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Inside The Family

How The Family Won Guatemala

Biden Endorsed a New Guatemalan Leader Who Would Soon Escape Prosecution with Help from The Family

Then-Vice President Joe Biden at the Jan. 14, 2016, inauguration of Guatemalan Pres. Jimmy Morales.

 

(Image: US embassy photo by Sebastian John.)

This article is one of four about the secret influence of The Family – the secretive Christian group that runs the National Prayer Breakfast – on recent U.S.-Guatemala relations. TYT’s reporting on The Family can be found here.

Editor’s note: Unless noted otherwise, TYT was unable to locate or did not receive responses from the people named prominently in these reports. Some criminal charges cited here were dismissed or not resolved, so guilt should not be assumed, but the Biden administration has cast doubt on the integrity of Guatemala’s judicial system, including acquittals and dismissals.


Transgender activist Andrea González was shot to death in Guatemala City last June. She had received multiple death threats beforehand and was one of three LGBTQ people murdered in Guatemala that week. She was 28. It was Pride Month.

Activists linked the killings to a general erosion of human rights there. Aldo Dávila, the first openly gay man in Guatemala’s Congress, told The Guardian, “In Guatemala we are experiencing democratic backsliding that we have not seen since the 1980s.”

LGBTQ status has virtually no legal protections in Guatemala. The two most recent presidents have been openly anti-LGBTQ Christian conservatives.

The state of Guatemala’s politics didn’t just happen. And it didn’t have to be this way. Guatemala’s politics are a hot skillet; parties and alliances jitter and evaporate. There are no monoliths driving Guatemala’s trajectory, but the rise of evangelical influence has been widely reported. What hasn’t been reported is The Family’s role. Here’s the TLDR version:

With decades of history in Guatemala, The Family helped an ally there launch Guatemala’s own National Prayer Breakfast in 2013. With help from American members of Congress, The Family’s ally was able to attract Guatemalan power players to his first National Prayer Breakfast. At least three of those power players were later accused of funneling illegal campaign funds to a racist, sexist, anti-LGBTQ evangelical longshot presidential candidate. It worked.

With a UN anti-corruption task force setting their sights on the new president, he chose The Family’s ally as his ambassador to the U.S. – and Family allies in Congress attacked the UN task force. It worked. The new president beat the UN task force and remained in power. With his help, another anti-LGBTQ Christian conservative succeeded him.

Guatemala’s presidents have pursued anti-LGBTQ policies at home and assisted the Trump administration abroad. Crime, corruption, and the flow of refugees have worsened.

Much of this narrative is already well known. The connection to The Family was even alleged in a 2020 Spanish-language news article. But how The Family helped make it all happen has never been reported.

Twenty years ago, Manuel Espina was a political outsider in Guatemala. In 1993, his father was vice president, and helped the president try to seize power from the courts and legislature.

Espina’s father had an evangelical network that included Americans and international groups of Christian businesspeople. And Espina came from a political lineage that had ties with The Family, some of which have not previously been reported.

Related: The Family’s Secret History in Guatemala

Espina reportedly used his father’s network to achieve his own political power in Guatemala, with help from The Family. In 2003, Espina started Guatemala Prospera, offering values-based leadership training and convening gatherings for business people. But he wasn’t attracting the nation’s richest and most powerful.

In 2006, Espina attended his first National Prayer Breakfast in Washington. In the coming years, members of The Family would help Guatemala Prospera create its own National Prayer Breakfast. CBN Latino, the regional arm of the right-wing, evangelical Christian Broadcasting Network, even pitched in as part of Guatemala Prospera’s “work team.”

By August 2013, Espina was ready to go. The Family paid to send two American members of Congress with anti-LGBTQ voting records and a history of Family involvement – Reps. Robert Aderholt (R-AL) and then-Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-IL) – to Espina’s first Guatemalan National Prayer Breakfast.

That got the attention of his nation’s elite. Now the participants included the “G8,” Guatemala’s eight billionaires.

The draw wasn’t the chance to experience the oratorical skills of a Randy Hultgren. Access was also on the menu.

Like the American version, Espina’s breakfast was not merely a morning meal, but multiple events. It was at these side events that access was served up. It’s also at these so-called “breakout” sessions that The Family pushes its politics (breakout sessions helped The Family radicalize Big Lie supporter Mike Lindell).

One guest at Espina’s first breakfast was a college friend of his, activist and publisher Rodrigo Arenas. He is listed in congressional travel-disclosure forms as participating in private meetings after the breakfast first with Hultgren and later with Aderholt.

Arenas told TYT that members of Congress were accessible at these smaller meetings. “You speak politics, but in a social way,” he said. “Like a networking event.” Arenas denies it, but according to prosecutors, he and some of his fellow guests would soon play a pivotal, secret role in shaping his nation’s future.

The following year, 2014, The Family again paid to ensure that Espina had American star power at his prayer breakfast. This time it was a Democrat, then-Rep. Janice Hahn (D-CA). And more of Guatemala’s business elite showed up.

