Guatemalan prosecutors said a multimillion-dollar cash seizure has been linked to a high-ranking minister who served under former President Jimmy Morales, making him the second official from that administration to face money laundering charges this year -- and the first in Guatemala.
The announcement came just days after the anti-impunity unit (Fiscalía Especializada Contra la Impunidad -- FECI) within the Attorney General’s Office seized 122,351,456 quetzales (around $15.5 million) in cash found in 22 suitcases inside a home in the colonial city of Antigua.
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According to prosecutors, Benito Ruiz was found to have leased the property with an option to purchase it just one month after leaving public office.
The Attorney General’s Office said in a news release that the “anonymity” of the cash makes it “very attractive” for “criminal activity,” especially considering that it never passed through any financial institution.
Benito Ruiz is currently a fugitive and authorities have requested Interpol issue an international red notice for his arrest.
The former minister is not the only official that worked under President Morales (2016-2020) to face criminal charges. Acisclo Valladares Urruela, Morales' former economics minister, was indicted by US authorities in August 2020 for allegedly laundering almost $10 million in "drug proceeds and other ill-gotten money" that was used to bribe politicians between 2014 and 2018.
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Benito Ruiz was one of President Morales’ closest confidants and advisors, which raises questions about whether the probe may eventually touch others in the former president's inner circle.
Indeed, when Morales gave a speech in early 2019 months after ousting the United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala -- CICIG), Benito Ruiz was among the officials standing in the first row behind him in support.
The former president leaned heavily on his closest allies in his efforts to push out the CICIG, which had been heralded for its prosecution of former President Otto Pérez Molina (2012-2015), and his vice president at the time, Roxana Baldetti, on corruption charges. Formed in 2007, the CICIG also prosecuted massive illicit campaign financing and graft cases. But Morales orchestrated the demise of the CICIG after its investigations touched his own family and allies.
Since the CICIG's ouster, Guatemala's anti-impunity unit has been left to stand alone amid attacks on its authority. Attorney General María Consuelo Porras recently gave the green light to move forward with legal complaints levied against FECI director Juan Franciso Sandoval and two other prosecutors within the unit.
In a news release, the Attorney General's Office stressed that the move was not an attempt to weaken the FECI. Judicial advocates and more than 75 civil society organizations across the country, however, said otherwise. FECI has also been removed from several high-level investigations.
The inquiry into Benito Ruiz is still in its early stage, but FECI's willingness to dig into the seized cash shows that the battered unit may still take on investigations into alleged criminal wrongdoing by the country's business and political elites, even without the CICIG.
Guatemala's Ministry of Communications, Infrastructure and Housing has become a sort of hub for graft in recent years. Five former ministers across four different administrations have been accused of corruption since 2000, three of which are charged with misusing public funds, according to Prensa Libre.
Whether Benito Ruiz's case will be allowed to move forward, though, will be telling.