Amid an increasingly tense political environment, María Consuelo Porras will become Guatemala’s new attorney general. Porras may determine whether anti-corruption efforts stall, are reversed, or proceed apace.
Porras may have the toughest job in Guatemala. She enters an office that has become a symbol of hope for some Guatemalans and a symbol of judicial overreach for others.
In an act that is sure to make her job even tougher, the latest accusations against President Jimmy Morales' political party were released May 15, less than 48 hours before Porras was set to take office.
Porras must also administer not just her own office but the expectations of donor nations who have spent millions of dollars trying to bolster the judicial system.
Some of this money has gone to the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala - CICIG), the United Nations-backed judicial body that acts as an assistant prosecutor in high-profile crime and corruption cases of the type that have gotten Porras’ office into political hot water.
SEE ALSO: InDepth: Elites and Organized Crime
But who is the woman who will take one of the hottest seats in Guatemala?
Porras’ own record gives us little to evaluate. She kept a low profile, and her employee record is scant. In 2014, when she was a candidate for attorney general, one organization that monitors adoptions gave her a negative rating for her work as an appellate judge. The organization, El Refugio, said she had approved several adoptions, in spite of evidence of wrongdoing or anomalies presented against those facilitating those adoptions.
Porras was also president of the judicial branch’s internal affairs division, the body responsible for receiving and processing complaints regarding prosecutors and judges. There, international observers told InSight Crime, the majority of cases submitted to her were dismissed without any action taken against those who were signaled. They added that the office had no statistics on how many complaints had come in, how many had been resolved or how many had led to disciplinary actions.
Given this skimpy history, here are three ways to measure where Porras might take this vital judicial institution in the near future, as it relates to the fight against corruption and organized crime:
1. How she deals with politically sensitive cases
There are at least a half-dozen politically sensitive cases that have been set into motion by the Attorney General’s Office and the CICIG. From corruption to organized crime to human rights violations, any one of these cases could cause major political damage to the administration and its allies. Political pressure is inevitable and deflecting that pressure is already a major part of the attorney general’s job.
To cite the most obvious case, Porras must manage the ongoing investigation into alleged campaign finance law violations by President Jimmy Morales' own political party and possibly by the Morales himself. In August, after the Attorney General’s Office announced an investigation into the president’s political party for violations of campaign finance law, Morales attempted to expel the CICIG commissioner, the Colombian judge Iván Velásquez.
The president was thwarted by the Constitutional Court, but he may be gearing up for another try, especially if the Attorney General’s Office and the CICIG continue to push the case forward and repeat their requests that congress remove the president’s immunity, so they can charge him with a crime.
Porras initial actions have some inside the Attorney General’s Office worried. She has, for example, demanded that her predecessor, Thelma Aldana, give her the paperwork for all the acquisitions and contracts secured during Aldana’s time in the post, according to a source in the Attorney General’s Office who wished to remain anonymous because the person remains a prosecutor. The source said this could be read as Porras not trusting Aldana or her team.
Porras also said she would create a new prosecutor’s office to review all “provisional arrest” warrants issued over the last few years, a decision that could lead to the eventual release of as many as 1,500 jailed suspects, including some high profile politicians. The new office would also create conflict between prosecutors since it’s not clear who would have ultimate authority on jailing suspects.
2. See who becomes an insider, who gets exiled, who loses protection
The Attorney General’s Office has been run by strong, independent operators since late 2010, when Claudia Paz y Paz became the attorney general. Both Paz y Paz and her successor, Aldana, also created numerous new units, which are carrying forward highly charged, politically sensitive cases that threaten the presidency, among others.
In this environment, it will be important to keep a watch over what happens to these units and their personnel. Some important prosecutors have already left, and others have been reassigned. But there is a still a lot of shuffling to come.
Three of the most important offices to keep an eye on are the Anti-Impunity Unit, which works directly with the CICIG; the crime analysis team, a huge staff of over 150 analysts who study crime patterns and connect seemingly disparate cases and criminal networks; and the wire-tapping unit.
Porras may also simply reconfigure the Attorney General’s Office, which is not necessarily a bad thing, unless she dissolves units that are vital to corruption and organized crime cases.
What’s more, there are numerous posts that require extra security and some prosecutors that already receive it. The new attorney general could add or subtract some of this security personnel, making their jobs virtually impossible.
For her part, Porras is also still setting her team up. There is, however, one early red flag: Porras’ husband is a prosecutor with the anti-corruption unit, and observers wondered how she would manage that unit given the sensitive nature of its work.
3. See how she interacts with other judicial operators, security forces and international agents
The success of these highly sensitive cases requires tight relationships with other judicial operators, security forces and international agents. Perhaps her most important ally is the CICIG, whose mandate has been questioned both in Guatemala and in the United States where some Republican Senators have publicly complained about the commission’s alleged judicial overreach.
The relationship between Porras and the CICIG is off to a cold start. CICIG’s suggestions to meet prior to her taking the post have been rebuffed, and the commission said it was not invited to her swearing in ceremony.
In an interview, when asked if the commission should continue in the country, she deferred to President Jimmy Morales.
“The continuity of the CICIG is the decision of Jimmy Morales,” she said.
The relationship between the outgoing and the incoming attorney general has also been tense. Porras and her team were a no-show at their transition meeting, making for an awkward picture that circulated on social media.
La fiscal general Thelma Aldana acordó reunirse a partir de la 9 am de este día para el tema de transición con el nuevo equipo de la fiscal electa por Jimmy Morales, María Consuelo Porras. Aún la están esperando pic.twitter.com/JPZO2CNhLF
— Sonia Pérez D. (@lanegrisgt) May 9, 2018
Porras will also interact with others, most notably members of the police as well as foreign agents. If there is suspicion that she is defending political operators for political reasons, cooperation will slow or come to a halt. Arrests and investigations will soon follow.