This story was produced by Reveal from The Heart for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit information group. Get their investigations emailed to you immediately by signing up at revealnews.org/e-newsletter.A crusading anti-corruption prosecutor, each U.S. presidential candidates, cast passports, the relocation of an embassy to Jerusalem and accusations of collaboration with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime. That is the story of how the Trump administration turned america’ relationship with Guatemala the wrong way up.On the heart of the story is an alleged quid professional quo between Donald Trump and Jimmy Morales, a former tv comic who was elected president of Guatemala.The person making the allegation: Iván Velásquez, a relentless Colombian prosecutor whom many name the Robert Mueller of Latin America. He’s recognized 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 problem of rooting out corruption in Guatemala.However 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 instructed Reveal from The Heart for Investigative Reporting. “You help us by ending this persecution … and we will help you.”Just like the alleged Ukraine quid professional quo that sparked Trump’s impeachment final 12 months, the small print can seem complicated–however finally, Velásquez says, the exchange was easy: Trump withdrew U.S. help for a world anti-corruption power that was investigating Morales and his household. Morales provided Guatemala’s materials help for insurance policies on the coronary heart of Trump’s re-election bid.Velásquez’s anti-corruption power “was a bargaining chip,” a senior coverage adviser within the State Division instructed Reveal. He stated he had no direct proof of a quid professional quo. However the fee “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 important thing for the administration was securing Morales’ help for insurance policies supposed to maintain Central Individuals from arriving on the U.S. border, the official stated. “Nothing mattered except stopping brown people from coming into this country,” the adviser stated. “All of our other policies were just subordinate to that goal.”The flip of occasions served up political wins for each Morales and Trump.However in Guatemala, the affect of the top of the anti-corruption power has been plain, a collapse of the rule of legislation paying homage to the dangerous outdated days when army strongmen dominated.It fed into a sense that many Guatemalans have felt for generations, that the one method to a greater future is to go away and discover it elsewhere. So regardless of Trump’s harsh immigration insurance policies, file numbers of determined migrants fled the nation for the U.S. border, till the COVID-19 pandemic locked down the globe.Morales’ former presidential spokesperson Alfredo Brito declined to remark for this story, and the State Division and White Home didn’t reply to a number of inquiries.Our story begins in 2013. That’s the 12 months Iván Velásquez was put in command of a particular United Nations physique known as the Worldwide Fee Towards Impunity in Guatemala, higher recognized by its Spanish acronym, CICIG.The U.N. and Guatemalan authorities, with the backing of the U.S., arrange the fee to root out corruption in Guatemala, after a long time of civil warfare and army rule left 200,000 lifeless, the overwhelming majority of whom had been Indigenous Maya, and the nation’s civil and political methods in tatters. CICIG was a revolutionary improvement– a uncommon case wherein a rustic invited in an out of doors power to assist make its society extra equitable. The fee created courtroom methods in rural communities, sought to root out bribery in hospitals and introduced embezzlement expenses in opposition to high-ranking members of the previous army junta. “It was a stellar example of what works,” stated Stephen Rapp, a former U.N prosecutor who served as U.S. ambassador-at-large for warfare crimes points underneath President Barack Obama. As head of CICIG, Velásquez can be a strong determine. He may examine anybody, even the president, and will deliver expenses in Guatemalan courtroom with the cooperation of Guatemala’s aggressive chief prosecutor, Thelma Aldana–very similar to a particular counsel does in america. On the time, Velásquez, now 65, was already a towering determine 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 Courtroom, the place he investigated 139 members of Congress for his or her hyperlinks to paramilitaries. The so-called “parapolitica” scandal finally led to the convictions of seven governors and 60 members of Congress. Among the closest aides to former President Álvaro Uribe, Uribe’s cousin and the director of state safety police had been thrown in jail, and the intelligence company was dismantled.Velásquez had stepped away from public life and was lecturing at universities when the U.N. known as concerning the Guatemala posting. “I thought it would be an interesting experience,” he instructed Reveal. It will be extra attention-grabbing than he anticipated.When Velásquez arrived in Guatemala, the combat in opposition to corruption already was tied up with the problem of outmigration to america. By the summer time of 2014, greater than 50,000 unaccompanied kids had arrived on 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 images 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 stated later, whereas pushing