Hahn’s disclosure form lists three Guatemalan business executives she had dinner with the night of Espina’s second prayer breakfast:

  • Juan Luis Bosch, co-president of a massive, family agri-business,
  • Thomas Dougherty Novella, Cementos Progreso co-president, and
  • José Torrebiarte Novella, Cementos Progreso vice president.

The Bosch family is part of Guatemala’s G8 billionaire group. Bosch and his brother, Felipe, have both been executives at the family agri-business and had leadership roles at Guatemala’s powerful business organization, CACIF. Felipe Bosch was also at the breakfast, delivering a presentation with Dougherty.

Felipe Bosch and Torrebiarte would allegedly meet again the following year, at a gathering of conservative business leaders and politicians convened by Arenas, Espina's college friend. The subject of the meeting, prosecutors said, was an illegal campaign-funding scheme.

Asked about the meeting, Arenas pointed out that a court dismissed the charges, denied any wrongdoing, and said Bosch and Torrebiarte weren’t even at the meeting. Arenas told TYT they raised almost a million dollars not for Morales but to fund election observers.

At the time of their 2015 meeting, the candidate they wanted to win was a joke; literally. Jimmy Morales was a famous comedian, a Trump precursor – a TV star whose history included more racism, sexism, and homophobia than experience governing or organizing.

Although he wanted Morales to win, Arenas says that was because the other candidates were terrible. Describing himself as a “Ronald Reagan type” but not a “full conservative,” Arenas says he has “no problem with LGBTQ rights” and that his position on abortion is “complex.”

As Trump soon would, Morales pledged to clean up corruption. His slogan – “Neither a thief, nor corrupt” – reflected how low the bar was for Guatemalan politics. Also like Trump, Morales was lying.

Bolstered by secret campaign cash from CACIF and others, Morales won. Vice President Joe Biden flew in for the inauguration, to bless Morales’ anti-corruption efforts.

It took less than a year before it became obvious Morales’s campaign slogan had been a joke. Prosecutors rounded up his family members and financial backers. Everyone understood Morales, too, was in the crosshairs. Still, he stood by the task force, at least in public. Politically, he had to.

It’s important to note that the task force, known as CICIG for its Spanish acronym, was wildly popular in Guatemala. CICIG didn’t prosecute criminals, but investigated with new and robust techniques – and without fear – alongside Guatemalan prosecutors. CICG had taken down Morales’s predecessor and was popular because people saw it was improving life in Guatemala.

According to Human Rights Watch’s Daniel Wilkinson, a State Dept. anti-drug official once said that CICIG had “more impact in combating and resisting impunity and corruption than any other institution, not just here in Guatemala, but on the planet.”

Homicides in Guatemala were cut almost in half. One nonprofit group, The Washington Office on Latin America, called CICIG’s results after eight years “transcendental.”

Guatemala’s elites were not happy. Iván Velásquez, the Colombian lawyer who led CICIG, told TYT that in mid-2016, he met “with notable businessmen in the country who were very concerned that the investigations were approaching them.”

Guatemala’s business leaders had supported CICIG when it was taking out drug dealers and their political allies. But then, according to Arenas, Velasquez got ideological.

Arenas accused Velasquez and Guatemala’s attorney general at the time, Thelma Aldana, of bending the law to prosecute him and his fellow defendants. “We were wrongly accused,” Arenas said. “It was totally an ideological and political agenda.”

International observers had a different explanation. In a 2019 analysis, Ross Everton of the Global Drug Policy Observatory examined why CICIG lost the business class. “What had happened?” Everton asks. “In 2016, the CICIG turned its attention to illegal campaign financing.”

Now, the business people who had secretly backed Morales had motive to kill CICIG – before it found them out. Some of them were guests at Espina’s prayer breakfasts. It’s not known whether they gave money to his organization (like The Family, Guatemala Prospera does not disclose its donors), but they were eating at his table.

Congressional travel filings name 12 Guatemalans as participating in Espina’s first prayer breakfast, primarily politicians and business leaders. Half of them would later face accusations of corruption.

The same day as the breakfast, a group of five Guatemalans got to meet first with Hultgren for 90 minutes and then with Aderholt for two hours. Three out of the five would later face corruption charges.

One of them, bank vice president Eduardo Liu, later flipped, helping CICIG expose crimes by fellow breakfast guests.

Guatemala’s first billionaire, Mario Lopez, presumably one of the G8, would also face criminal accusations. Lopez’s company allegedly created a web of corruption and cash with Guatemala’s government between 2012 and 2015. (He was invited to the Washington National Prayer Breakfast in 2016, internal Family documents show.)

