Anti-impunity prosecutors in Guatemala have presented an investigation into one of the country’s most notorious customs fraud networks, showing that even some five years after the La Línea case started, new revelations of corruption continue to emerge.
On August 12, Guatemalan authorities arrested six current and former customs officials, among other individuals, linked to a notorious fraud network known as “La Línea,” or “the Line.” The customs fraud network was exposed in a landmark 2015 investigation that dismantled a multimillion-dollar corruption scheme involving former President Otto Pérez Molina.
The new investigation, which stems from the previous case, alleges that customs officials responsible for verifying imports at one of Guatemala’s busiest ports collected cash bribes on behalf of the La Línea network. The bribes were paid by entities shipping merchandise into Guatemala in exchange for lowering taxes on imported goods, according to a statement released by the anti-impunity unit of the country’s Attorney General’s Office (Fiscalía Especializada Contra la Impunidad — FECI).
Between May 2014 and April 2015, the criminal network took in over 5.1 million quetzales ($666,000) in bribes, and the scheme cost the government at least 14.3 million quetzales ($1.85 million) in taxes.
The group relied on a broad network of collaborators, including so-called “consolidators” who manipulated import documents to ensure that taxes would not match the actual value of the shipments arriving in Guatemala, according to the FECI’s statement.
In a raid linked to the case, Guatemalan authorities seized nearly 80 kilograms of ephedrine — a stimulant medication used to treat breathing problems that can be used to manufacture methamphetamine — worth an estimated 7.8 million quetzales ($1 million).
InSight Crime Analysis
This new investigation is a stark reminder of the central role played by Guatemalan customs officials in large-scale corruption. In this case, three of the officials arrested for suspected fraud were still employed by the country’s customs authority (Superintendencia de Administración Tributaria de Guatemala — SAT) more than five years after their suspected involvement in the criminal scheme.
Santo Tomás de Castilla, the northern port at the heart of the investigation, is one of Guatemala’s busiest customs checkpoints and where authorities already struggle to check the vast quantities of merchandise that pass through it.
Allegations that the La Línea network was able to recruit a team of SAT officials to collect bribes within the port is a blunt reminder of how vulnerable Guatemala’s border authorities are to being corrupted.
The investigation — rooted in the unprecedented La Línea fraud case that led to President Pérez Molina’s resignation in 2015 and marked a crowning achievement in Guatemala’s fight against graft — comes at time when anti-corruption efforts have been deliberately weakened from within the state.
It is also a sign of the FECI’s ongoing efforts to take on high-level corruption networks, despite mounting legal attacks and death threats against Guatemalan prosecutors.
In April 2020, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos — CIDH) granted protection measures to FECI head Juan Francisco Sandoval and two of the unit’s prosecutors, whose lives were deemed to be under threat.