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18 Aug 2021 | Commentary

Assault on Guatemala’s Justice System Intensifies With Expulsion of Anti-Corruption Prosecutor

On Friday, July 23, Guatemalan Attorney General Consuelo Porras removed the country’s lead anti-corruption prosecutor, Juan Francisco Sandoval, from his position as head of the Special Prosecutor’s Office against Impunity (FECI), forcing him to flee the country that night for fear of further reprisals. This decision, while alarming and concerning, is not surprising, as recent years have seen numerous attacks against independent Guatemalan prosecutors and judges in an effort by the country’s corrupt forces to further concentrate power. 

Sandoval’s dismissal ignited a wave of mobilizations across the country. Tens of thousands of Guatemalans, including Indigenous communities and social movements, took to the streets demanding the resignation of Attorney General Consuelo Porras and President Alejandro Giammattei. At least three petitions to lift the attorney general’s immunity have been filed, accusing her of obstruction of justice and abuse of authority, among other crimes. 

Sandoval’s removal from the FECI—the investigative office responsible for leading top-level corruption probes—is the latest in a series of calculated attacks by corrupt networks to take over the justice system and undermine the fight against corruption and impunity in Guatemala. 

Sandoval is the latest of at least five justice officials forced to leave Guatemala in the last several years because of their work on justice and accountability. His removal underscores the depth of entrenched corruption in Guatemala, as well as the degree of control yielded by criminal mafias over nearly all state institutions. Responding to this wave of attacks against Guatemala’s anti-corruption crusaders will be a test of the Biden administration’s efforts to prioritize the fight against corruption in Central America. 

An arbitrary removal 

A statement issued by the Attorney General’s Office in late July cited “constant misdeeds and frequent abuses to institutionality” as reason for Sandoval’s removal. Attorney General Porras did not provide further details. 

However, as many Guatemalan analysts have highlighted, the decision to remove Sandoval violates the law that governs the Attorney General’s Office (Ministerio Publico, MP). This law mandates that in order to remove a prosecutor from office, an internal disciplinary process must occur, in addition to proving that serious misconduct took place. Sandoval has since challenged his ousting. 

Sandoval’s removal also violates international law. As noted by a coalition of human rights groups and rule of law experts, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights has established that public prosecutors can’t be arbitrarily removed from office unless there is solid evidence of grave misconduct, as well as an impartial, law-abiding procedure for removal. Elsewhere, the United Nations secretary general has observed, “The ability of prosecutors to perform their functions without intimidation and improper interference is an essential prerequisite for addressing and preventing corruption and impunity.” 

The criminalization of independent justice officials 

Sandoval was a respected prosecutor, with more than 15 years of experience in the MP. As head of the FECI, he had overseen the country’s most emblematic cases of corruption. His dismissal brings into question the fate of these emblematic cases, many of which are making their way through the courts and are scheduled to come to trial next year. 

The FECI was originally created to work alongside the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), which was shut down in 2019. During Sandoval’s tenure, the FECI opened more than 200 cases and helped dismantle some 60 criminal structures. In February 2021, the State Department honored Sandoval for his work to combat corruption in Guatemala in the face of tremendous adversity, as Sandoval’s efforts to ensure accountability and uphold the rule of law have made him the target of criminalization, attacks, and intimidation.

In addition to defamation campaigns on social media, Sandoval and his team have faced numerous malicious lawsuits and accusations of administrative malfeasance, with poor evidence of any actual wrongdoing. As of June 2019, the 64 members of the FECI had received a total of 80 legal complaints against them. Additionally, by October 2020, those most threatened by the FECI’s anti-corruption probes—members of the political establishment and individuals implicated in corruption cases or other serious crimes—had filed at least 47 criminal and administrative malfeasance accusations against Sandoval. 

A large number of the accusations originated from the Foundation against Terrorism, a right-wing extremist group whose leadership was recently included on the State Department’s list of corrupt individuals from the Northern Triangle. During 2019 and 2020, over half of all legal complaints made against MP officials were directed against FECI employees, with the clear objective of removing Sandoval from the FECI, weakening the anti-corruption unit, and halting investigations against Guatemalan elites accused of graft and grave human rights violations. In June 2020, international organizations called attention to the increasing attacks against Sandoval, particularly in light of his work on the groundbreaking “parallel commissions 2020” case, which revealed the scale to which criminal networks unduly influence Guatemala’s justice system.

In late 2020, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights called for the reinforcement of security measures to protect Sandoval and other FECI prosecutors who are targets of “intimidation and threats.” The commission made a similar call in April for the protection of the FECI’s prosecutors; however, harassment and threats have continued. 