Hahn’s disclosure form says her remarks at Guatemala’s second prayer breakfast, in 2014, were preceded by a presentation from two Guatemalan bank presidents, Fernando Peña and Sergio Hernandez. Peña would soon be charged with money laundering as part of a sweeping investigation into Guatemala’s president at the time. Hernandez would get arrested two years later, after Liu, Espina’s 2013 guest, told prosecutors that Hernandez was tied both to illegal funding of Morales’s party, and also to a major drug dealer.

Espina himself may have had reason to fear CICIG. In 2019, it was revealed that CICIG believed he and his father had held a bank account linked to bribes.

The threat that CICIG posed to Guatemala’s elite put a bullseye on the task force. Its most powerful shield was that increasingly rare American political commodity: Bipartisan support. As much as his donors wanted CICIG dead, Morales knew he couldn’t take on CICIG while both parties in Washington supported it. But in a nation of hyper-mercurial politics, Morales also knew that what is bipartisan can be made partisan.

To splinter American support for CICIG, Morales needed connections in Washington. To get those connections, he needed an ambassador who already had their own relationships in Washington. Thanks to The Family, Morales found one.

Mr. Ambassador

Manuel Espina was a controversial choice to serve as Guatemala’s ambassador to Washington, and not just because of his father. Espina had no relevant experience, professionally or in academia. What he did have, was friends.

“Espina is close to many Republicans, such as Attorney General Jeff Sessions,” the website AllGov reported. “Those ties are seen in Guatemala as a major reason for Espina’s appointment.” And it wasn’t just Sessions.

According to one report, Espina was pushed for the post by “business spheres linked to the neo-Pentecostal sector in Guatemala and the United States.”

Espina’s neo-Pentecostal father was reportedly one of those behind the scenes pushing his son for the ambassador post. The Guatemalan news outlet Nómada noted that, “Despite [Espina’s] lack of experience, the relationships with evangelical leaders that he inherited from his father in Washington would be key to cultivating a close relationship with conservative politicians.”

What wasn’t known at the time was just how deeply Espina was involved with The Family. For years, The Family had been helping Espina cultivate relationships with American conservatives.

According to a Facebook post by Paul Briere, then a member of Guatemala’s Congress, Espina had been “the link” to the National Prayer Breakfast since 2011. Guatemala Prospera posted pictures in March 2013 of Espina with various senators tied to The Family, including a private dinner at the home of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL).

Briere wrote that during the 2016 breakfast, he and other guests of Espina’s in Washington “had meetings with Congressmen and Senators.” An internal Family document confirms that Briere attended ancillary activities at the 2016 breakfast in addition to the main event. And in his Facebook post, Briere named names.

He writes that, “We shared on a personal level with” Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), then-Reps. Randy Hultgren (R-IL), Reid Ribble (R-WI), and Phil Roe (R-TN), as well as former Gov. David Beasley (R-SC). Briere named only one Democrat, Rep. Juan Vargas (D-CA), who last year headlined a Ukrainian prayer breakfast run by anti-LGBTQ organizers.

A source close to The Family said that Family leaders helped Espina build the kind of relationships that made him an obvious front runner to be Morales’ ambassador to the U.S.

“Whatever the leadership or the administration in Guatemala, you want to pick a guy that has relationships in the U.S., right? And that’s really about it. That’s all you want,” the source said. “And so, yes, those guys [in The Family] facilitated in making those relationships.”

Lankford Lee Morales Rubio Buck Espina - The Leadership PassageSens. Jim Lankford (R-OK), Mike Lee (R-UT), Guatemalan Pres. Jimmy Morales, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO), and future Guatemalan Ambassador Manuel Espina, sometime prior to Sept. 28, 2017, at C Street.

A photo posted online some time before Sept. 28, 2017, shows Espina and Morales at a private meeting with Sens. Lee, Rubio, and Jim Lankford (R-OK), along with Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO). The source identified the location as C Street, The Family’s Washington townhouse where members of Congress come to eat, pray, watch football, and even live.

Related: The Family’s Inside Man in Guatemala

Ultimately, Morales would pick four Guatemala Prospera organizers as ambassadors, according to remarks made by a Family insider in a podcast last year. TYT has been able to identify three of them, and their portfolios included Morales’s most important relationships.

Some countries, such as Mexico and the U.S., mattered to Morales for obvious reasons. Another country, Israel, derived its importance from American evangelicals. Morales reportedly said, “We have a Christian way of thinking that…has us believing that Israel is our ally and we must support it.“ Gen. Efrain José Ríos Montt, another evangelical with Family ties, reportedly once credited Israeli military advisors for helping him seize power in 1982. In a roundabout way, Israel would soon play a key role helping Morales remain in power.

Morales eventually made the secretary of Guatemala Prospera’s board his ambassador first to Israel and then to Mexico. The most important relationship, however, Morales handed to Guatemala Prospera’s founder: Manuel Espina was going to Washington.

Espina was chosen in January 2017, the same month Morales’s brother and son were slapped in handcuffs. But Morales was pursuing a multi-pronged strategy to erode Republican support for CICIG. (One account of this strategy, by the investigative outlet Reveal, was headlined, How Donald Trump Took Down the Robert Mueller of Latin America.)

