Judicial Persecution of Anti-Corruption Prosecutors Increases

Six Prosecutors Investigating High-Level Corruption Arrested

Since February 10, the Guatemalan Public Ministry has issued seven arrests warrants for attorneys  connected to the former International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) who work or have worked with the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity (FECI). Six such prosecutors have been arrested and await trial. Attorney Leyli Indira Santizo Rodas, former President of the International Commission Against Impunity (CICIG), and Eva Xiomara Sosa, former prosecutor with FECI, were arrested on February 10; Willy Roberto Racanac Lopez, an assistant prosecutor with FECI, was  arrested on February 16, along with Paola Escobar, also an assistant prosecutor with FECI. Aliss Moran, a former assistant prosecutor with FECI who resigned in January, had her house raided on February 16 and was arrested, after presenting herself voluntarily, on February 17; and Rudy Manolo Herrera Lemus, a former FECI prosecutor, has an arrest warrant pending but is no longer in Guatemala. The female prosecutors/former prosecutors are awaiting their trials in prison, where they fear for their safety. Racanac Lopez, due to medical concerns, is awaiting trial under house arrest. 

The latter four persecuted prosecutors mentioned above are linked to the 2020 Parallel Commissions case, in which prosecutors uncovered a corruption plot between lawyers, politicians, and businessmen to elect judges.

On February 23, Virginia Laparra, the head of FECI’s Quetzaltenango office, was arrested on charges of providing false testimony, abuse of authority, and encroachment of functions. She apparently fainted as she was informed of the arrest and was taken to a health clinic before being turned over to the court.

Five prosecutors working on corruption cases have resigned due to pressure during the month of February. Carlos Antonio Videz Nava, who as a prosecutor with FECI oversaw important cases involving money laundering and wrongdoing by government officials, announced on February 20 that he is now in exile. He stated that he feared for his life and feared unjust persecution. He had participated in the questioning of Witness A, who has accused Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei of receiving bribes (see more about this case below). Three additional prosecutors with FECI resigned on February 21, and the resignation of one more assistant prosecutor became public on February 23. On February 25, former FECI prosecutor Lorenzo Alberto Bolaños Sanchez announced that he had gone into exile, as he feared for his life and his freedom.

The UN Rapporteur on judicial independence in a February 13 statement denounced the acts of persecution against judges, prosecutors, and lawyers, as did the European Union in a February 11 statement, expressing “its utmost concern over the ongoing deteriorating of the rule of law in Guatemala, where the Supreme Court of Justice and the Prosecutor-General have initiated legal action against independent judges, lawyers and prosecutors, resulting in arrests and loss of judicial immunity.” The US Department of State in a February 16 statement expressed deep concern about “the Guatemalan Public Ministry’s unacceptable mistreatment and persistent abuse of current and former independent prosecutors” and said “the Public Ministry used searches and arrests based on sealed indictments and selectively leaked case information with the apparent intent to single out and punish Guatemalans who are combatting impunity and promoting transparency and accountability.”  The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on February 22 called for the “cessation of any interference against the independence of the Judiciary in order to guarantee independent and impartial justice” and expressed concern that these incidents were occurring “in a context of severe setbacks in the fight against impunity and corruption in Guatemala.” The IACHR reminded the Guatemalan government of its “obligation to protect justice operators from attacks, acts of intimidation, threats, and harassment, and to investigate and effectively punish those who commit violations of their rights.” National and international nongovernmental organizations also condemned these recent acts of criminalization. According to the Unit for Human Rights Defenders in Guatemala, the persecution of the prosecutors “puts at risk the freedom to practice law and the right to defend human rights.” 

Witness Testimony Indicates Giammattei Financed Campaign through Bribes

Evidence has surfaced implicating Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei in illegal campaign financing. According to the testimony of a protected witness, Giammattei agreed to receive $2.6 million in bribes from construction companies to finance his 2019 presidential campaign. Reports first published in the Salvadoran daily El Faro indicate that the witness said a deal was struck between Giammattei and close associates Giorgio Bruni, then the Secretary General of former President Morales’ political party, Vamos, and José Luis Benito, the Minister of Communication, Infrastructure, and Housing under Morales administration. According to the testimony of the witness, who says he was present at a July 2019 meeting where the deal was discussed, Benito–in exchange for being allowed to retain his position as minister of communications in the new administration–arranged $2.6 million in contributions to the Giammattei campaign from construction companies, who in turn benefitted by receiving additional contracts and advance payments. A second source within the Giammattei administration reportedly confirmed to El Faro the existence of this deal. Although Benito was not kept on as minister in Giammattei’s administration, a number of these construction projects that allegedly formed part of the corruption scheme are in progress. Twelve highway construction projects worth more than $191 million are allegedly linked to this pact. According to El Faro, official documents show that eleven of them are underway and the last is accepting proposals.

Potential corruption in infrastructure projects of this sort is particularly relevant in light of international investment in infrastructure projects in Guatemala. In February 2019, the Inter-American Development Bank provided the Guatemalan government a $150 million loan for the building of roads.

The evidence gathered from the sealed testimony of Witness A was recorded in May 2021 as part of an ongoing investigation opened by FECI in response to the discovery in October 2020 of suitcases full of cash amounting to nearly $16 million, stashed in a house in Antigua, Guatemala rented by Benito. Benito, after a period on the run, was arrested on January 21, 2022, in connection with the case, pursuant to an arrest warrant issued in October 2020 for money laundering after the suitcases were discovered.

