The arrest in Guatemala of former President Álvaro Colom adds to the list of former heads of state facing corruption allegations in the Central American nation, underscoring the judicial branch’s growing capacity to target some of the most powerful figures in the country.
On February 13, the Guatemalan Attorney General's Office announced the arrest of eleven former high-ranking officials on accusations of fraud and embezzlement.
Among those arrested was former President Álvaro Colom as well as a spate of former ministers who served under him, including former Interior Minister Salvador Gándara Gaitán and former Public Finance Minister Juan Alberto Fuentes Knight, a spokesperson for the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG) confirmed.
The arrests of the former high-ranking officials are linked to a corruption investigation led jointly by the Attorney General’s Office and the CICIG dubbed “Transurbano,” after the name of Guatemala City’s public transportation system.
Opened in 2015, the probe delves into the spending of 270 million quetzals (around $35 million) of government funds funneled into a public-private partnership signed by the Colom administration in 2009 to develop the Transurbano transportation project.
The investigation showed that this state contract, won over by the private Association of Bus Companies (Asociación de Empresas de Autobuses - AEAU), was awarded without following the due process. Related public bids, such as the authorization to set up bus routes in Guatemala’s capital, presented similar irregularities, with the bid being fought over by four companies linked to the AEAU, and four fake entities.
According to CICIG Commissioner Iván Velázquez, Colom "intervened personally and institutionally to facilitate the fraudulent process of the creation of the partnership."
The partnership demanded that the private parties acquire some 3,150 buses from Brazil. However, only 455 vehicles were ever imported, according to República.
In addition, more than 100 million quetzals (around $14 million) were spent on buying transportation card validators in much greater quantities than the actual number of buses, according to Prensa Libre. These validators were found untouched in warehouses.
Authorities are also investigating the possible misspending of some 1.4 million quetzals (nearly $200,000) officially meant for the buses’ maintenance.
Three transfers of more than 50 million quetzals (around $6.8 million) of state funds were wired to the public-private partnership under the Colom administration, investigators said. A last payment was made during the administration of Colom's successor, Otto Pérez Molina, who has similarly been jailed on corruption charges. The transfers were reportedly authorized by former Communications Minister Alejandro Sinibaldi, who currently faces separate corruption allegations.
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Colom’s arrest adds to the list of Guatemalan presidents hit by corruption accusations, following the charges against Pérez Molina and the accusations levied against ex-President Álvaro Arzú. Authorities have also been looking into the possible illicit financing of current President Jimmy Morales’ electoral campaign.
This growing list of high-level accusations lends further credence to the notion that corruption in Guatemala is “a structural issue,” as CICIG Commissioner Iván Velázquez recently told InSight Crime during an interview.
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But the latest arrests are also illustrative of the Attorney General’s Office’s increasing ability to build viable corruption investigations to confront even some of the most powerful elites in the country. In a context of a strong backlash from Guatemalan elites that follows a regional pattern, this expanding capacity is indicative of judicial branch’s growing independence, helped along by support from CICIG and other international actors.