In February 2017, Morales held a secret meeting to talk CICIG strategy. The Guatemalan news outlet Nómada reported that the head of Morales’s team was a former presidential candidate whose son had been working in the office of Indiana’s governor, a governor who had just become vice president of the United States. (Mike Pence, too, has Family ties, according to journalist Jeff Sharlet.)

Ultimately, Morales’s allies decided that fighting CICIG would require American lobbyists. They chose Barnes & Thornburg, an Indiana law firm also tied to Pence.

Bring In The Lobbyists

According to Velásquez, the business leaders he met with early in Morales’s term told him ”that what had been done already [by CICIG] was enough and it would not continue. However, the investigations continued. As a result, the lobbying efforts began from the business community, and also from President Morales.”

The initial agenda didn’t include killing CICIG outright. They wanted personnel changes: A new chief at CICIG, a new American ambassador. Their ambitions would expand.

It’s not clear who exactly paid the tab for Barnes & Thornburg’s lobbying. Bank records published by Nómada show June payments totalling $130,000 coming from an account held by a Cementos Progreso co-president that match deposits made to Barnes & Thornburg partner Craig Burkhardt. (The co-presidents at Cementos Progreso had been represented at Espina’s earliest prayer breakfasts, at the dinner with Hahn, and at Arenas’s meeting to plan illegal funding of Morales’s campaign).

The same month Barnes & Thornburg got its payments, Morales got a meeting with Pence. The two men publicly emphasized their support for CICIG.

Four days later, Morales and Espina met with Congressman Buck of Colorado, another Family ally. The following month, July 2017, Barnes & Thornburg lobbyists representing Morales’s allies met with advisors to Pence and Trump, as well as officials from the Republican National Committee and U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Barnes & Thornburg secured meetings with other influential politicians, including Family member Lee of Utah and staffers for Rubio, Espina’s 2013 dinner host, who also has ties to The Family. Within a year, Lee and Rubio would end up leading a Republican charge against CICIG.

Espina’s fifth annual National Prayer Breakfast comes the following month, August 2017. Two Republicans with Family ties are in Guatemala for the event. One of them, Buck, is there just two months after his DC meeting with Morales and Espina. The other, Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) can’t make the breakfast itself, but takes meetings with participants.

The night before the breakfast, Wilson meets with Morales “to discuss food security and malnutrition initiatives.” (Wilson’s travel costs are being paid by Food for the Hungry, a controversial evangelical relief organization that’s participating in Espina’s breakfast.)

After dinner with Morales, Wilson attends a second dinner and reception, this one hosted by Guatemala Prospera and the UN’s World Food Program, which is now being run by Beasley, a Trump appointee and a Family leader.

Guatemala Prospera sponsors both Buck and a staff member to attend the breakfast that year. On his disclosure form, Buck explains the trip by saying that his district “has a large Guatemalan population with concerns about immigration and drug trafficking.” (Buck’s district, more than 500 miles from Mexico, was home to approximately 361 people who reported having Guatemalan ancestry.)

While in Guatemala, Buck also meets with Morales, on Aug. 15. That night, he has dinner with four Guatemala Prospera board members, two of them future Morales ambassadors. The dinner’s topic of discussion, Buck’s itinerary says, is “how to change a Nation through principles and values.”

The itinerary doesn’t say whether Buck and his hosts decided how to change a nation. But it was about to happen anyway.

One week after the Guatemalan National Prayer Breakfast, Velásquez holds a press conference with Aldana, the Guatemalan attorney general, seeking judicial exemptions from pre-existing laws that give Morales and other lawmakers broad legal immunity. They want to put Morales on trial. Their claim: Morales had won election by taking at least $825,000 in illegal campaign contributions. Others allegedly involved in the scheme include Arenas, Espina’s college friend, who denies the charges; Torrebiarte (Hahn’s dinner partner from the second breakfast), and Felipe Bosch, another alumni of the second breakfast.

Morales instantly turns on CICIG, ordering Velásquez out of the country. “With that decision,” Velásquez told Reveal, “the masks came off…Everyone was who they really were.”

But a court backs Velásquez and Aldana – and so do the people, protesting by the thousands in support of CICIG. Morales responds by canning top aides who refused to expel CICIG. Guatemala’s congressional leaders – also facing prosecution – pass new laws shielding themselves and Morales.

Morales and Velásquez were at an impasse – for the moment. But the UN – and even the Trump administration, had taken CICIG’s side. Morales knew his situation was untenable. Three months later, though, as Reveal put it, “an opportunity opened up.”

Hail Mary

It was a gamble that paid off: Give Trump something for free, and he might reward you later on. The question was, what did Trump want?

According to Velásquez, Morales’s lobbyists at Barnes & Thornburg had given Morales something other than connections: They gave him a key piece of advice, suggesting that Morales make a gesture to Trump. The gesture they suggested was of vital importance to evangelical Americans, including leaders of The Family.

