Guatemalan congressmen and political operators -- two of whom face criminal charges -- are undermining the country's top court, prompting a US senator to warn of a constitutional crisis and repercussions for aid.
In a June 30 statement, US Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) said that Guatemala's Constitutional Court, the country's highest judicial body, is "under attack yet again by legislators and criminal organizations who seek to ignore its rulings and oust judges who have defended the rule of law.” Leahy urged President Alejandro Giammattei and Attorney General María Consuelo Porras to oppose the "corrupt scheme," adding that if allowed to succeed, assistance from the United States would be affected.
The senator's rebuke followed an attempt to strip immunity from four sitting Constitutional Court judges, potentially jeopardizing the court's independence.
The interference in the Constitutional Court came after a series of rulings on alleged irregularities in the selection process of judges to two Guatemalan high courts -- the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals -- and an investigation into that process.
Findings from the investigation by the anti-impunity unit of the Attorney General's Office (Fiscalía Especializada Contra la Impunidad - FECI) were announced on May 29. Prosecutors revealed behind-the-scenes efforts by political operators, judges and lawmakers to influence the selection process of judges -- a longstanding tactic used by Guatemala power brokers to position allies within the judiciary.
Earlier in May, the Constitutional Court ordered congress to exclude certain candidates with questionable professional histories from being nominated to judgeships in the high courts. The Constitutional Court had also halted the selection process for high court judges in September 2019.
Under investigation for influence-peddling is Gustavo Alejos Cámbara, a seasoned political operator currently imprisoned on corruption charges. FECI’s investigations into high court appointments revealed that Alejos Cámbara held meetings and phone calls with members of congress, potential judicial nominees and other officials with the aim of influencing the selection process.
Guatemalan President Giammattei has ignored the accusations of influence-peddling in the court selection process and the subsequent judicial showdown, saying that the legal battle "is not the executive's problem," according to Diario La Hora.
InSight Crime Analysis
The attempt to strip immunity from the Constitutional Court judges is the latest salvo by Guatemala's elites and their political allies in their assault on independent bodies that have taken on corruption investigations.
Without immunity, judges are vulnerable to frivolous lawsuits aimed at eroding their power.
Attacks on Guatemala’s already frail justice system have escalated since the dismantling of the United Nations-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG), which for over a decade helped local authorities investigate and prosecute complex corruption schemes.
With CICIG out of the picture, powerful elites are now making moves to control the country’s judiciary, with the goal of ensuring their own legal protection.
This includes Felipe Alejos Lorenzana, an influential congressman and political fixer who faces criminal charges for his alleged role in a bribery scheme, according to Juan Francisco Sandoval, the head of FECI.
"Felipe Alejos has a fundamental role in the attacks against the Constitutional Court," Sandoval told InSight Crime.
Alejos Lorenzana has benefited from Supreme Court decisions that have shielded him from prosecution four times, most recently on June 29. After each ruling in Alejos Lorenzana's favor, the Constitutional Court called for it to reconsider the actions, Sandoval said.
The latest efforts to undermine the Constitutional Court are particularly worrisome to advocates of rule of law.
Elvyn Díaz, president of the Guatemalan Institute of comparative studies in criminal sciences (Instituto de Estudios Comparados en Ciencias Penales de Guatemala – ICCPG), told InSight Crime that the groups behind the attacks are the same ones that “keep trying to do away with the little institutional capacity that we have in Guatemala.”
A group of concerned legislators has asked the Organization of American States (OAS) to monitor the situation due to the “possible alteration of the constitutional order” and harassment of judges.
Senator Leahy was not alone among US legislators in warning of repercussions for corrupt actors bent on compromising the Constitutional Court. On the Twitter account for The US House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) was quoted as saying that Congress and the State Department "must ensure consequences for those undermining Guatemalan democracy."
Engel gave as an example a visa ban on Gustavo Alejos -- the jailed political powerbroker accused of receiving bribes worth up to $7 million through a network that demanded payments from businesses in exchange for public construction contracts.
That ban "should be an example to all," Engel warned.