’ failed attempt to oust Velásquez, an opportunity opened up. Trump announced that he would be moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a maneuver that regional experts said could undermine prospects for a peace settlement, as both the Israelis and Palestinians claim the holy city as their capital. The U.N. General Assembly voted 128 to 9 to condemn the move, with Guatemala joining the dissent.
Moving the U.S. Embassy had been a key campaign promise from Trump to his Christian right base, but the decision left him isolated on the world stage, the only nation to take this provocative step. That is, until Christmas Eve, when Morales, an evangelical Christian himself, delivered a holiday gift. He, too, would move his country’s embassy to Jerusalem, he announced on Facebook. The decision “was immediately seen as an effort to curry favor with Mr. Trump,” The New York Times reported.
“Moving the Guatemalan Embassy to Jerusalem sends a message,” Velásquez said. “It tells President Trump: ‘Whatever you need, we are at your disposal.’ ” Morales started to make more regular visits to Washington, beginning with the National Prayer Breakfast.
The two leaders chatted together at the Washington Hilton before the early February event. The White House said Trump thanked Morales for moving his country’s embassy and talked about “Guatemala’s underlying challenges to security and prosperity.”
According to Velásquez, the two world leaders may have also bonded over their shared distaste of overzealous prosecutors: “You have Robert Mueller in the United States. I suffer the persecution of Iván Velásquez in Guatemala,” Velásquez said. “We share the same problem. Get CICIG out. And if you can’t do that – get Velásquez out!”
Following that meeting, the U.S. posture toward the anti-corruption commission changed.
A few weeks later, Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, paid Velásquez a visit. In front of the cameras, she expressed support for the commission’s work, but in her meeting with Velásquez, he recalls, she told him to tone it down. Stop bragging that you’re more popular than the government, she said, and get rid of promotional material, such as “I love CICIG” bumper stickers.
Haley wanted him to be “completely anonymous,” Velásquez said. He described Haley’s visit as “a clear expression of support for President Morales.” Haley did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Within days of Haley’s return from Guatemala, she and Morales appeared in Washington at the annual convention of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the nation’s largest pro-Israel lobby.
“God bless Guatemala,” she declared to thunderous cheers. “They even joined us in moving their embassy to Jerusalem!”
Still, Velásquez pressed ahead in his case against Morales, attending a press conference the following month in which the president was accused of accepting illegal campaign contributions from food, cement and financial services companies.
Despite Morales’ close relationship with the Trump administration, the commission’s U.S. funding was secure thanks to broad support in Congress. But that support was about to collapse.
In March, right before the coronavirus shut down much of the country, we traveled to a small coffee shop in a fogged-in section of San Francisco, about a mile from the Golden Gate Bridge. We were there to meet a foreign agent, David Landau, the American frontman for a dark money organization – one of several groups that had lobbied the Trump administration and Congress to pull U.S. support for Iván Velásquez and the commission he ran. In December 2017, Landau had filed paperwork with the Justice Department as the director of the Association for the Rule of Law in Central America under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
Landau, a 70-year-old Harvard graduate who claims to have written “the most authoritative book on Henry Kissinger,” boasts of long-standing friendships with many anti-Castro Cubans. For years, he ran a small money-losing publishing house for anti-Communist authors. Now, he volunteers his time editing a conservative website focused on Guatemala.
When we arrived, Landau greeted us kindly and treated us to vegan cookies. But he was cagey when we asked for details of the lobbying campaign he helped orchestrate in Washington against Velásquez and the commission.
“I was helping the funders of this activity,” he said, “but it really wouldn’t be responsible for me to say who they were.”
When it came to his own role in the lobby group, he was equally vague. “The fact is, I happen to be the one with an American address, post office box, whatever it was,” was all Landau would offer.
Landau was forthright on their goal, however: “We wanted CICIG out,” he said. And he lit up when he described the family of Russian multimillionaires who played a key role in Velásquez’s undoing.