“It was what the lobbyists…had recommended to Morales: To make a gesture of friendship for free,” Velásquez told TYT. “And that this is a unilateral gesture without charging anything for it: And that was to move the embassy.”

The embassy was Guatemala’s embassy in Israel. Trump had campaigned on moving America’s embassy to Jerusalem – a symbolic nod to end-times theology that flouted international recognition of Jerusalem’s importance to Jews and Muslims. The embassy move was important to evangelicals, and it was important to Trump’s courtship of evangelicals.

Now, Trump was making it official: On Dec. 6, 2017, he announced that he was moving the embassy. The news led to deadly clashes in Israel. In the UN, 128 countries voted to oppose the embassy move. Guatemala was one of nine countries voting with Trump.

Then, on Christmas Eve, Morales announced that Guatemala would become the second nation to move its embassy to Jerusalem. There, too, Espina was behind the scenes. According to a source who had known Espina for years, “Almost everything with the embassy… was Manuel Espina, the issue of the embassy in Israel.”

After that, Reveal reported, “Morales started to make more regular visits to Washington, beginning with the National Prayer Breakfast.”

The Washington prayer breakfast comes less than two months later, in February 2018. Morales is there. And he gets what he came for: Trump.

Appetizers

Neither Pres. Obama nor Pres. Bush had honored the past tradition of presidents mingling with VIPs before the breakfast in the Cabinet Room at the Washington Hilton. Their absence had removed a key motive for national leaders to attend.

The Family “kind of lost that tool for a while,” the source close to The Family said. So when Trump changed that, “they were so excited.”

The source said, “When Trump agreed to come to the VIP reception, it was like, ‘Oh, cool. We haven't had a president come to this in a while.’... It is a very powerful opportunity.”

The VIP reception is also a way for national leaders to meet U.S. presidents who otherwise wouldn’t give them an audience. Even better, it means the president won’t have been briefed by the State Dept. beforehand.

Within The Family, the source said, “The perception was that Espina convinced Morales to come to the prayer breakfast… The feeling was [Morales] came because Espina got him to come.”

One month before the breakfast, Morales named a longtime Family insider and Chick-fil-A executive as Guatemala’s honorary consul in Tennessee. Another Family insider would get the same honor from Morales the following year.

Related: The Family and Guatemala: The Chick-fil-A Connection

It wasn’t just Morales who Espina brought to the 2018 National Prayer Breakfast. Internal Family documents show that, by now, Espina was sufficiently ensconced within The Family that he could now submit names on his own for the guest list. Despite The Family’s claims that the event is nonpartisan, Espina’s invitations went entirely to the Morales camp. (Although The Family promotes the event as being run by Congress, Espina is not the first foreign official known to help run it; TYT previously reported that The Family let an anti-LGBTQ Ukrainian politician invite guests to the 2016 breakfast.)

Espina’s guests included his boss, Foreign Minister Sandra Jovel. Appointing Jovel had been one of the first things Morales did after launching his fusilade against CICIG the previous August. Jovel had proved to be a loyal lieutenant – banishing foreign diplomats if they were too supportive of CICIG.

Getting Morales to the National Prayer Breakfast paid off. He finally got his face-to-face meeting with Trump. It was held in secret, behind closed doors at the early-morning VIP reception, but the White House let the world know that Trump had thanked Morales for his support on the embassy. So did members of the Israeli Knesset’s Christian Allies Caucus.

With that, things went rapidly downhill for CICIG.

According to Nómada, Espina “lobbied against CICIG” while in Washington. The source who had known Espina for years told TYT that Espina and Guatemalan business leaders “started a very strong anti-CICIG lobby in the United States for personal reasons.” Those reasons: The business class felt persecuted; CICIG was going after the right wing (where the power was).

Thanks to Espina’s connections, he was effective at helping Morales build the network he needed as part of his CICIG strategy. One unnamed Senate staffer told Nómada they were surprised “when, at a dinner, Guatemalan Ambassador Espina had the presence of five senators to speak with the president of Guatemala.”

Guatemalan records show that Espina also traveled to Denver a couple weeks after the 2018 prayer breakfast. The filing doesn’t say which members of Congress Espina met with, but the previous year, Buck, the Family ally, had invited Espina to come visit his district there.

The Trump administration’s first public warning shot to CICIG comes just one month after the 2018 National Prayer Breakfast. And it comes from Trump’s ambassador to the UN: Former Gov. Nikki Haley (R-SC).

On March 1, Haley is in Guatemala, meeting with Morales. As in the past, she expresses support for CICIG. But now, for the first time, it comes with a caveat. Haley says CICIG should lower its profile. Cut down on the news conferences, Haley says. Don’t be “politicized.”

While Haley is not a Family insider, she’s close to one of its most important leaders. It was Haley who got Trump to put Beasley in charge of the UN’s World Food Programme.

