A sham trial against a former anti-corruption prosecutor gets underway, while a judge gives an alleged war criminal a “get out of jail free” card.
Guatemala’s courthouse tower is an imposing building. Four elevators move hundreds of people up and down its fifteen stories each day, though inevitably one or two of them are not working, leading many to get their daily steps by trudging up and down the dreary stairwell filled with signs about reporting corruption.
Hearings in two cases unfolded this week in the courthouse tower that reveal the dramatic effects of a co-opted justice system, the result of a long-term strategy of Guatemalan elites, military officials, and nefarious politicians to end Guatemala’s bold experiment in combating corruption and impunity in order to reassert their control of the country and guarantee their power and privilege. After a decade in which anti-corruption and anti-impunity efforts were beginning to bear fruit, these elites joined forces not only to bring down these efforts, but to co-opt key institutions, including the Public Ministry, the Supreme Court, and the Constitutional Court, and to turn the justice system into an instrument to punish those who were at the heart of Guatemala’s anti-impunity crusade, including judges, prosecutors, magistrates, and human rights defenders. The result is distorted justice, in which honest legal professionals are being criminalized and forced into exile, and the corrupt and criminals are free to engage in “business as usual.”
Sham trial against former anti-corruption prosecutor
In a courtroom on the fifth floor of the courthouse tower, the sham trial of former anti-corruption prosecutor Virginia Laparra got underway this past Monday, November 28. Laparra is a lawyer and government prosecutor who labored in the Quetzaltenango office of the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity (FECI), a unit in the Public Ministry (akin to the Department of Justice in the United States) set up to investigate and prosecute the grand corruption schemes that place Guatemala near the bottom of Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index. She worked under Juan Francisco Sandoval, globally recognized for his work heading up the FECI’s complex, and often politically uncomfortable, anti-corruption investigations. So uncomfortable that last year, Sandoval was forced into exile after the institution he worked for began to persecute him.
Virginia Laparra in courtroom (photograph courtesy of Verdad y Justicia en Guatemala).
In February, Laparra was arrested and has been held prisoner for nine months in “preventive detention” under inhumane conditions. The charges against her? “Abuse of authority,” “false testimony” and “usurpation of powers” –all because she dared denounce a high-risk judge in Quetzaltenango, Lester Castellanos, who she reported for improperly revealing information about a restricted case to a lawyer named Omar Barrios, and who was sanctioned as a result with a five-day suspension. This is precisely the job she was charged with carrying out at the FECI. But once Sandoval was ousted, FECI fell into the hands of José Rafael Curruchiche, a lackey of Attorney General Consuelo Porras —both of whom have been sanctioned by the U.S. government for corruption— and became a weapon wielded by corrupt actors against prosecutors like Laparra who were just doing their job.
On the day Laparra’s trial started, Amnesty International declared her a prisoner of conscience. They found no evidence of any criminal activity on her part, said they believe that she is being prosecuted for carrying out her duties as a prosecutor, and questioned the decision by Guatemalan courts to keep her in preventive detention for the past nine months in Guatemala City, far from her two young children. I visited Laparra in April at the high-security military prison where she was imprisoned and saw first-hand the deplorable conditions in which she was being held, in a small, concrete cell block with no windows, allowed only an hour of time outdoors a day, and limited visits from relatives and friends.
Virginia Laparra (photograph courtesy of Verdad y Justicia en Guatemala).
Alleged war criminal handed a “get out of jail free” card
As the sham trial against Virginia Laparra was getting underway, several floors up in the courtroom tower, Judge Claudette Domínguez was hearing a request from the defense attorney of Toribio Acevedo Ramírez to release his client from preventive detention, citing health issues. Last May, Acevedo was detained in Panama, after evading arrest for nearly a year for his presumed role in a major war crimes case known as the “Death Squad Dossier” or “Military Diary” case.
Top: Toribio Acevedo Ramírez with defense lawyers at preliminary statement in May 2022. Bottom: Acevedo with defense lawyers at hearing on November 28 (photographs courtesy of Verdad y Justicia en Guatemala).
The dossier is a military intelligence document that lists the names and photographs of nearly 200 people who were arbitrarily detained, tortured, executed or forcibly disappeared between 1983 and 1985, during the military government of Oscar Humberto Mejía Víctores. It was publicly released in 1999; the first arrests in the case came 23 years later, in May 2021, revealing the profound challenges Guatemala faces in coming to grips with its past.