The Bitkovs were a family of Russian tycoons who had made their wealth in the timber industry. But when a powerful government-linked bank went after them for embezzlement, they fled, arriving in Guatemala in 2009. Then they bought fake passports, falsified identity cards and assumed new Guatemalan identities.
For Velásquez, this was just another case of the rich buying justice. Working with Guatemalan prosecutors, he threw the book at dozens of foreign nationals who had used false documents to obtain entry through a criminal network in Guatemala’s passport office. Three members of the Bitkov family were charged with identity fraud, and in January 2018, they each were sentenced to more than a decade in prison, with the father, businessman Igor Bitkov, getting 19 years. As far as Velásquez was concerned, the case was another front in his wide-ranging campaign against corruption. But Landau and his lobby group saw an opportunity – and quickly turned the case into an international cause célèbre.
“He was working with Vladimir Putin,” Landau claimed of Velásquez, without providing evidence. “He took money from Vladimir Putin. He made a deal with Vladimir Putin.”
CICIG never received any funding from Russia, and no evidence of ties with Russia has emerged. Velásquez denies any relationship and notes that Russia was opposed to the commission. “I have never been to Russia. I don’t have any relationship with Russians, CICIG has never received a cent from Russia, and I don’t know Vladimir Putin,” he told Reveal.
Yet Landau’s baseless narrative moved into the mainstream with a series of columns in The Wall Street Journal. Influential lawmakers, including Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, began to ask questions. And in April 2018, an open discussion of pulling CICIG’s funding began in the halls of Congress.
On April 27, 2018, while Morales and Trump were bonding over Israel, the Helsinki Commission, a special congressional body set up during the Cold War, convened a hearing. Rep. Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican, co-chaired the hearing, titled, “The Long Arm of Injustice: Did a U.N. Commission Founded to Fight Corruption Help the Kremlin Destroy a Russian Family?” In his opening statement, Smith declared that the sentences given to the Bitkovs were “harsher than sentences given to rapists and to murderers.”
“More shocking, the facts of the case strongly indicate … that CICIG acted as the Kremlin’s operational agent in brutalizing and tormenting the Bitkov family,” he said.
Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee of Texas piled on, making a link between Velásquez’s prosecution of the Bitkovs and Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
“I think the important point for the world to hear is that Russia acts as an international thug,” she said. “We have to say to the Russian government, the intelligence agency, Vladimir Putin, that enough is enough in thuggery. So I hope that we will pursue this.”
Velásquez declined to appear at the hearing, saying it would have been inappropriate for him, as a United Nations official, to testify. Velásquez told Reveal that he continued to press the case, despite immense pressure from Washington, because he saw it as important to defend “the prosecutors of Guatemala, the judges of Guatemala who have made these decisions.”
Yet the narrative solidified and congressional support for CICIG withered.
A week after the hearing, Rubio put a hold on the commission’s funding, saying he wouldn’t allow it to be released “until we have clear answers on its role in the mistreatment of the Bitkov family.”
“I am concerned that CICIG, a commission mostly funded by the United States, has been manipulated and used by radical elements and Russia’s campaign against the Bitkov family,” he announced. CICIG, Rubio said, was established “to prosecute official corruption and human rights abuses, not to participate in it.”
Its work done, David Landau’s organization terminated its lobbying contract at the end of that month.
On Aug. 31, 2018, Velásquez turned on the TV. Cameras showed Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales entering a hall flanked by 50 military officers standing at attention. Many in Guatemala worried it was the end of democracy – a military coup – but Morales was there to announce CICIG’s expulsion. The commission, he said, was guilty of sowing “judicial terror.”
All of this shook Guatemalan society to the bone – a dark reminder of the civil war and military rule.
“Guatemala is a country that suffered decades of military dictatorship and merciless repression,” Velásquez told Reveal. “The dictatorship killed an entire generation of intellectuals. There was a genocide, thousands of Indigenous people murdered, disappeared, tortured. The simple fact of a military presence – and tanks with artillery – in front of the commission, it was a way to remind those over 40 years old how things were.”