Three days after putting the first crack in CICIG’s bipartisan support, and despite multiple allegations of corruption against Morales, Haley affirms the Trump administration’s support. Attending an AIPAC conference with Morales, Haley praises him for the embassy move. “God bless Guatemala,” she says.

Velásquez doesn’t take the hint. On April 19, he holds a joint news conference with Guatemalan prosecutors, estimating Morales’s party got more than $2 million in illegal campaign donations during the 2015 elections.

Aldana, the attorney general, says at the news conference that dark money “is one of the principal causes of the system of corruption that has captured the Guatemalan state… it has distorted the democratic model of our country.”

Morales’s prosecution now “appears increasingly likely,” according to one report at the time.

For Morales, it’s now a race against the clock: Can he kill American support for CICIG before he’s arrested? With Haley signaling CICIG was fair game, its opponents just needed a casus belli to take concrete action. Four days after Velásquez’s news conference, the Helsinki Commission came up with one.

When Republicans Allege Russian Collusion

The Helsinki Commission is a U.S. government agency that oversees international compliance with a range of treaties covering religious freedoms and other civil rights. It’s run by members of Congress from both parties.

On April 23, 2018, the Helsinki Commission announced a hearing on CICIG. The premise was the theory that Russian President Russian Putin was behind CICIG’s prosecution of a Russian family who had been tortured by Putin’s regime and ultimately fled to Guatemala.

There was literally no evidence CICIG was working with Putin. And the Helsinki Commission sought no testimony from CICIG or its defenders. The hearing was dominated by Family insiders.

The hearing chair was Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), who had participated in prayer breakfasts for ambassadors at The Cedars, The Family’s Arlington estate. (According to what appears to be an official bio posted on the website Washington Diplomat, “Ambassador Espina actively participates as a Latin American representative in the meetings that have taken place at ‘The Cedars’ where weekly ambassadors, diplomats and authorities from the countries represented in Washington, DC, attend.”)

Smith was also one of several Family insiders whose greetings were relayed by Rep. Tim Walberg (R-MI) to Ukraine’s 2015 prayer breakfast, the TakeCareTim blog reported.

Announcing his hearing, Smith said he was “deeply concerned about grave injustices” committed by CICIG. He cited unspecified evidence that Russia “may have enlisted [CICIG] to persecute this [Russian] family.”

Only one Democrat, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), participated in the hearing. The others, all Republicans, had a range of connections to The Family.

Helsinki Commission Co-Chair Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) had also co-chaired the 2015 National Prayer Breakfast. Senator Lankford of Oklahoma has been a public spokesperson for the breakfast, often in tandem with Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), his 2019 breakfast co-chair. Lankford was also close to the Family leaders who oversaw the relationship with Espina, a source close to The Family said.

Rubio and Lee, the two senators who had been lobbied the year before by Barnes & Thornburg, were also there, at least in spirit. (Rubio was unable to attend but issued a statement of support for the hearing, condemning the unproven “miscarriage of justice” by CICIG.)

The final Helsinki Commission member participating in the hearing was Hultgren, who The Family had flown to Guatemala in 2013 to inaugurate Espina’s National Prayer Breakfast. Hultgren also appeared to have his own connection to Barnes & Thornburg: One of the partners lobbying for Guatemala disclosed giving Hultgren a $250 donation in 2017.

Three of the Helsinki Commission senators were friends with Espina, according to the source who had known Espina for years. Using Espina’s nickname, “Meme,” the source said that, “There was a friendship between Meme with Marco Rubio. They have a friendship from before and obviously Manuel used all of these friends to make this famous lobby [against CICIG] before. I think Lankford was the other senator, and obviously with [Lee] from Utah.”

It was those three who had posed with Morales and Espina during the secret C Street meeting before Espina became ambassador. Now the three senators were spearheading an attack on the biggest threat to their partners in prayer.

Even though nothing came of the Helsinki Commission’s allegations, it didn’t matter. The commission had elevated an unsubstantiated claim into the casus belli The Family's allies needed.

Less than a week after the hearing, with Lee’s backing, Rubio froze American funding for CICIG – $6 million, more than a third of CICIG’s budget.

As political scientist Rachel Schwartz put it in a Washington Post analysis, “There is little evidence to suggest the CICIG has become part of the Russian state’s ‘long arm.’ But the allegations of Russian interference may effectively doom the CICIG’s anti-corruption mission altogether, by flipping its most consequential source of foreign support: the U.S. government.”

Morales continued tending to his international relationships. In May 2018, Nómada reported, Morales and a delegation of 44 aides flew to Israel to open his new embassy in Jerusalem. The plane that took them there (allegedly illegally) was owned by Sheldon Adelson, the Republican megadonor, who also attended the opening.

The following week, Espina meets with Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), a Family member who had done The Family's bidding in the past, according to Sharlet. In July, Espina meets with Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), who is not a known Family insider but has gotten significant campaign cash from GOP megadonor Ron Cameron, a Family benefactor and former board member.

