A controversial commission has selected the final candidates for Guatemala's next attorney general, illustrating how criminal elites may have manipulated the selection process and raising concerns about the future of the fight against corruption, now in the hands of the the embattled President Jimmy Morales.
Amid a series of accusations of graft and conflict of interest, the body known as the postulation commission has delivered its six-candidate list to President Morales, who will choose the replacement for current Attorney General Thelma Aldana.
The final vote took place on April 16. The date was a symbolic one for the fight against corruption in Guatemala because on the same day in 2015, the Attorney General’s Office, with the support of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG), dismantled a massive customs fraud network in a case known as “La Línea.” The investigation eventually led to the resignation of former President Otto Pérez Molina and former Vice President Roxana Baldetti.
Since then, a battle has ensued between the CICIG and the Attorney General’s Office on one hand, and on the other, an institutionalized power bloc that serves the corrupt interests of certain sectors of the government, the military and criminal groups.
As InSight Crime has reported on several occasions, this power bloc has attempted to meddle with the current attorney general selection process. Morales himself has been the subject of a CICIG-supported investigation into illicit electoral financing, although it was blocked in September 2017 after the Guatemalan Congress approved a series of reforms to the criminal code known as the “Corruption Pact.” The Attorney General's Office and the CICIG recently launched a new round of allegations about irregularities in the president's campaign financing, which appeared to be backed up by an admission of wrongdoing by some of the country's top elites.
Meanwhile, Pérez Molina and Baldetti -- who faces extradition to the United States on drug trafficking charges -- have been maneuvering to delay their respective cases. Three years later, they remain in pretrial detention.
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Current President Morales, who has tried on several occasions to weaken the country’s anti-corruption efforts, must choose Guatemala’s next attorney general from a list intended to serve as a mechanism to guarantee the candidates’ suitability for the position and guard against any susceptibility to corruption.
The initial 30 candidates went through a series of tests that started with a 10-minute interview. Using a rubric they developed, the commissioners then ranked the candidates according to professional experience (65 points), academic merits (30 points) and “human impact” (five points), which has been described as a “commitment to human rights and democracy.”
These screening processes whittled the candidates down to 14. From there, the 15-member postulation commission -- which is made up of the deans of Guatemala’s law schools, the president of the Supreme Court, the president of the national bar association (Colegio de Abogados y Notarios de Guatemala – CANG) and the president of the CANG Honor Board -- narrowed it down further to the six finalists President Morales will choose from.
The commission has faced numerous roadblocks since its inception, including injunctions against the process. One alleged the unsuitability of the commissioners and another argued that the rubric they created “does not guarantee they will elect capable and suitable candidates who possess the integrity and honesty necessary to fulfill the role of the attorney general.”
The Postulation Commission’s Nominations
InSight Crime has created a list of the postulation commission’s six nominees for the new attorney general, including the number of votes each received, as well as a short profile.
Brenda Dery Muñoz: 15/15. One of the highest-ranked candidates on the rubric with 75 points, Muñoz was the deputy director general of the Anti-Narcotics Analysis and Information Unit of the national police, and was the prosecutor in charge of organized crime and drug trafficking in the department of Quetzaltenango, which has been hit hard by such criminal activities. She currently serves as the prosecution director for Guatemala’s Human Rights Ombudsman (Procuraduría de Derechos Humanos – PDH).
María Consuelo Porras Argueta: 13/15. Also with 75 points, Porras Argueta made it to the final round in the previous selection process that ultimately led to Thelma Aldana's appointment as attorney general. She is an alternate judge on the Constitutional Court and has been linked to political operators like the recently apprehended “Tennis Shoe King.”
Miguel Ángel Gálvez: 14/15. At 70 points on the rubric, Judge Gálvez is a founding member and the current vice president of the Guatemalan Association of Judges for Integrity (Asociación Guatemalteca de Jueces por la Integridad). He has overseen many high-profile cases, such as La Línea.
