By Sofia Menchu and Diego Oré
GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - In late August, U.N. officials, judges and civil society leaders met in Guatemala to say farewell to a U.N. commission that fought political corruption before its mandate was terminated by President Jimmy Morales.
High-level figures were conspicuously absent. Neither Morales nor his ministers, congressional powerbrokers nor top business leaders attended.
Morales' successor, Alejandro Giammattei, who takes office in January, has also turned his back on the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), which is due to close on Sept. 3.
The agency's ouster has enflamed tensions sparked by CICIG's crusade against graft, a chronic malaise in Guatemala, and has caused profound unease among the judges who will inherit its mantle.
Without the CICIG, widely viewed as one of the most successful anti-corruption bodies in Latin American history, judges told Reuters they feared it would be difficult to proceed with cases because of threats, staff cuts and a lack of political power.
"The fight against corruption has been weakened," said Haroldo Vasquez, president of Guatemala's Association of Judges for Integrity. "Justice and judicial independence are not issues that interest many people in the government."
Since launching in 2007, the CICIG helped strengthen courts and professionalized the attorney general's office. It brought down the last president and almost toppled Morales by accusing him of breaking campaign finance laws.
In return, Morales accused the CICIG of abuse of power and set about expelling it, ultimately allowing its mandate to expire.
The CICIG still has popular approval, with 72% of Guatemalans saying it should remain, according to a recent survey of about 1,200 people by local research firm Prodatos.
However, Giammattei wants to let the CICIG mandate expire in September and create a local anti-corruption body, saying the U.N. commission's future had already been decided. Describing the problem in Guatemala as "the system," he said the causes of corruption are what must be attacked.
Many view the idea as an uphill battle.
"The setback for justice will also negatively impact the economy and governance," Ivan Velasquez, the CICIG's head, said at the farewell event.
Moody's has called the CICIG's exit negative for Guatemala's sovereign credit rating. The International Monetary Fund has warned that "drifting anti-corruption efforts" could hurt investment.
REVENGE IS SWEET
The CICIG's team began life with a bold experiment: working with the attorney general's office to combat criminal networks entrenched after more than 30 years of civil war.
Then-President Oscar Berger welcomed the group, recognizing that weak institutions and extensive corruption were dragging down the Central American nation's fragile democracy.
After the CICIG took on presidents, judges, cabinet members and lawmakers, its exit leaves 70 cases in limbo that are due to be passed to the Special Prosecutor Against Impunity (FECI), a local office designed to combat corruption.
But CICIG investigators and judges said the cases were transferred haphazardly, or not at all. CICIG spokesman Matias Ponce says the FECI did not absorb any CICIG lawyers.
Juan Francisco Sandoval, the head of the FECI, said the process of transferring capacity to the unit began in 2007 and had yielded results. However, he conceded that taking on the CICIG's cases was "very complex."
"The CICIG in Guatemala acted as a lightning rod to weather storms for the attorney general's office," he said.
Hearings will likely be patchy due to fewer staff and a lack of experience in complex cases, Judge Miguel Angel Galvez said.
Judges, CICIG investigators and ex-prosecutors hope Giammattei will at least guarantee judicial independence.
"We have to keep fighting," Vasquez, of Judges for Integrity, said. "We're here until the end because that's all we know."
But intimidation has already begun, judges say.
"We've seen messages saying they want us dead," said Judge Erika Aifan, one of dozens in the justice system who say threats have intensified, ranging from menacing phone calls to pressure from colleagues to drop cases.
Responding to the reports of intimidation, Attorney General Consuelo Porras said this week that any credible threats against judges would be investigated.
A politician who was imprisoned after a CICIG investigation, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said some people burned by the CICIG now sense a chance for revenge.
"In politics, if you're going to attack, you should never leave the wounded behind," he said. "Now we have the list of investigators and prosecutors who are going to pay for being such bad people with all of us."
(Reporting by Sofia Menchu and Diego Ore; Additional reporting by Bill Barreto; Writing by Daina Beth Solomon; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Leslie Adler)