For his new ambassador to Israel, Morales chooses Mario Bucaro, a corporate lawyer who had served as a regional director for CBN. Bucaro is also one of the founding fathers of Guatemala’s National Prayer Breakfast.

Before Guatemala’s breakfast even launched, Bucaro served on Guatemala Prospera’s board of directors as its secretary, making it likely he was one of the Guatemala Prospera organizers working with The Family at the time. When Espina posed for pictures with Jeff Sessions in 2013, Bucaro was there. Bucaro also hosted anti-LGBTQ evangelist Ralph Drollinger when he brought his act to Guatemala, reporting back to his flock about meeting “Super Mario.”

The opening of Guatemala’s embassy in Jerusalem reportedly presented an opportunity to connect with Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and a top advisor. According to Nomada, Guatemalan officials “achieved a rapprochement” with Kushner during the trip.

Back in Washington the following month, Espina hosted Kushner at a $5000 dinner with ten Latin American ambassadors. The Washington Post reports that, “The dinner conversation centered on persuading the countries to move their embassies in Israel to Jerusalem, according to interviews with two guests.”

Kushner may not have lifted a finger regarding CICIG, an unnamed former U.S. official tells the Post, but their access gave Guatemalans the idea that “they had a green light” to do as they pleased.

Morales tested that green light on Aug. 31, 2018, sending armored jeeps to CICIG’s offices. But also to the U.S. embassy. Some of the jeeps were armed with artillery provided by the U.S. to fight drug trafficking.

The show of force was about as provocative as Morales could be short of squeezing a trigger. Velásquez later told Reveal, “The [old] 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 [CICIG], it was a way to remind those over 40 years old how things were.”

When the armored jeeps showed up, Velásquez called the American ambassador for help. No luck.

After the sun came up the next morning, Trump Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sent his own green light in fewer than 280 characters. “Our relationship with Guatemala is important,” Pompeo Tweeted. “We greatly appreciate Guatemala’s efforts in counternarcotics and security.” Pompeo had written CICIG’s obituary without even mentioning it.

Morales had a call with Pompeo less than a week later. As a group of Democratic – and only Democratic – members of Congress said in response, if Pompeo tried to defend CICIG, it didn’t take.

Later that month, Morales barred Velásquez from the country. And by January 2019, Morales had pushed out the entire CICIG operation. The U.S. didn’t raise a peep. (During a joint news conference at year’s end, Trump complained about his own ongoing impeachment proceedings and said approvingly, “In Guatemala they handle things much more, much tougher than that.”)

Congressman Chris Smith, who had chaired the Helsinki Commission hearing, applauded Morales for killing CICIG. Smith accused CICIG of “political … meddling in [Guatemala’s] internal politics.” He also stated the Russia theory as factual – despite previous debunking by everyone from the UN to Human Rights Watch to Foreign Policy magazine and even to Pompeo’s own State Department, as Smith well knew.

Did Trump let Morales kill CICIG as a quid pro quo for moving Guatemala’s embassy in Israel?

That’s what Velásquez told TYT. “The moving of the embassy in Israel was part of the payment,” he said. “The Morales government assumed a submissive attitude towards the Trump government so much so that the Trump administration had no interest, neither in the fight against corruption, nor in the continuity of CICIG.”

McClatchy spoke with three sources familiar with discussions between Washington and Guatemala City, who all said the green light to kill CICIG was Morales’s reward for moving his embassy. “The only reason…is because they’re so happy with Guatemala that they moved the embassy to Jerusalem,” said one.

In Guatemala, two sources familiar with the Morales government confirmed that account in an investigative report by the Columbia Journalism School and the Latin American Center for Investigative Journalism. “According to both sources,” the report said, “Morales saw a perfect opportunity for expelling the CICIG from Guatemala with American support in exchange for moving the Guatemalan embassy in Israel.”

One month after CICIG’s demise, Espina gets a prime speaking spot at the 2019 National Prayer Breakfast. (The news that CICIG had been investigating an account controlled by Espina and his father would not come out for another five months.)

While CICIG may have been dead, back in Guatemala, the other prosecutor who had targeted Morales still remained a threat. Now, however, Thelma Aldana was a political threat. No longer attorney general, she was running for president.

Guatemala’s constitution limits presidents to a single term, so Aldana wasn’t facing Morales, she was in a massive field of 24 rivals that included Morales’s spiritual successor, Alejandro Giammattei. With CICIG out of the picture, one quarter of the candidates were allegedly corrupt. Unsurprisingly, Thelma Aldana, the former prosecutor vowing to revive CICIG, was the front-runner.

But according to Velásquez, there was “a pact” between Morales and the attorney general who replaced Aldana after her term ended. “[T]hen they unleashed the persecution against Thelma … because of the fear that she could become president.”

The same day Aldana formally filed her campaign papers, a judge issued a warrant for her arrest.

