The naming of judges to Guatemala’s high courts has turned into an escalating fight between political elites seeking to stack the courts with allies and anti-impunity prosecutors accusing those same elites of influence peddling.
A turbulent week for the courts began on February 26, when Guatemala’s Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity (Fiscalía Especial contra la Impunidad – FECI) issued arrest warrants for a group of political operators involved in the selection of candidates for the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals.
Those accused by FECI of colluding on votes in the selection of judges included influential lawyers Estuardo Gálvez, former dean of Guatemala’s San Carlos University, and Luis Fernando Ruiz, former head of the country’s bar association.
Both Gálvez and Ruiz were candidates for a seat on Guatemala’s Constitutional Court, the country’s highest court, and had an outsize influence in voting on candidates for the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals, according to FECI investigators.
FECI also put out an arrest warrant for Murphy Paiz, the current dean of the San Carlos University, who is also an influential figure in the court selection process and is accused of influence peddling. Both Fernando Ruiz and Paiz were taken into custody.
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Authorities have been unable to arrest Gálvez, who is currently hospitalized in Guatemala City. But Gálvez announced in an open letter to his colleagues that he would not continue as a candidate for the Constitutional Court, saying he was a victim of political persecution.
In the wake of the FECI raids, Guatemala’s congress rushed to re-elect, on March 2nd, a sitting Constitutional Court magistrate who has a track record of shielding elites, elPeriódico reported.
Dina Ochoa, a judge on track to serve a second five-year term, voted in February to approve the selection of magistrate-elect Mynor Moto to the Constitutional Court. Moto, who is under investigation for obstruction of justice, is alleged to have links to the networks that sought to influence high court selections.
Three days later, Guatemala’s bar association elected Néster Vásquez for a five-year term as a sitting judge on the Constitutional Court. Vásquez is linked to the same networks investigated by FECI for allegedly manipulating the selection of high court magistrates, according to Soy 502.
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Guatemala’s Constitutional Court is seen as one of the last bulwarks against corruption and impunity in the country, which is why political elites have long sought to stack it in their favor.
Political elites have maneuvered for years to place allies in the lower Supreme Court and Court of Appeals, with the expectation that they will rule in their favor if and when legal troubles arise. But FECI’s prosecutors have stood in the way.
FECI has already investigated the behind-the-scenes operators involved in influence-peddling schemes in the selection of judges, and now the anti-impunity office appears to be targeting those with the power to nominate magistrates, such as Gálvez, Fernando Ruiz and Paiz.
In February, FECI prosecutors also issued an arrest warrant for Mynor Moto, the former magistrate-elect for the Constitutional Court whose candidacy had been approved by Guatemalan congress. The series of arrest warrants show that the anti-impunity office is not pulling its punches when it comes to defending the integrity of the selection process.
The latest warrants may also explain the haste with which Guatemala’s congress appointed Ochoa for the Constitutional Court after months of inaction. Congress has been attempting to undermine the court selection process since July 2020.
Though he refused to give details, Juan Sandoval, FECI’s director, said as recently as March 3 that prosecutors are continuing their investigation into illegal activity in the selection of judges, and that there may be a new phase in the process.