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FILE PHOTO: Guatemala's President Jimmy Morales attends the Latin America and Caribbean International Economic Forum at the Bercy Finance Ministry in Paris, France, June 9, 2017. REUTERS/Charles Platiau/File Photo(reuters_tickers)
By Sofia Menchu and Enrique Andres Pretel
GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales launched a vendetta against the head of a U.N. anti-corruption body who helped him win power after the veteran prosecutor began to investigate his family last year, according to former and current officials.
Guatemala was plunged into political chaos last weekend when Morales attempted to expel Ivan Velasquez, head of Guatemala's International Commission against Impunity (CICIG), two days after he urged an investigation into the president.
The United Nations, the United States and the European Union leapt to Velasquez's defence and Morales was forced onto the defensive at home when Guatemala's supreme court threw out his attempt to expel the veteran prosecutor.
The bitter to-and-fro was a marked contrast to 2015 when Morales won a landslide election victory riding a wave of anti-corruption sentiment stirred up by the CICIG's toppling of his predecessor Otto Perez Molina in a graft probe led by Velasquez.
The anti-corruption body is unusual among U.N. agencies in that it has the power to build cases and hand them over for prosecution. Its heads were early examples of hard-charging prosecutors now fighting graft across Latin America.
Initially a champion of Velasquez, Morales changed his tune when the CICIG and attorney general Thelma Aldana announced in September 2016 they had put the president's son Jose Manuel and his brother Samuel under investigation for suspected fraud.
"There was a close relationship between the president and the commissioner (Velasquez) but it definitely became distant at the time of the case against his brother and his son. He's not the same person now he was a year ago," said former health minister Lucrecia Hernandez, who resigned on Sunday after Morales declared Velasquez a persona non-grata.
Publicly, Morales vowed not to interfere but in private he became angry about what he considered an over-aggressive approach by prosecutors, who in November raided his residence for evidence against his son, two government officials said.
With the arrest of both his son and brother in January, his patience boiled over and Morales lashed out at some members of his government for their support of the CICIG, dubbing them "traitors", three people who witnessed the scene said.
"That's when the president said: 'I'll push him (Velasquez) out'", recalled an official close to Morales who like others in the article spoke on condition they would remain anonymous.
According to two sources, at that point Morales began to seek support among those who felt threatened by Velasquez, whose investigations led to resignations by cabinet ministers under Perez and implicated more than 200 people including judges, politicians and influential business people.
Samuel and Jose Manuel Morales are accused of facilitating false receipts that defrauded the national property registry in 2013. Samuel Morales has admitted helping his nephew as a favour but denied any wrongdoing.
The president's office declined to comment. Morales justified his bid to expel Velasquez on the grounds he had overstepped his authority and politicized the justice system.
Trouble was brewing last month when officials leaked that Morales would ask U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres to replace Velasquez, a Colombian national, during a planned meeting in New York.
Yet before that took place, Guterres emphatically backed Velasquez, prompting Morales to request only that the Colombian stick to the CICIG's initial mandate of dismantling paramilitary groups left over from the 1960-1996 civil war.
While Morales was in New York, Velasquez submitted a request to strip him of presidential immunity over suspected illegal financing of the 2015 campaign. By the time the president returned, he resolved to expel the Colombian.
Early on Sunday, he and his closest allies drew up the expulsion order and posted it at 6 a.m without advance notice to the rest of the cabinet, the sources said.
Though the Constitutional Court ruled in Velasquez's favour a few days later, the Colombian's troubles look far from over.
Having ordered an investigation into all the main parties for their financing of the 2015 campaign, his enemies abound.
"Morales has been looking for support in the government, from congressfolk, from mayors and governors who are afraid of Velasquez, and if they find a way of (expelling him), they're going to try again," one of the sources said.
(Reporting Sofia Menchu and Enrique Andres Pretel; Writing by Dave Graham; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel, Daniel Flynn and Andrew Hay)