U.N. to send deputy to Guatemala as anti-graft leader remains banned

GUATEMALA CITY/UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The United Nations said on Wednesday that it would send an assistant director to lead its anti-graft mission in Guatemala as the group’s chief remains banned from entering the country.

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In a letter to President Jimmy Morales, U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres said he stood by Ivan Velasquez, who leads the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, but would instruct him to name a deputy, according to a copy of the correspondence seen by Reuters.

“I see no reason to lose confidence in Commissioner Velasquez,” Guterres wrote in the letter dated Tuesday.

“Nevertheless, considering the fact that he finds himself impeded from doing his work in Guatemala, I have asked the commissioner to name a deputy commissioner who can continue the work in the country, after consultation with authorities.”

Under the agreement struck between the United Nations and Guatemala to create CICIG, the United Nations appoints the CICIG leader, who in turn appoints staff. The agreement does not mention consulting with authorities about staff appointments.

On Wednesday evening, the constitutional court held a press conference reiterating that the government should allow Velasquez to return to the country.

President Morales’ moves to dismantle CICIG have prompted what critics call a “constitutional crisis” in the country after his government appeared to defy an order by the court permitting Velasquez’s return.

Last month, Morales announced he would not renew the group’s mandate. Days later, he banned Velasquez, a hard-charging Colombian prosecutor, from re-entering the Central American country.

The constitutional court issued a provisional ruling on Sunday allowing Velasquez to return. But the government has nonetheless refused to let him set foot in Guatemala, asking the United Nations on Monday to name a new leader for the mission within 48 hours.

The moves against CICIG have drawn international condemnation and sparked protests across Guatemala. Activists have planned various demonstrations against Morales’ government in the capital on Thursday.

Founded in 2007 to investigate criminal groups in Guatemala, CICIG brought down former President Otto Perez with a corruption probe and sought to prosecute Morales, a former comedian, over illegal financing allegations.

CICIG has said Velasquez is working in New York and following the case.

Reporting by Sofia Menchu and Michelle Nichols; writing by Julia Love; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Michael Perry