for an help bundle to Central America that finally would ship greater than $1 billion to Guatemala over 5 years. The cash, Biden stated, would go to assist farmers and small companies and professionalize the police, enhancing circumstances in order that Guatemalans would keep of their nation and never find yourself on the U.S. border. However that will work provided that the Guatemalan authorities ensured equal alternative for everybody. If solely these near the ruling elite may begin a enterprise, file a land declare or obtain medical care, then households–even unaccompanied kids–would proceed to flee the nation. So, Biden stated, the assistance got here with strings hooked up. “I made it clear that U.S. funding for Guatemala hinged on CICIG being allowed to continue its work,” Biden wrote after leaving workplace.Within the years to return, Biden would show to be an enormous supporter of CICIG. What he won’t have predicted was that one in all Velásquez’s first targets can be the Guatemalan president with whom he’d simply shaken arms.“Justice is not only for the dispossessed,” Velásquez likes to say. For residents to consider within the rule of legislation, they need to see it additionally utilized to folks in energy. When proof surfaced that Pérez Molina was concerned in a multimillion-dollar customs fraud ring on the airport, Velásquez approved wiretaps that led to bribery and fraud expenses. Only one 12 months after Biden’s go to, Pérez Molina landed in jail. The previous president continues to be in jail awaiting trial right now. To Rapp, the previous ambassador on warfare crime points, the Guatemalan president was a case properly chosen. Earlier than the peace accords, as a senior army officer, Pérez Molina was implicated within the scorched-earth insurance policies of dictator Efraín Ríos Montt within the 1980s. However these older alleged crimes weren’t a part of CICIG’s purview. “I’m a great fan of the Al Capone approach,” Rapp stated, referring to the American gangster who ultimately 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 determine whom many have in comparison with Donald Trump.Jimmy Morales was a tv comic well-known for his crude and racist humor.On virtually each episode of his weekly present, Morales appeared in blackface or brownface. One episode opens with Morales on a flying carpet, and within the house of a single minute, he makes enjoyable of Black folks and blind folks and makes a joke about feminine anatomy.Like Trump, Morales additionally positioned himself as a reformer. Whereas Trump pledged to empty the swamp, Morales’ marketing campaign slogan was “Ni corrupto, ni ladron”–“neither corrupt, nor a thief.”That slogan not solely satisfied the Guatemalan citizens, however it additionally drew plaudits from Washington. When Morales was sworn in to workplace Jan. 15, 2016, Biden returned to Guatemala to attend. Morales met him on the tarmac, and the 2 leaders later sat in heavy armchairs only a few ft aside on the InterContinental resort in Guatemala Metropolis. The temper was congratulatory. “I want to compliment you on your head-on commitment to take on corruption in your country,” Biden instructed Morales, asserting one other U.S. help bundle. “We are all in.”The U.S. cash saved flowing. A 12 months later, in January 2017, only a few days earlier than Obama and Biden left workplace, Velásquez was photographed holding an outsized test to the anti-corruption fee, made out by the U.S. Embassy, for $7.5 million. “I also believed that he could have good intentions,” Velásquez stated of Morales. “But I, too, was fooled.”Velásquez’s relationship with Morales began to unravel over breakfasts.Velásquez was investigating a case of fraud wherein somebody charged the federal government about $12,000 for 564 breakfasts that had been by no means served. Because the probe unfolded, some acquainted names turned up, together with one of many president’s sons, Jose Manuel Morales, and the president’s older brother, Sammy, an in depth adviser. So Velásquez reached out to the president.“I told the president, ‘Did you hear about this investigation?’ ” he recollects. “‘Your son’s name appeared and it seems he has committed fraud.’” Velásquez says he instructed Morales that his son ought to stand earlier than a decide. “But my son is studying in the U.S.,” Morales responded, in line with Velásquez. “Should he come back?”“Yes,” Velásquez replied, he ought to.It wasn’t some huge cash, however for Velásquez, that wasn’t the purpose. To finish the tradition of impunity, there needed to be equal justice for everybody. “In this country, what we have known and seen is that justice does not reach the powerful,” he instructed Reveal.On Jan. 18, 2017, two days earlier than Trump was sworn in as president, Velásquez and Aldana had Sammy Morales and Jose Manuel Morales arrested for fraud.Each proclaimed their innocence. In a latest interview, Sammy Morales claimed Velásquez was “only interested in publicity.” “He sent a SWAT team to my home,” he stated. “He made a scandal over $11,000.”The president stood by Velásquez and CICIG. “The support to my family is 100 percent,” he stated. “My respect for the law, as a citizen and president, is also 100 percent.”What Jimmy Morales didn’t know on the time was that Velásquez additionally was investigating Morales himself.On Aug. 25, 2017, Velásquez joined with Aldana in asking the Supreme Courtroom to strip Morales of his presidential