Sandoval is not the only justice official facing constant attacks and malicious lawsuits. The UN human rights office has documented multiple acts of intimidation and reprisals against justice officials, including FECI staff and Supreme Court and Constitutional Court judges. For instance, Erika Aifan, a judge currently presiding over some of Guatemala’s most sensitive corruption cases, has faced numerous attacks and spurious complaints of administrative crimes. Just in the last two years, former magistrate Gloria Porras—recently blocked from being sworn in following her reelection to the Constitutional Court—has seen some 60 legal complaints filed against her, related to her work on anti-corruption and protecting human rights. 

Within this context, it’s evident that Sandoval’s removal is part of a pattern to rid Guatemala of justice officials who threaten the interests of the country’s corrupt networks. 

Guatemala’s top human rights office has also seen frequent procedural and legal harassment lacking a basis in strong evidence. Members of the Guatemalan legislature, many of whom have been implicated in corruption or have ties to organized crime, have sought to remove Ombudsperson Jordan Rodas Andrade several times, and have blocked the disbursement of funds to his office. 

FECI investigations implicate Guatemala’s highest circles of power 

In interviews following his ousting, Sandoval spoke freely of the possible motives behind Attorney General Porras’s decision to oust him, pointing to the different instances in which the attorney general sought to block the FECI’s investigations. 

This included a case against former first lady and presidential candidate, Sandra Torres, for alleged illicit campaign financing, as well as investigations into how corrupt networks attempted to manipulate the selection process for Supreme Court and appellate court magistrates. According to Sandoval, the attorney general stalled an investigation against Nester Vásquez, a nominee for the Constitutional Court, implicated in the aforementioned parallel commissions 2020 case for manipulating the selection of Guatemala’s highest-level judges. Vásquez was eventually able to take his seat on the Constitutional Court, despite the serious questions about his qualifications and independence. In July 2021, he was put on the State Department list of corrupt officials or “Engel list” for abuse of authority in influencing the appointment of judges to high courts.      

Sandoval has said that many of the advances in recent FECI investigations pointed to possible links between acts of corruption and people within President Giammattei’s close circle. This includes one case in which investigators discovered more than 20 suitcases stuffed with around USD$16 million in cash in a rented house linked to José Luis Benito, former minister of communication, infrastructure and housing for the Morales administration. The case could implicate members of the current government for possible bribes and illicit electoral financing. 

The weakening of the FECI  

Sandoval’s replacement is José Rafael Curruchiche, former head of the MP’s electoral crimes unit. Curruchiche is currently facing an internal affairs investigation for his alleged mishandling of an investigation into the illegal campaign financing of former President Jimmy Morales’s political party. More recently, Curruchiche filed charges against a tax reformer, known for trying to clean up Guatemala’s graft-prone tax system and ensure the wealthy pay their taxes. Under Curruchice, the electoral crimes unit also arrested former CICIG analyst Anibal Arguello, a key witness in a corruption probe involving Guatemala’s former President Otto Pérez Molina. 

Curruchiche’s appointment isn’t the only red flag that demonstrates, as Sandoval has asserted, Porras’s Attorney General’s Office is disinterested in supporting a fully independent and effective FECI, and is in fact actively working to undermine the unit’s work. One concerning development is the transfer of FECI cases and investigators to other sub offices within the MP, where sensitive corruption cases are unlikely to move forward. Just days before Sandoval’s dismissal, Porras transferred a top-level FECI corruption prosecutor—who was investigating the multimillion-dollar-stash of suitcases—into another MP unit that doesn’t carry out investigations. Meanwhile, the prosecutor’s caseload was transferred to another investigator who has several criminal and administrative cases pending for obstruction of justice and abuse of power. 

Documents published by Guatemalan daily el Periodico also point to concerted efforts by Porras’s MP to weaken the FECI—as does testimony given by lawyer Marco Aurelio Alveño Hernández, who maintains that one of his clients, a former central banker and informal advisor to President Giammattei, paid a bribe so that an ongoing corruption case got transferred out of the FECI. The documents reveal how an assistant to the attorney general’s advisor accepted payments in exchange for information or to transfer cases out of the hands of the FECI. 

Another red flag was an internal MP order, issued in July, that requires prosecutorial units to seek authorization from the attorney general before requesting police support in operations and raids. The order seemed to directly target the FECI, debilitating the unit’s investigative capacities. 

