A legal safeguard built into Guatemala's justice system is being used to stall the extraditions to the United States of some of the country's most notorious suspected drug traffickers.
The writ of amparo -- which is something along the lines of an injunction in the United States, or "accion tutela" in Colombia -- provides widespread "relief" or "protection" for the appellate who feels that a statute, law or government action is violating his or her rights under the country's constitution.
The amparo is a broad measure that can also be used to reclaim rights as well, such as the right to obtain government-generated documents (equivalent to the Freedom of Information Act in the United States). As such, it is a sacred legal tool.
However, lawyers of some of Guatemala's most notorious suspected organized crime figures are repeatedly employing the amparo in what appears to be an effort to indefinitely delay the extradition of their clients.
There at least nine high-profile suspects awaiting extradition who have used the measure.
1. Waldemar Lorenzana, alias "The Patriarch," the long-time head of the Lorenzana clan, a diverse and powerful trafficking group that has been accused of working with both the Sinaloa Cartel and the Zetas.
2. Elio Lorenzana (pictured above), the son of Waldemar, and a suspected trafficker in his father's organization.
3. Juan Ortiz Lopez, alias "Chamale," the Guatemalan contact for the Sinaloa Cartel in the San Marcos state along the Mexican border.
4. Mauro Salomon Ramirez, a top lieutenant for the Chamale organization.
5. Alma Lucrecia Hernandez, Salomon's replacement after his arrest in 2010.
6. Edgar Leonel Estrada, arrested for importing large amounts of pseudoephedrine, the raw material for methamphetamine, for the Mexican criminal organization Familia Michoacana.
7. Victor Emilio Estrada Paredes, who worked closely with his half-brother Edgar.
8. Byron Linares, a long-time drug trafficker who was captured then released in the early 2000s, then recaptured; Linares allegedly has connections in Colombia and sells illegal drugs to the Sinaloa Cartel, among others.
9. Alfonso Portillo, Guatemala's ex-president who is accused of embezzlement, and has been tied to a group of ex-military intelligence personnel that facilitates drug trafficking, human smuggling, illegal adoptions, and other criminal activities.
The frivolous nature of the amparos has US authorities wringing their hands. In one case, the suspect's lawyer filed an amparo contending that the words "United States" was not specific enough language to know who the accuser was, and that it could be confused with "the United States of Mexico."
Others have made references to conflicts of interest within the court system, as this account from elPeriodico illustrates, attempting to sideline judges they deem unfavorable.
The most common amparos challenge the constitutionality of extradition (for example, see pdf version of what Elio Lorenzana's lawyers filed in 2011, following his capture).
Guatemala allows extradition for cases that have been resolved or in cases in which the suspect is not wanted for a crime in Guatemala. But only Portillo and Linares still faces charges in Guatemala. Once those are settled, their lawyers are likely to file more amparos.
In the case of Portillo, this may be futile. Guatemala's former president Alvaro Colom, in one of his last big decisions as head of state, authorized the extradition of one of his longtime political rivals just months after the courts, in a shameful ruling, absolved Portillo, and two of his accomplices, of several charges.
The amparo has also been employed against other judicial bodies seeking to prosecute organized crime figures, most notably the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a United Nations-sponsored project that assists judicial and police authorities in investigating high-profile crimes.
The legal tactics go beyond amparos. On February 1, the day a court was to decide Elio Lorenzana's fate, his lawyers resigned, leaving him without a defense and leaving the court with little choice but to suspend the hearing.
Traffickers in other countries have employed amparos as well, most notably in Mexico and Venezuela, where high-profile figures have argued extradition violates the constitution and their rights under it.
Amparos in extradition cases are not new, and US Congress has discussed their use in public hearings in the past. They have long been filed if the accused can face longer or more harsh sentences in the United States for their crimes than under their own countries' laws.
Some of the most significant Guatemalan traffickers, such as Otto Herrera and Mario Paredes, alias "El Gordo," were captured in other countries, making their extraditions or deportations easier. Both Herrera and Paredes were tried and sentenced in the United States.
However, the Guatemala-based cases can take months or years, and US authorities have no option but to wait.