immunity. The prosecutors stated they recognized at the least $825,000 in illicit, nameless contributions to Morales’ presidential marketing campaign–and so they needed him to face 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 nation. “With that decision, the masks came off,” Velásquez stated. “Everyone was who they really were.”Velásquez refused to go away the nation, and 1000’s of individuals took to the streets to help him. Guatemalans younger and outdated–grandmas and college students–clamored exterior the presidential palace, banging drums and carrying indicators. They had been apprehensive that with out Velásquez, the nation would return to an period wherein the highly effective may do something, even kill folks, and get away with it.Morales discovered himself more and more remoted. A number of members of his cupboard–together with the international minister–had been compelled out or resigned after declining to implement the expulsion order. Guatemala’s constitutional courtroom, the United Nations and the U.S. authorities all sided with Velásquez, too. Finally, Morales backed down. However a couple of weeks later, there was one other blow. After the Supreme Courtroom dominated that Morales might be prosecuted, the Guatemalan Congress stepped in, and by a margin of two to 1, lawmakers voted to protect Morales from prosecution. Lawmakers additionally voted by an equally giant margin to guard themselves, passing a brand new legislation exempting members of Congress from prosecution for marketing campaign finance violations. In line with The Wall Street Journal, senior members of the nation’s two largest political events additionally confronted potential prosecution from CICIG.The fee would have the ability to proceed its different anti-corruption work, however high-ranking authorities officers now can be off-limits. It was an uneasy stalemate. And it wouldn’t final.Donald Trump’s election essentially modified U.S. international coverage towards Latin America. Gone had been Joe Biden and his dedication to deal with the “root causes” of immigration, corresponding to poverty and corruption. As an alternative was Trump’s promise to construct a “big, beautiful wall” on the border to halt Central American migration altogether. Those that had been capable of get previous border brokers had been to be detained, separated from household and deported.These harsh insurance policies solid a pall over relations between the U.S. and plenty of Latin American leaders. However Jimmy Morales held his hearth, as a substitute cultivating political ties with Trump.In December 2017, three months after Morales’ failed try to oust Velásquez, a chance opened up. Trump introduced that he can be transferring the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a maneuver that regional consultants stated may undermine prospects for a peace settlement, as each the Israelis and Palestinians declare the holy metropolis as their capital. The U.N. Normal Meeting voted 128 to 9 to sentence the transfer, with Guatemala becoming a member of the dissent. Transferring the U.S. Embassy had been a key marketing campaign promise from Trump to his Christian proper base, however the resolution left him remoted on the world stage, the one nation to take this provocative step. That’s, till Christmas Eve, when Morales, an evangelical Christian himself, delivered a vacation present. He, too, would transfer his nation’s embassy to Jerusalem, he introduced on Fb. The choice “was immediately seen as an effort to curry favor with Mr. Trump,” The New York Instances reported. “Moving the Guatemalan Embassy to Jerusalem sends a message,” Velásquez stated. “It tells President Trump: ‘Whatever you need, we are at your disposal.’ ” Morales began to make extra common visits to Washington, starting with the Nationwide Prayer Breakfast.The 2 leaders chatted collectively on the Washington Hilton earlier than the early February occasion. The White Home stated Trump thanked Morales for transferring his nation’s embassy and talked about “Guatemala’s underlying challenges to security and prosperity.” In line with Velásquez, the 2 world leaders may have additionally 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 stated. “We share the same problem. Get CICIG out. And if you can’t do that – get Velásquez out!” Following that assembly, the U.S. posture towards the anti-corruption fee modified.A number of weeks later, Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, paid Velásquez a go to. In entrance of the cameras, she expressed help for the fee’s work, however in her assembly with Velásquez, he recollects, she instructed him to tone it down. Cease bragging that you just’re extra standard than the federal government, she stated, and do away with promotional materials, corresponding to “I love CICIG” bumper stickers.Haley needed him to be “completely anonymous,” Velásquez stated. He described Haley’s go to as “a clear expression of support for President Morales.” Haley didn’t reply to a number of requests for remark. Inside days of Haley’s return from Guatemala, she and Morales appeared in Washington on the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the nation’s largest pro-Israel foyer.