The testimony of the witness is in the care of Judge Erika Aifán, of High Risk Court “D.” Aifán has been subjected to intense pressure from the Attorney General’s Office but has refused to turn over the testimony or reveal the identity of the witness. In a written response to the Attorney General’s Office, Aifán explained her refusal to turn over the information, noting that the testimony is already part of a judicial process beyond the attorney general’s control, and the recording and the identity of the witness are now evidence in the court’s custody. 

As the El Faro article points out, the New York Times referenced the existence of Witness A last October in an article that revealed that another witness told FECI in July that he had delivered to Giammattei’s house a rug rolled with cash inside. The cash was allegedly part of a bribe by a Russian-backed mining company for the rights to operate part of a Guatemalan port in Izabal. When former leading anti-corruption prosecutor Juan Francisco Sandoval left Guatemala to go into exile in July 2021, he told El Faroin an exclusive interview that one of the reasons for his removal was that the investigation of the money found in a house in Antigua led back to Giammattei and to “payments from contractors” to finance a political campaign.

As the El Faro article points out, the New York Times referenced the existence of Witness A last October in an article that revealed that another witness told FECI in July that he had delivered to Giammattei’s house a rug rolled with cash inside. The cash was allegedly part of a bribe by a Russian-backed mining company for the rights to operate part of a Guatemalan port in Izabal. When former leading anti-corruption prosecutor Juan Francisco Sandoval left Guatemala to go into exile in July 2021, he told El Faro in an exclusive interview that one of the reasons for his removal was that the investigation of the money found in a house in Antigua led back to Giammattei and to “payments from contractors” to finance a political campaign.

According to El Faro, both the US State Department and the FBI have had a copy of Witness A’s testimony for months, as international transactions between the individuals or companies involved may have passed through US banking institutions. According to reports, one construction magnate implicated has been cooperating with US authorities. 

Attorney General Consuelo Porras Seeks Re-Election.

The call for applications for the upcoming Attorney General election closed on February 21. From this list, the Nominating Commission will choose six candidates to present to President Alejandro Giammattei, who will select the new Attorney General in mid-May. This week, the commission released a preliminary list of  26 candidates for consideration, including current Attorney General Maria Consuelo Porras.  

As the current head of the Public Ministry, Consuelo Porras has been criticized in recent weeks both nationally and internationally for her persecution of anti-corruption prosecutors. The United States removed her visa and placed her on the Engel List in September 2021 for her “obstruction of justice” in cases of high-level corruption in Guatemala. Former Attorney General Thelma Aldana tweeted, “The candidates for attorney general of Guatemala included on the Engel List for corrupt and anti-democratic actions and linked to organized crime should not receive votes from the Commission,” arguing that they are “unfit at the national and international level.” Porras’ candidacy was accepted by the Nominating Commission on February 23. The outcome of this election holds significant implications in the fight against corruption and US-Guatemala relations.    

A number of potentially strong candidates, such as independent judges, were excluded from the Nominating Commission’s list after a decision was made by the Constitutional Court not to count the years a judge has spent in service of the law in the tally of requisite years as a lawyer stipulated for eligibility for the attorney general position. International organizations, including GHRC, issued a statement of concern about a number of circumstances affecting the conditions of impartiality and transparency that must be guaranteed in the process.

Judge Pablo Xitumul at Risk for Arrest after CSJ Removes his Immunity

On February 9, the Guatemalan Supreme Court ruled to remove the judicial immunity of Judge Pablo Xitumul.  The International Observatory for Human Rights in Guatemala denounced the decision by the Supreme Court, condemning it as a “grave attack on his independence and an unacceptable action that seeks to frighten and intimidate justice operators in the country.” Judge Xitumul told the Associated Press that those he has sentenced are seeking revenge. The High Risk Court “C” judge–known for his decisions in favor of victims in transitional justice cases–can now be removed from his position and forced to face charges related to a 2019 incident in which a National Police officer demanded to search Xitumul’s car. Xitumul’s vehicle was not moving at the time; Xitumul was sitting in the car with his family. Judge Xitumul asked the reason for the search and the officer refused to give a reason. An altercation ensued, and the officer, José Cuxaj, grabbed the judge by the neck. Judge Xitumul filed charges against the officer, who answered with a lawsuit against the judge for “abuse of authority.”

Judge Xitumul is one of several high-court judges who has faced consistent harassment and suffered surveillance and other forms of intimidation. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) granted Xitumul precautionary measures in 2013 after he began recieving threats related to his work overseeing the Rios Montt genocide trial. In September of 2021, the IACHR expressed concern over the weakening of the  judicial system, reminding the state of Guatemala “of its duty to protect those who work in the field of justice from attacks, intimidation, threats, and harassment.” The removal of Judge Xitumul’s immunity, according to international NGOs, forms “part of a systematic pattern that has been worsening and that has as a common denominator the use of the criminal justice and disciplinary systems to undermine the independence of judges and prosecutors.”

CODECA Leader Murdered in Jalapa .

Human rights defender Álvaro Marco Román was fatally shot while returning home to Tierra Blanca, Santa María Xalapán, Jalapa early in the morning on February 6th. Román–who dedicated his life to the struggle for community land rights–served as the president of his community board and a leader within the Campesino Development Committee (CODECA). In a public statement CODECA demanded that “the Public Ministry and national and international human rights organizations seriously investigate this repression against CODECA leaders.” The Human Rights Ombudsman also called for a prompt investigation to identify and prosecute all parties responsible for Román’s murder. Earlier this year, the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders and other UN experts released a joint letter sent to the Guatemala government denouncing the harassment, death threats, armed attacks, and assassinations of CODECA leaders and demanding the government address the “systemic repression against members of CODECA.” His death marks the 23rd assasination of a CODECA member since 2018. 

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