The United Nations-backed anti-impunity commission in Guatemala has released a report naming the 18 judges whose controversial rulings have most served the interests of organized crime, presenting a historic opportunity to tackle the embedded corruption in the country’s judicial branch.

On November 29, International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) Director Francisco Dall’Anese presented the Interior Ministry with a list of 18 judges who have consistently made rulings the organization considers to have “favored organized crime,” calling for an investigation into the officials’ links to criminal structures in the country.

The 95-page report, entitled “The Judges of Impunity,” (.pdf), claims that these 18 officials have “created spaces of impunity” for organized crime and Illegal Clandestine Security Apparatuses (CIACS), consisting of current and former members of the security forces who are involved in drug trafficking and other illegal activity. Some of the judges named in the report — like Mario Fernando Peralta Castañeda, who is currently on trial for allegedly facilitating an illegal adoption ring — already face charges or are under investigation. But the majority of judges have yet to be face formal charges for the acts of corruption identified by the CICIG.

The Commission alleges that Judge Julio Geronimo Xitumul, for instance, improperly favored ex-President Alfonso Portillo when the latter was arrested in 2008 on corruption charges, in which Xitumul oversaw the investigation into allegations that the official had accepted bribes and embezzled millions of dollars in public funds. Like the more recent 2011 trial which ended in Portillo’s acquittal, the case was marked by several suspicious irregularities, including Xitumul’s unusual and potentially unconstitutional decision not to hold Portillo in pre-trial detention. While the former president will still be extradited to the United States to face money laundering and embezzlement charges, his 2011 acquittal and his suspicious avoidance of imprisonment before then are widely seen as an indication of the state of Guatemala’s justice system.

A common theme throughout the report is the use by these judges of quasi-legal mechanisms to obstruct thorough and impartial investigations into the crimes of not only political officials, but suspected heavyweights in the Guatemalan criminal underworld as well. In one example, the CICIG highlights the case of Judge Sergio Castro Romero, who in addition to complicating the Commission’s efforts to oversee an important political corruption trial, has made questionable rulings that benefited a known human trafficking network.

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The report’s release is incredibly significant for the CICIG, as it amounts to a direct challenge to corrupt judges in the country. While Dall’Anese has made critical statements before about “a small minority of very powerful corrupt judges,” explicitly naming some of these to the Interior Ministry poses a test for the state of impunity in the country.

If the Commission’s calls for investigation into these officials fall on deaf ears, it will provide yet another indication of the alarming level of influence that criminal structures have on the country’s political system. If, however, Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz pursues criminal investigations into some of these judges, it will be a major victory for the fight against impunity.

For the moment, it looks as though there is reason for optimism. Paz y Paz has made a name for herself as one of the most effective anti-corruption crusaders in Guatemala’s history, having pursued cases against a number of corrupt officials and top criminals in the country. It would be uncharacteristic of her to pass up an opportunity to use her office go after corruption in the judicial branch. Indeed, Interior Ministry official Javier Monterroso has told local press that the department is “evaluating [the report] in order to pursue effective criminal prosecution.” 

But even if the Interior Ministry and the Attorney General’s Office announce criminal investigations as a result of the CICIG report, prosecuting a corruption case is not the same as achieving a conviction, as the acquittal of Portillo showed. Prosecutors presented overwhelming proof of wrongdoing by the former president, only for judges on the case to dismiss key witnesses and throw out damning evidence. The same could happen in criminal trials of the 18 judges named by the CICIG. Ironically, these cases could fall victim to the very same phenomenon that the Commission is seeking to eliminate. Even if judges tasked with hearing cases against allegedly corrupt judicial officials are completely trustworthy, they  likely face social and political pressure to “go easy” on their colleagues. 

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