“God bless Guatemala,” she declared to thunderous cheers. “They even joined us in moving their embassy to Jerusalem!”Nonetheless, Velásquez pressed forward in his case in opposition to Morales, attending a press convention the next month wherein the president was accused of accepting unlawful marketing campaign contributions from meals, cement and monetary providers corporations.Regardless of Morales’ shut relationship with the Trump administration, the fee’s U.S. funding was safe because of broad help in Congress. However that help was about to break down.In March, proper earlier than the coronavirus shut down a lot of the nation, we traveled to a small espresso store in a fogged-in part of San Francisco, a few mile from the Golden Gate Bridge. We had been there to satisfy a international agent, David Landau, the American frontman for a darkish cash group – one in all a number of teams that had lobbied the Trump administration and Congress to tug U.S. help for Iván Velásquez and the fee he ran. In December 2017, Landau had filed paperwork with the Justice Division because the director of the Affiliation for the Rule of Legislation in Central America underneath the Overseas Brokers 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 home for anti-Communist authors. Now, he volunteers his time modifying a conservative web site targeted on Guatemala. After we arrived, Landau greeted us kindly and handled us to vegan cookies. However he was cagey once we requested for particulars of the lobbying marketing campaign he helped orchestrate in Washington in opposition to Velásquez and the fee.“I was helping the funders of this activity,” he stated, “but it really wouldn’t be responsible for me to say who they were.”When it got here to his personal function within the foyer group, he was equally obscure. “The fact is, I happen to be the one with an American address, post office box, whatever it was,” was all Landau would provide.Landau was forthright on their aim, nonetheless: “We wanted CICIG out,” he stated. And he lit up when he described the household of Russian multimillionaires who performed a key function in Velásquez’s undoing.The Bitkovs had been a household of Russian tycoons who had made their wealth within the timber trade. However when a strong government-linked bank went after them for embezzlement, they fled, arriving in Guatemala in 2009. Then they purchased pretend passports, falsified id playing cards and assumed new Guatemalan identities.For Velásquez, this was simply one other case of the wealthy shopping for justice. Working with Guatemalan prosecutors, he threw the e book at dozens of international nationals who had used false paperwork to acquire entry via a felony community in Guatemala’s passport workplace. Three members of the Bitkov household had been charged with id fraud, and in January 2018, they every had been sentenced to greater than a decade in jail, with the daddy, businessman Igor Bitkov, getting 19 years. So far as Velásquez was involved, the case was one other entrance in his wide-ranging marketing campaign in opposition to corruption. However Landau and his foyer group noticed a chance – and rapidly turned the case into a world trigger célèbre.“He was working with Vladimir Putin,” Landau claimed of Velásquez, with out offering proof. “He took money from Vladimir Putin. He made a deal with Vladimir Putin.”CICIG by no means obtained any funding from Russia, and no proof of ties with Russia has emerged. Velásquez denies any relationship and notes that Russia was against the fee. “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 instructed Reveal. But Landau’s baseless narrative moved into the mainstream with a sequence of columns in The Wall Street Journal. Influential lawmakers, together with Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, started to ask questions. And in April 2018, an open dialogue of pulling CICIG’s funding started within the halls of Congress.On April 27, 2018, whereas Morales and Trump had been bonding over Israel, the Helsinki Fee, a particular congressional physique arrange throughout the Chilly Conflict, convened a listening to. Rep. Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican, co-chaired the listening to, 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 assertion, Smith declared that the sentences given to the Bitkovs had been “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 stated.Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee of Texas piled on, making a hyperlink between Velásquez’s prosecution of the Bitkovs and Russian interference within 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 stated. “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 seem on the listening to, saying it could have been inappropriate for him, as a United Nations official, to testify. Velásquez instructed Reveal that he continued to press the case, regardless of immense stress from Washington, as a result of he noticed it as necessary to defend “the prosecutors of Guatemala, the judges of Guatemala who have made these decisions.” But the narrative solidified and congressional help for CICIG withered.Per week after the listening to, Rubio put a maintain on the fee’s funding, saying he wouldn’t enable it to be launched “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 introduced. CICIG, Rubio stated, was established “to prosecute official corruption and human rights abuses, not to participate in it.”The Bitkovs had been launched on bail that summer time after Guatemala’s constitutional courtroom vacated their sentences, sending the case again to a decrease courtroom. As of publication, the authorized saga