Patricia Gámez: 14/15. Gámez obtained 67 points on the rubric. She founded the Judiciary Institute (Instituto de la Judicatura) and represents judges before Guatemala’s judiciary council. She has also worked on important drug-trafficking cases, including one linked to former President Álvaro Colom.
Gladys Verónica Ponce: 15/15. Ranked at 63 points -- a few above the minimum of 60 required to move on to the next phase of the selection process -- Ponce was an attorney with the CICIG and a prosecutor who worked on the cases of attorney Rodrigo Rosenberg’s death and the Pavón prison massacre.
Édgar Estuardo Melchor Solórzano: 15/15. Just skimming by with the 60-point minimum required, Melchor Solórzano has held positions in several important divisions of the Attorney General’s Office and currently works in the Criminal Investigations Unit. He has also been linked to the Patriot Party (Partido Patriota – PP), to which Baldetti and Pérez Molina also belonged.
InSight Crime Analysis
As InSight Crime demonstrated in an extensive investigation, the influence wielded by President Morales, powerful elites and organized crime groups over the commissioners choosing the attorney general candidates has caused significant concern in civil society and international organizations. The transparency of the selection process, the commissioners’ suitability and the legitimacy of some of the law schools whose deans sit on the commission have all been called into question.
In an attempt to show transparency and to improve its public image, the postulation commission seems to have made an effort to meticulously comply with the regulations governing the selection of the six candidates for attorney general. But the responsibility for the future of Guatemala’s battle against corruption is now left in the hands of individuals with questionable qualifications, despite their approval by the postulation commission.
It might not be surprising, then, that some of the candidates who pose the greatest threat to anti-corruption efforts in the country have made it onto the final list, including the two with the highest scores on the rubric.
While María Consuelo Porras Argueta was one of the highest-scoring candidates, she was given zero points for human impact. Yet she still made it through to the final round, which clearly shows the postulation commission’s lack of commitment to selecting candidates suitable for the position. Moreover, Porras Argueta is married to a military official with ties to individuals who backed President Morales in his skirmish with the CICIG. She has also previously sought the top prosecutor's office at two critical moments in Guatemala’s struggle against corruption.
The other highest scoring candidate, Brenda Muñoz, also received zero points for human impact. Muñoz, who recently referred to the CICIG as “a strategic partner,” has been called into question for having served as an advisor in the office of former Interior Minister Mauricio López Bonilla, who like Baldetti is currently awaiting possible extradition to the United States. Muñoz has also been accused of allowing impunity to prevail in the 2008 case of a massacre involving drug trafficking groups, and has been criticized for her role as prosecutor in the a case involving an eviction that ended with the killing of eight farmers.
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In addition, the inclusion of Edgar Melchor Solórzano on list, albeit with the minimum 60 points, is cause for concern due to his connections to the corrupt elites close to Baldetti and Pérez Molina.
Votes cast by the Panamericana University law school dean, Enrique Fernando Sánchez Usera, provided further evidence of cracks in the selection process. Sánchez Usera voted against two of the most highly qualified candidates, Gámez and Gálvez, showing how outside interests seek to influence which names end up on the list the president receives.
The almost unanimous votes for some vocal supporters of the CICIG -- candidates who stand no chance of being chosen by Morales -- could be considered more an appeal to public opinion than a genuine effort to ensure the selection of a suitable attorney general willing to continue the country’s fight against corruption.
While it is true that accusations also plagued the previous selection process in which ex-President Pérez Molina chose Thelma Aldana to be attorney general, she ultimately succeeded in maintaining her independence from the powers that got her into the position. And she has even gone so far as to fight them head on in the courtroom.
However, despite attempts by commissioners to show that the selection process is transparent, the list Morales will receive includes more than one wolf in sheep’s clothing, confirming allegations by the international community and civil society regarding the considerable external influence on the commission.
On April 18, the European Parliament sent Morales a letter in which it expressed concern over the human rights situation in the country. But more tellingly, it also urged him to “guarantee a transparent [attorney general] selection based on strict, clear and objective criteria for the integrity and suitability of the candidates” --another sign that the world is watching this process.