A new report details how defense attorneys in Guatemala are capitalizing on the slow pace of judicial proceedings to derail the progress of high-profile corruption cases, underscoring the need for the country to undertake institutional reforms to boost efforts against elite graft.
Human Rights Watch published a report on November 13 illustrating what the watchdog group called a "consistent pattern" of defense attorneys attempting to delay criminal proceedings by filing "repeated and often unfounded" challenges to court rulings as well as requests for judges' recusal.
The report identifies several criminal cases being prosecuted by Guatemala's Attorney General's Office with assistance from the United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala - CICIG) that are affected by these tactics, including the case of the "La Linea" customs fraud network, which helped topple former Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina and former Vice President Roxana Baldetti in 2015.
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According to the study, the use of legal challenges known as "amparos" has skyrocketed in recent years. However, most are ultimately rejected, suggesting attorneys are exploiting the "slow and hesitant manner" that Guatemala's courts deal with such petitions in order to delay prosecutions.
Guatemalan law allows judges a maximum of 31 days to resolve amparos. But Human Rights Watch found that reaching a decision typically takes from six to 12 months, and judges and defense attorneys rarely face sanctions for these delays.
Lawyers who file baseless amparo petitions can face a fine of 1,000 quetzales (around $135), and judges can be held accountable by the judiciary's disciplinary body. However, the watchdog group reported that more than 3,000 lawyers have unpaid fines and just three judges were found to be at fault out of more than 100 disciplinary complaints filed for excessive delays in 2016.
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Human Rights Watch notes that the "La Linea" case is just one of several high-profile cases "bogged down in pretrial proceedings," and has yet to go to trial more than two years after being revealed. In the past, other criminal suspects have made deliberate use of amparos to delay legal action against them.
In order to combat the misuse of amparos, the report recommends reforming the legal processes surrounding them, including improving enforcement of deadlines as well as sanctions on lawyers and judges who are responsible for unjustified delays.
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While such reforms could lessen the use of amparos as a delay tactic, they would likely have little support from Guatemalan elites, who have shown a remarkable willingness to openly attempt to rig the legal system in their favor.
Moreover, as CICIG commissioner Iván Velásquez has pointed out, the flaws in Guatemala's legal system are numerous, contributing to near-total impunity for crimes committed in the country. In other words, reforms to amparo proceedings are just one of the many institutional changes needed to fortify the justice system's ability to handle important criminal cases.