continues.Its work completed, David Landau’s group terminated its lobbying contract on the finish of that month.On Aug. 31, 2018, Velásquez turned on the TV. Cameras confirmed Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales getting into a corridor flanked by 50 army officers standing at consideration. Many in Guatemala apprehensive it was the top of democracy – a army coup – however Morales was there to announce CICIG’s expulsion. The fee, he stated, was responsible of sowing “judicial terror.” Tanks circled the CICIG workplace, together with a dozen jeeps with mounted artillery that had been offered by the U.S. army patrol to combat drug trafficking.All of this shook Guatemalan society to the bone – a darkish reminder of the civil warfare and army rule. “Guatemala is a country that suffered decades of military dictatorship and merciless repression,” Velásquez instructed 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.”On this tense state of affairs, Velásquez picked up the telephone. “I talk to the U.S. ambassador,” he instructed us.However this time, america wouldn’t assist. The following day, the Trump administration threw its public weight behind Morales. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted, “Our relationship with Guatemala is important,” whereas sustaining silence on the fee’s ouster and the tanks and U.S. autos within the streets. Pompeo later adopted up the tweet with a telephone name to Morales wherein a State Division readout once more reveals an absence of censure. As a substitute, it stated, Pompeo expressed help for a “reformed CICIG.” Velásquez’s outdated 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.” However by now, Biden was lengthy out of presidency.Velásquez tried to stay it out, however when he departed for U.N. conferences in New York, Morales issued one other public assertion, saying Velásquez wouldn’t be let again into Guatemala.Velásquez’s private belongings ultimately had been shipped to him in his residence nation, Colombia. That’s the place we met him earlier this 12 months.Velásquez tried to run CICIG from Colombia, with a skeleton crew of worldwide prosecutors and Guatemalan nationals staying behind. However that proved inconceivable. In August 2019, Jimmy Morales’ son and brother had been acquitted of fraud expenses stemming from the breakfast scandal. The next month, a 12 months after Velásquez was compelled to go away Guatemala, the anti-corruption fee died. With out U.S. funds or Guatemalan help, there was no hope of the U.N. extending its mandate. So the remaining workers in Guatemala packed the fee’s information into containers, cleaned out the workplace and locked the doorways ceaselessly. The anti-corruption power had taken on everybody from presidents to drug traffickers and ousted greater than a dozen judges and 1000’s of law enforcement officials. It had represented a beacon of hope for a technology of Guatemalans. Now, it was no extra.As Jimmy Morales tightened the screws on Iván Velásquez and his worldwide anti-corruption power, Guatemalans voted with their ft. In line with U.S. Customs and Border Safety, the variety of Guatemalan households apprehended on the Southwest border greater than doubled from 23,000 in fiscal 2016, when Morales took workplace, to 50,000 in 2018.The next 12 months, after Velásquez was expelled, these numbers exploded, with 185,000 Guatemalan households apprehended on the border. The practical nation that CICIG was alleged to usher in felt extra distant than ever.In the meantime, Morales’ political partnership with Donald Trump deepened. He mustered solely a light rebuke on Fb when the U.S. president applied his household separation coverage, taking migrant kids away from their dad and mom and incarcerating them in warehouses, gyms and even cages.As a substitute, in July 2019, Morales and Trump introduced an immigration accord. Though his personal folks had been fleeing in file numbers, Morales agreed to make Guatemala a “safe third country” for migrants searching for asylum within the U.S. Underneath the deal, migrants from different Central American international locations corresponding to Honduras and El Salvador can’t apply for asylum within the U.S. As a substitute, they need to ask for asylum in Guatemala first.The settlement was broadly unpopular in Guatemala and earned Morales one other rebuke from the nation’s constitutional courtroom. However the settlement was nonetheless made and, with that, Velásquez instructed Reveal, the quid professional quo was full. In December, shortly earlier than Morales left workplace, constitutionally barred from searching for one other time period, he traveled to Washington as soon as once more, this time for an Oval Workplace assembly 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 instructed reporters.Then the U.S. president, when requested whether or not he can be watching the impeachment hearings the subsequent day over an alleged quid professional quo with Ukraine, lamented that his principal antagonist, Home Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, couldn’t face prosecution in america and urged that he ought to as a substitute face justice Guatemala-style.“In Guatemala, they handle things much more diff- – much tougher than that,” he stated. Reporter Maria Martin contributed to this story with help from the Fund for Investigative Journalism. It was edited by Esther Kaplan and replica edited by Nikki Frick.