Public Ministry Releases New Warrants and Opens Investigation into Colombia’s Defense Minister
On January 16, Rafael Curruchiche–current head of the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity (FECI)–announced via the social media pages of the Public Ministry (MP) the release of new arrest warrants of former attorney general Thelma Aldana, the former secretary of the MP Mayra Véliz, former investigator at the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) and current member of Transparency International Guatemala David Gaitán, and private attorney Juan Pablo Carrasco for the crimes of obstruction of justice, conspiracy and abuse of authority in relation to their work on the Odebrecht case. In 2018, the CICIG opened an investigation into bribes accepted by Guatemalan officials from Odebrecht–a Brazilian construction company that admitted to distributing nearly $800 million in bribes across Latin America.
The MP also announced that it “will undertake corresponding legal actions” against Iván Velásquez, a Colombian national who led the CICIG between 2013 and 2018. Last year he was appointed as Colombia’s Minister of Defense and has served in the position since August. In his tenure with CICIG, Velásquez prosecuted many high-profile Guatemalans for corruption, including former president Otto Pérez Molina, who was convicted last December of fraud and racketeering and sentenced to 16 years in prison. Velásquez also worked on cases against the heads of Guatemala’s central bank, customs and tax officials, legislators and political party leaders, making himself an enemy of those seeking to preserve impunity in Guatemala. In 2019, the Guatemalan government dismantled the CICIG, claiming that it abused its authority and violated the constitution. Former President Jimmy Morales ordered the removal of all CICIG staff from the country, including Velásquez.
In the wake of the announcement from the MP, tensions have run high between Guatemala and Colombia. Colombian President Gustavo Petro responded, stating “I will never accept an arrest warrant for our minister.” According to President Giammattei, however, no charges have been filed against Velásquez, the MP has just opened investigations. On Monday, Colombia’s Foreign Ministry recalled its ambassador to Guatemala with Guatemala following suit soon after.
Beyond Colombia, the reaction from the international community has also been strong. Deputy director for the Americas at Human Rights Watch Juan Pappier reacted to the news, stating, “it is not about Iván Velásquez. It’s about Guatemala, where corruption is sweeping away human rights.” Echoing Pappier, Assistant secretary for the Western Hemisphere at the State Department Brian Nichols tweeted, “I am disturbed by the arrest warrants for individuals who worked to ensure accountability for corruption in the Odebrecht case in Guatemala. These actions undermine the rule of law and trust in the Guatemalan judicial system.” The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk expressed his concern over “the attacks against those trying to combat one of the worst viruses to afflict any society: corruption.” He added, ““It is dramatic, given Guatemala’s history, that those fighting for accountability for gross human rights violations are the ones now being persecuted.”
Virginia Laparra Faces Even More Charges
Less than a month after her conviction for “abuse of authority,” former head of the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity (FECI) in Quetzaltenango Virginia Laparra will face a second case against her. On January 3, Laparra was transferred from the Matamoros prison–where she is currently being held–to the Criminal Court of First Instance in Quetzaltenango and was forced to sit through a 15-hour initial hearing for new charges made against her. Judge Carmen Lucía Acú ruled to open the case for which Laparra is accused of “revealing confidential information,” and ordered that she be kept in pretrial detention pending the intermediate phase hearing, scheduled for April 21, 2023. Laparra has been detained since February 2022.
Given the lack of notice, Laparra requested to suspend the hearing to allow her defense time to prepare. Her request, however, was denied. In fact, her defense was expelled from the courtroom along with the press and human rights observers with the Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (UDEFEGUA). UDEFEGUA and the World Organization Against Torture, in a joint statement, identified the events as “a groteque exercise of judicial bias,” stating, “the judicial system is merciless against Virginia Laparra.”
On January 18, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released a statement condemning criminalization of judicial workers in Guatemala, stating that, “There has been a steady increase in the number of cases of harassment and criminal charges against its [Guatemala’s] former officials, and prosecutors.” Between 2021 and 2022, the OHCHR recorded more than 70 percent increase in the number of justice officials facing intimidation and criminal charges for their work on corruption or human rights violations.