Guatemala’s justice system co-opted by criminal interests

The ongoing attacks against anti-corruption crusaders and defenders of the rule of law have gone hand in hand with efforts by illicit interests to influence, infiltrate, and ultimately co-opt Guatemala’s justice system. 

This was seen most clearly in the deeply problematic process to elect top-level judges on the Supreme Court and appellate courts — a process that has been stalled for over two years and has faced numerous irregularities, procedural shortcomings, and attempts by corrupt interests to manipulate the outcome. Observers noted that qualified judges were excluded from the selection process without cause, and that the special commissions responsible for drawing up candidate lists failed at basic due diligence, including interviewing and evaluating candidates (meaning it was impossible to assess basic information like financial ties or past rulings). 

Investigations by FECI have unveiled the degree to which corrupt and special interests schemed to influence the selection process. Amid concerns over influence peddling, the Constitutional Court suspended the process and later ruled that the Guatemalan Congress needed to follow specific guidelines for picking qualified, honorable, and independent candidates as required by the Constitution. However, ultimately these guidelines were not followed, and the process remains stalled. 

Some key actors involved in these coordinated efforts to capture the high courts were called out in the State Department’s “Engel list”. In addition to Nester Vásquez, who was ultimately sworn in on the Constitutional Court, others included on the list are Manuel Duarte Barrera, currently serving on the Supreme Court; Juan Carlos Godinez Rodriguez, former member of the congressional commission in charge of selection of Supreme Court magistrates; and Mynor Mauricio Moto Morataya, former magistrate-elect to fill a seat on the Constitutional Court who is currently a fugitive from justice, among others. 

Without a truly independent selection process for Guatemala’s top-level judges—thanks to the interference of an intricate web of corrupt elites and criminal groups— the same criminal networks who have hijacked the justice system are unlikely to be held accountable. 

The battle for control of Guatemala’s highest courts saw the culmination in the spring of 2021— with the election of the Constitutional Court, eventually resulting in Congress refusing to allow Gloria Porras to take her seat despite having won re-election for another five year term, a move seen as a direct reprisal by corrupt interests. Many considered the Constitutional Court the last bastion in the fight to protect the rule of law in Guatemalabut now, the court has seen the  swearing-in of multiple magistrates with murky backgrounds, clear links to corruption, and troublesome political affiliations. 

U.S. response  

Since taking office, the Biden administration has emphasized the fight against corruption and strengthening rule of law in its policy toward Central America. 

The U.S. government has sought to set the right tone by meeting with Guatemalan justice leaders in exile, targeting actors for corruption and obstruction of justice, and prioritizing corruption within the newly released root causes strategy. However, continuous efforts to weaken the fight against corruption and undermine the rule of law in Guatemala, and across the region, drive home the case for the U.S. government to deploy the full range of tools at its disposal to push back against continued backsliding. Attorney General Porras’s decision to oust the country’s top anti-corruption prosecutor, and other actions that undermined the FECI’s work, happened despite the Biden administration’s strong support for Sandoval and his team. 

In response to Sandoval’s removal, the U.S. government rightfully suspended most cooperation with the MP, citing a loss of confidence in the attorney general and the country’s commitment to fighting corruption. On August 4, the State Department announced new restrictions that will allow the United States to block visas for those in the Northern Triangle accused of corruption or other actions to undermine democracy. Additionally, there has been widespread public support of Sandoval and strong condemnation of this latest attack on Guatemala’s rule of law from several high-level U.S. government officials, including Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and USAID Administrator Samantha Power, and Members of Congress. However, further and more assertive action is needed if the U.S. government is to make a dent in helping Guatemala curb systemic corruption and create more transparent and accountable institutions. 

The U.S. government must be steadfast in imparting stronger sanctions, strategically targeted against current and former public officials, legislators, judges, and members of the economic elite who have sustained Guatemala’s kleptocratic system with the aim of weakening their influence and control. Additionally, the anti-corruption task force announced earlier this year must also be ramped up, including through investigations in the U.S. It must ensure that effective mechanisms are in place to guarantee that aid and loans are not awarded to those who have been implicated in acts of corruption, and press for actions that can help rebuild trust in the country’s justice institutions. Without a doubling down on the U.S. strategy towards Guatemala, this calculated escalation of attacks against prosecutors and justice operators at the forefront of the fight against corruption will only intensify — bolstering a culture of impunity and a government that is increasingly unwilling and unable to meet the needs of its populace. Such consequences will reverberate across the region as a signal to others that high level graft and infiltrated judiciaries are possible, ultimately exacerbating the drivers of irregular migration.