Guatemala's attorney general has given the go-ahead to new legal actions against the public prosecutor that has headed Guatemala's most important graft investigations of the last decade -- an act that could lead to his sanction, suspension, or even removal. The move is the latest attack on his unit, which has pursued corruption cases against the country's business and political elites.
On October 7, Attorney General Consuelo Porras approved nine new administrative complaints against Juan Franciso Sandoval and two other prosecutors within the unit he directs, the Special Prosecutor's Office Against Impunity (Fiscalía Especial Contra la Impunidad - FECI).
In a press release published on Twitter, the Attorney General's Office said the decision to move the complaints forward was necessary because "no official...is above the law...the Attorney General's Office job is to address all allegations it receives."
Sandoval, however, highlighted irregularities in the complaints in an interview with news outlet La Hora. Of the nine complaints approved against him and his colleagues, three of them had been “suggested” by Consuelo Porras’ advisors, and the other six had all been filed by people under investigation by FECI, Sandoval said.
According to documents seen by InSight Crime, 48 complaints have been filed against Sandoval and FECI between July 6, 2018 and October 7, 2020.
Most of these complaints were filed by current or former government officials, as well as other individuals, that FECI has either investigated or brought into court on suspicion of corruption, criminal activity, or involvement in organized crime. Complaints have come from Guatemala's former first lady Sandra Torres, who is suspected of illicit campaign financing; representative Felipe Alejos, who is suspected of influence peddling; and political operative Gustavo Alejos, who is jailed on corruption charges.
A complaint was also filed by Russian citizen Igor Bitkov, who was accused of buying counterfeit documents from a criminal network involving immigration officials. That case -- which led to the conviction of 39 people, including both ex-government officials and the recipients of their illegal services -- was later used as an argument to oust the United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG), which worked alongside the FECI in its investigations.
Nearly half of the administrative complaints made against Sandoval and the FECI were presented by the same legal entity: the Foundation Against Terrorism (Fundación Contra el Terrorismo), an ultra-right organization that continuously lobbied for the dismantling of the CICIG. Sandoval has filed a complaint against the organization and its president, Ricardo Méndez Ruiz, for obstructing justice.
Sandoval’s lawyer, Claudia González, told InSight Crime that most of the complaints filed by the Foundation Against Terrorism in Guatemala refer to actions that are not misconduct.
“Over the last few months, the foundation has filed almost one complaint per week against Juan Francisco Sandoval. My impression is that this is a way to threaten or intimidate him so that he resigns as head of the FECI,” González said.
The FECI has opened nearly 200 cases regarding corruption and organized crime. Its investigations have dismantled some 60 criminal structures and led to the criminal prosecution of high-ranking officials, business elites, and even former President Otto Pérez Molina and his vice president, Roxana Baldetti.
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The list of complaints filed by Porras would appear to be just one part of the government's repeated attacks against FECI.
The complaints, however, carry greater weight because they come from within the Attorney General's Office -- something unheard of since FECI began collaborating with the CICIG over a decade ago.
In the press release about the new complaints, the Attorney General's Office said it was not seeking to "weaken the FECI," calling “for rumors and speculation to be avoided."
Porras' actions, however, seem to show otherwise.
In August, Porras removed FECI from a drug trafficking investigation related to the La Línea case, a much-heralded investigation that resulted Pérez Molina's and Baldetti's resignation and arrest in 2015. The investigation has since led to dozens of other cases implicating former officials, business owners and criminal groups.
In September, Porras also removed FECI from an investigation into alleged mismanagement of funds by the Guatemalan Social Security Institute (Instituto Guatemalteco del Seguro Social - IGSS). She did so even at the objection of the IGSS's president.
And in July, Porras announced the creation of a new anti-corruption unit within the Attorney General's Office. Judicial advocates say the unit -- which is headed by a close colleague of Porras' -- is another attempt to weaken the FECI's authority.
Meanwhile, Porras’ decision to investigate Sandoval and the FECI has drawn sharp criticism from US officials.
On October 8, the US Deputy Assistant Secretary for Latin America, Michael Kozak, said on Twitter that “the Attorney General has a duty to pursue legitimate complaints of corruption wherever they lead. Prosecute the corrupt, not the anti-corruption prosecutors at FECI."
Porras responded in a press release, stating that all proceedings against Sandoval met Guatemala’s “legal norms” and confirming the “sovereignty” of the Public Prosecutor’s Office.
On October 9, the Inter-American Human Rights Court (Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos - CIDH) also called upon Guatemala to reinforce security measures in place to protect Sandoval and other FECI prosecutors who “are the victims of acts of intimidation and threats.” In April, The CIDH made a similar call for FECI's prosecutors to be protected but harassment and threats against them continued.
The latest attacks on Sandoval are happening as Guatemala marks a year-long delay in electing justices to its highest courts. Several people investigated by FECI, among them Gustavo Alejos, have hindered the process after Sanvodal's team uncovered a corruption network seeking to influence the election of judges to Honduras' Supreme Court of Justice and Court of Appeals.