Families of the Military Diary case with photographs of their missing loved ones during the intermediate phase hearings, May 6, 2022 (photograph courtesy of Verdad y Justicia en Guatemala).
On May 6, 2022, the judge overseeing the case, Miguel Ángel Gálvez, determined that there was sufficient evidence to send the first nine defendants in the case to trial. (Five others still await formal indictment proceedings). After hearing chilling testimony by witnesses about Acevedo’s role torturing detainees, he ordered prosecutors to redouble efforts to locate him. Acevedo is a powerful figure with close ties to the country’s ultra-conservative oligarchy. For years he worked as head of security for the powerful Cementos Progreso, owned by the Novela family, and has been implicated in present-day abuses associated with the company. So all of Guatemala was shocked when, four days later, he was detained at a Panamanian airport and returned to Guatemala. He was brought before Judge Gálvez, who formally accepted the charges against him and set formal indictment proceedings for November.
The attack campaign was swift to follow. Judge Gálvez, who had been on the bench for 23 years and had sent some of Guatemala’s most dangerous criminals to trial —including former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt on charges of genocide and former president Otto Pérez Molina on corruption charges— was not easily scared. But soon he faced a relentless campaign of intimidation, threats and legal persecution. Armed men appeared inside his condominium complex, where in theory no weapons are allowed. Random people on the street or in cafés came up to him to warn him to “be careful”, because they were “afraid” something terrible would happen to him. And the Supreme Court fast-tracked a complaint accusing him of abuse of authority that seemed to be moving inexorably toward removing his judicial immunity, which meant if a judge were to issue an arrest warrant, he could be imprisoned.
The campaign against Judge Gálvez was spearheaded by the same group pursuing charges against Virginia Laparrá, the Foundation Against Terrorism, led by Ricardo Méndez Ruiz, the son of a now deceased military official who died just days before he was about to be arrested in a different war crimes case. Like the attorney general, Méndez Ruiz has also been sanctioned by the U.S. government as a corrupt and anti-democratic actor. He takes pride in this, even listing it on his Twitter profile. His Twitter feed is rife with attacks against Judge Gálvez. He frequently posts a bingo card with a red X superimposed on the faces of prosecutors and judges he takes credit for having jailed or exiled, including Juan Francisco Sandoval and anti-corruption Judge Erika Aifan. On November 15, Judge Gálvez announced he was resigning his judgeship. Méndez Ruiz gleefully posted a new bingo card with a big red X over Gálvez’s face.
Top: Ricardo Méndez Ruiz. Bottom: Virginia Laparra and plaintiffs, with Méndez Ruiz at far right (photographs courtesy of Verdad y Justicia en Guatemala).
With Gálvez gone, the Military Diary case fell to Judge Claudette Domínguez. For those of us who know Claudette Domínguez —she has issued numerous rulings favoring government functionaries and military officials charged with corruption and human rights violations— her ruling was almost a foregone conclusion. True to form, Domínguez granted Acevedo’s motion to be released from preventive detention, remanding him into the custody of his attorneys.
Judge Claudette Domínguez (photograph courtesy of Verdad y Justicia en Guatemala).
Lawyers for the victims say that Domínguez’s ruling is blatantly illegal. Guatemalan law, they say, prohibits granting conditional release from preventive detention for those accused of murder. Nor did she consider that Acevedo is a flight risk, having been a fugitive of justice for nearly a year before his arrest in May. Never mind that his release is a slap in the face to the victims in the Military Diary case who have been waiting nearly 40 years for justice.
This is justice in Guatemala today. Anti-corruption prosecutors are persecuted and jailed for doing their job. Judges who have worked a lifetime to combat crime, violence and corruption are being forced out of the country. Corrupt officials in the Public Ministry, with the complicity of the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court, are using the law as a blunt instrument to remove prosecutors and judges from their positions and are putting lackeys in their place, or using familiar tactics, including bribery, threats, and blackmail, to ensure the collaboration of others. And presumed war criminals are handed “get out of jail free” cards.
Jo-Marie Burt, a Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), is also an associate professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and current vice-president of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA). Paulo Estrada researches wartime human rights violations and is a member of Families of the Detained and Disappeared of Guatemala (FAMDEGUA). They are co-directors of Verdad y Justicia en Guatemala, which monitors and reports on war crimes prosecutions in Guatemala.