Two months later, a court disqualified Aldana’s campaign. Aldana wasn’t just out of the race; she fled the country. Everyone understood what had happened. (The judge who issued her warrant was later investigated on suspicion of taking bribes to do so.)

Giammattei wins the race. When the nonpartisan, ecumenical Guatemalan National Prayer Breakfast is held later that month, it’s a celebration for Morales, Espina, and their Family allies.

Guatemala Prospera pays for Ken Buck to attend. Also there, invited by Espina, is Mike Lee, the Utah senator who backed freezing CICIG’s funding. The two Republicans have a separate meeting with Morales and his press aide, Alfredo Brito, who had been part of Morales’s CICIG strategy meeting in 2017 and was Espina’s guest at the 2018 Washington prayer breakfast.

Together, victorious, they attribute their success to divine intervention. One Guatemalan headline puts the credit elsewhere: “An Evangelical Breakfast to Endorse the Alliance of Those Who Helped to Remove CICIG.”

Buck reportedly says at the breakfast that Morales “[H]as been unfairly attacked and has endured these attacks with dignity and with a love for Jesus who is an example for all of us." Lee tells attendees they were “lucky” to have Morales as president.

Morales seemed to agree. "We have been victims of insults caused by envy, ignorance of the truth, grudges,” he reportedly said. “But we want to thank God because God has freed my family from all that."

With Giammattei in office, as the Associated Press diplomatically put it last week, “The shift toward a less independent judicial system… has continued.” So have the right-wing politics.

Giammattei quickly pledged to keep Guatemala’s embassy in Jerusalem. Another prosecutor got run out of the country and Giammattei refused to step down after anti-corruption rioters set Congress on fire in response to a budget that funded contractors but neglected poverty and child malnutrition. Last year, he signed on to the international Geneva Consensus, pledging to defend family values and the unborn.

When a minister allowed Planned Parenthood into the country, Giammattei intervened. He said the minister had resigned “due to the error.” One proposed bill could criminalize even miscarriages, said Human Rights Watch LGBT Rights Researcher Cristian González Cabrera.

“Guatemala faces serious challenges in protecting the rights of various sub-groups, including migrants, human rights defenders, and women and girls,” González said. ”With regards to LGBT people, lawmakers have done virtually nothing to halt the violence and discrimination.”

González said that “lawmakers are actively fanning the flames of bigotry,” citing multiple anti-LGBTQ bills pending in Congress. One bill could justify denial of services. Another would treat content involving transgender people akin to pornography.

“When the legal system is co-opted by corruption,” González said, “violence goes unchecked.”

Asked about the role of prayer breakfasts, González said that, “Any links between U.S. lawmakers and networks of corruption in Guatemala are highly suspect, particularly as Guatemalan activists and the Biden administration have rightly highlighted corruption as a key factor driving human rights violations in the country.”

González said that there’s “nothing wrong with [members of Congress] attending the prayer breakfast, per se.” He said, “It’s a problem to the extent they have a role in corruption and/or other human rights abuses.”

Guatemala Today

Jimmy Morales

  • Won praise from Trump for agreeing to a controversial “safe third country” deal to take in refugees seeking asylum in the U.S., even as the number of undocumented immigrants going to the U.S. from Guatemala skyrocketed after CICIG’s demise.
  • Obtained immunity from prosecution with his appointment to the Central American Parliament.

Manuel Espina

  • Left public life and retained lobbyist Ron Bonjean to help get opinion pieces into U.S. media.
  • Co-authored opinion pieces with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) and Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL).
  • Now lives in Virginia, 15 minutes from The Cedars.

Guatemala Prospera

  • Signed a deal with Giammattei’s government to provide training in values and ethics.
  • Saw its former secretary, Mario Bucaro, Morales’s ambassador to Israel, appointed Tuesday as Giammattei’s new foreign minister.

Thelma Aldana

  • Received political asylum in the U.S. in February 2021.
  • Now relies on support from fellow Guatemalan refugees, who help pay her phone bills and the rent for her studio apartment just outside Washington.

Joe Biden

  • Announced that the U.S. has “lost confidence” in Guatemala’s anti-corruption efforts and labeled judges as high as Guatemala’s Supreme Court as corrupt.
  • Has not said whether he will participate in next month’s National Prayer Breakfast, according to a White House spokesperson who told TYT last week, “We’ll provide more information when we know something further.”

The Family

  • Operating in secrecy, it’s not clear what its current involvement is with the Giammattei administration.
  • Has had an active presence in Guatemala, however, since as early as 1957, and TYT has learned more about The Family’s role in the evangelical takeover of Guatemalan politics, as detailed in the next installment of this series.

With additional reporting by a freelance reporter in Guatemala who has asked not to be named out of fear of reprisal, and additional research by TYT Investigates Intern Jamia Zarzuela.

Jonathan Larsen is TYT’s managing editor. You can find him on Twitter @JTLarsen.

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