In this tense situation, Velásquez picked up the phone. “I talk to the U.S. ambassador,” he told us.
But this time, the United States wouldn’t help.
The next day, the Trump administration threw its public weight behind Morales. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted, “Our relationship with Guatemala is important,” while maintaining silence on the commission’s ouster and the tanks and U.S. vehicles in the streets. Pompeo later followed up the tweet with a phone call to Morales in which a State Department readout again shows an absence of censure. Instead, it said, Pompeo expressed support for a “reformed CICIG.”
Velásquez’s old ally Joe Biden was horrified, writing in a column some months later: “There could not have been a clearer message to kleptocrats throughout the region that the United States is no longer in the anti-corruption business. That hurts all of us.” But by now, Biden was long out of government.
Velásquez tried to stick it out, but when he departed for U.N. meetings in New York, Morales issued another public statement, saying Velásquez would not be let back into Guatemala.
Velásquez’s personal belongings eventually were shipped to him in his home country, Colombia. That’s where we met him earlier this year.
Velásquez tried to run CICIG from Colombia, with a skeleton crew of international prosecutors and Guatemalan nationals staying behind. But that proved impossible. In August 2019, Jimmy Morales’ son and brother were acquitted of fraud charges stemming from the breakfast scandal.
The following month, a year after Velásquez was forced to leave Guatemala, the anti-corruption commission died. Without U.S. funds or Guatemalan support, there was no hope of the U.N. extending its mandate. So the remaining staff in Guatemala packed the commission’s records into boxes, cleaned out the office and locked the doors forever.
The anti-corruption force had taken on everyone from presidents to drug traffickers and ousted more than a dozen judges and thousands of police officers. It had represented a beacon of hope for a generation of Guatemalans. Now, it was no more.
As Jimmy Morales tightened the screws on Iván Velásquez and his international anti-corruption force, Guatemalans voted with their feet. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the number of Guatemalan families apprehended at the Southwest border more than doubled from 23,000 in fiscal 2016, when Morales took office, to 50,000 in 2018.
The following year, after Velásquez was expelled, those numbers exploded, with 185,000 Guatemalan families apprehended at the border. The functional nation that CICIG was supposed to usher in felt more distant than ever.
Meanwhile, Morales’ political partnership with Donald Trump deepened. He mustered only a mild rebuke on Facebook when the U.S. president implemented his family separation policy, taking migrant children away from their parents and incarcerating them in warehouses, gyms and even cages.
Instead, in July 2019, Morales and Trump announced an immigration accord. Although his own people were fleeing in record numbers, Morales agreed to make Guatemala a “safe third country” for migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. Under the deal, migrants from other Central American countries such as Honduras and El Salvador can’t apply for asylum in the U.S. Instead, they have to ask for asylum in Guatemala first.
The agreement was widely unpopular in Guatemala and earned Morales another rebuke from the country’s constitutional court. But the agreement was nonetheless made and, with that, Velásquez told Reveal, the quid pro quo was complete.
In December, shortly before Morales left office, constitutionally barred from seeking another term, he traveled to Washington once again, this time for an Oval Office meeting with Trump.
“We’ve signed agreements with Guatemala that have been tremendous in terms of really both countries, but our country, with respect to illegals coming into our country,” Trump told reporters.
Then the U.S. president, when asked whether he would be watching the impeachment hearings the next day over an alleged quid pro quo with Ukraine, lamented that his main antagonist, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, could not face prosecution in the United States and suggested that he should instead face justice Guatemala-style.
“In Guatemala, they handle things much more diff- – much tougher than that,” he said.
Reporter Maria Martin contributed to this story with support from the Fund for Investigative Journalism. It was edited by Esther Kaplan and copy edited by Nikki Frick.