The recent decision of two alternate judges in Guatemala to release 10 people implicated in an extensive customs fraud case that toppled a presidency in 2015 has raised suspicions of improper influence in the country’s judiciary.
Over the past two weeks, 10 of the more than 30 Guatemalan customs union members facing charges for their involvement in the fraud network known as La Línea were granted prison alternatives while they await their respective trials. La Línea is one of the cases for which former President Otto Pérez Molina and former Vice President Roxana Baldetti are currently being held in pretrial detention.
Two alternate judges — Fredy Ariel Leonardo Hernández and María Mercedes Rodríguez — made the decisions while the judge overseeing the case, Miguel Ángel Gálvez, was on vacation. Hernández released seven of the accused on bail, and Rodríguez released three.
Among those freed on bail are the former head of Guatemala’s Internal Revenue Service (Superintendencia de Administración Tributaria – SAT), Claudia Méndez, and Melvin Alvarado, the former administrator of the port of Quetzal, the largest seaport on Guatemala’s Pacific coast.
The judges released the 10 individuals for reasons ranging from alleged medical conditions to deciding they were not flight risks.
According to media outlet Prensa Libre, in June 2018 at least 24 customs union members in the case requested alternatives to pretrial detention. Even Pérez Molina and Baldetti have made numerous requests for release on the grounds of health concerns, but Judge Gálvez has thus far rejected them all.
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The alternate judges’ decision to release to house arrest so many of those charged with involvement in the La Línea scheme sets a disturbing precedent for the future of one of Guatemala’s most emblematic corruption cases.
The decisions went directly against recommendations from two of the country’s major anti-impunity bodies: the Attorney General’s Office anti-impunity unit (Fiscalía Especializada Contra la Impunidad – FECI) and the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG).
FECI head Juan Francisco Sandoval told InSight Crime that some of the individuals who were released could use their positions at the tax agency to influence witnesses, which would constitute an obstruction of justice.
The decision to release the suspects also raises suspicions about how powerful groups could apply pressure to obstruct progress in the La Línea case. The move could be a harbinger for other cases, showing how far corrupt networks will go to interfere with important investigations.
Regardless of whether these alternate judges were under pressure, their decisions illustrate more complex, structural problems in Guatemala’s justice system. These include a lack of oversight in case assignment to alternate judges and weak legislation for regulating the qualifications of judges and lawyers.
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