The creation of a new anti-corruption office in Guatemala has raised questions about whether the body will have any teeth, with former prosecutors saying that it merely hinders high-level investigations by creating more red tape.
On July 10, Guatemala’s Attorney General María Consuelo Porras appointed her current undersecretary José Estuardo López y López to head the newly inaugurated Secretariat against Corruption, El Periódico reported.
As secretary, López y López will coordinate with prosecutors, serve on the Presidential Commission Against Corruption, and audit practices within the Attorney General's Office for patterns of misconduct.
But as undersecretary, López y López came under scrutiny for protecting a high-level official. In 2019, El Periódico reported that a series of calls he made impeded the arrest of Roberto Mota Bonilla, the former head of security for the Judicial Organ (Organismo Judicial – OJ), Guatemala’s umbrella name for its judiciary. Mota Bonilla was wanted at the time on domestic violence charges, according to Prensa Libre.
López y López said that officials seeking to arrest Mota Bonilla did not identify themselves, which led him to make the phone calls.
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López y López's appointment to the new office comes amid upheaval in Guatemala’s justice system. Local powerbrokers and congressmen have been accused of corruption and influence-peddling affecting the selection of high court judges. This was followed by an effort to strip immunity from four judges on the Constitutional Court, which had disqualified several judicial candidates for positions because of their checkered pasts.
Prominent judges and prosecutors have also come under attack. Judge Erika Aifán, a storied anti-corruption judge who has presided over cases such as a $50 million social security fraud plot in 2019, has been subjected to death threats and escalating legal maneuvers meant to undermine her, La Hora reported.
The actions have provoked outcries from advocates in Guatemala and abroad who have warned of a constitutional crisis.
Neither Attorney General Consuelo Porras nor President Alejandro Giammattei — himself previously investigated by corruption prosecutors — have attempted to rectify the ongoing constitutional crisis.
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The new anti-corruption entity in Guatemala is likely to serve as a smokescreen, one that will only tie up and siphon resources away from prosecutors and judges already battered after years of fighting high-level graft.
A former Guatemalan prosecutor involved with past corruption cases who asked for anonymity to speak on the matter told InSight Crime that all the unit offers is more bureaucracy.
“The only thing that it does is complicate things,” the prosecutor said. “You’re not going to get very far that way in a fight against corruption.”
Instead, the prosecutor said the government should strengthen the country’s existing anti-impunity unit (Fiscalía Especializada Contra la Impunidad – FECI) and its prosecutorial offices.
That is unlikely to happen, given Guatemala’s backslide in the fight against corruption, sparked by the ousting of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG) last year. The UN-backed commission operated in the country for over twelve years, from 2006 until 2019, strengthening local prosecutors’ investigative abilities and helping to send powerful businessmen, organized crime figures, politicians, and even presidents to jail.
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Ultimately, CICIG was a victim of its own success, as its high-reaching investigations eventually provoked the retaliation of political and business elites, many of whom had been accused of corruption. After a protracted battle, former president Jimmy Morales — whose brother and son were both subjects of CICIG investigations — refused to extend CICIG’s mandate and the organization was dismantled in September 2019.
Giammattei, inaugurated in January 2020, has claimed that he is dedicated to fighting corruption in Guatemala.
However, the CICIG’s absence has only emboldened the same political and business elites to resume their assault on the justice system. Juan Francisco Sandoval, director of the FECI, faces dozens of complaints, many of them filed by targets of his investigations as a form of harassment. He told InSight Crime in June that state mechanisms to ensure impunity "have only become more sophisticated.”
Now there is the move to strip immunity from the sitting Constitutional Court judges, jeopardizing the court’s independence and subjecting the judges to the same kind of harassment faced by Sandoval and his team.
Giammattei and Consuelo Porras have sat on the sidelines, refusing to intervene. The silence has served the interests of a constellation of congressional representatives and justices, many of whom have been investigated by the FECI and other anti-corruption institutions.