The dismissal of Juan Francisco Sandoval, the country's leading anti-corruption prosecutor, marks the formal end of efforts to strengthen anti-corruption bodies in Guatemala.
On July 23, Attorney General Consuelo Porras fired Sandoval as head of the country's Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity (Fiscalía Especial contra la Impunidad – FECI), an investigative unit that was set up with international assistance and spearheaded the country's most high-profile corruption investigations. Sandoval has since fled the country.
In a statement released by the Attorney General's Office, Porras cited "humiliations" and a "lack of confidence in the relationship" as reasons for Sandoval's dismissal but did not provide further detail.
The backlash came swiftly. On July 24, hundreds of protesters took to the streets across the country in anger at the decision. In Guatemala City's Constitution Square and outside the Attorney General's Office, people carried signs demanding Porras' resignation, as well as that of President Alejandro Giammattei.
There was also rapid international concern at the dismissal. In the United States, Secretary of State Antony Blinken wrote on Twitter that: "We stand with the people of Guatemala and with Prosecutor Juan Francisco Sandoval."
Washington had sent many covert and overt signals of its support for Sandoval. Last February, for instance, Sandoval was named an Anticorruption Champion by the United States government.
It didn't matter. According to official documents cited in elPeriódico, Sandoval was dismissed for having opposed Porras' decision days earlier to transfer a FECI prosecutor to another unit and replace him with a prosecutor accused of obstructing justice.
Sandoval did not go quietly. Shortly after being dismissed, he gave an explosive press conference to a packed room of journalists, qualifying his dismissal as "illegal" and accusing Attorney General Porras of obstructing FECI investigations on multiple occasions.
This included a request from FECI prosecutors to arrest former presidential candidate and first lady, Sandra Torres, who was under investigation for alleged illicit campaign financing. Porras responded by saying the prosecutors were "exaggerating," according to Sandoval.
Sandoval also said Porras also tried to block investigations into political mafias seeking to stack Guatemala's courts by instructing prosecutors to avoid investigating certain individuals such as Néster Vásquez, a current Constitutional Court magistrate linked to the court mafias.
"In this Attorney General's Office, what's inconvenient [for corrupt actors] gets delayed, and what's convenient gets sped up," he said.
Prior to his removal, Sandoval had also faced numerous legal challenges aimed at obstructing his work. Porras approved many. In June, FECI faced down a legal challenge that sought to declare its mandate unconstitutional.
InSight Crime Analysis
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Sandoval's dismissal is that it took so long. In an interview with InSight Crime in June 2020, Sandoval all but predicted his removal.
"There is a systematic attack against any who fight to stop impunity, such as prosecutors, FECI and judges," he said, adding that "mechanisms of state to ensure impunity have only become more sophisticated."
The public face of Guatemala's campaign against high-level graft, Sandoval had long been a key target for groups seeking to tank anti-corruption efforts. His firing comes as FECI investigators appeared to be inching closer to corruption in the current administration of President Alejandro Giammattei.
"In the last few months, FECI started investigating things which made them too uncomfortable," Sandoval said in the July 23 press conference, adding the decision to remove him was "something planned several months ago."
Specifically, he spoke of Porras' resistance when FECI continued investigations into possible links between a multimillion-dollar cash seizure and President Giammattei's former private secretary, Giorgio Bruni. Sandoval said that parts of this investigation were kept secret from Porras for fear she would block FECI raids.
According to Sandoval, FECI also detected meetings between current President Giammattei and Russian citizens – a timely accusation in light of a highly controversial deal reached by the Guatemala government to purchase Sputnik vaccines that sparked accusations of corruption.
Any investigations linked to President Giammattei, who described Sandoval's work as biased in June, would have to be approved by Porras, Sandoval said.
The former FECI head also explained how a notorious political operator implicated in an array of corruption cases, Gustavo Alejos, had recently become a cooperating witness who had "testified to events regarding current officials, members of congress and judges."
This potentially damaging testimony may also help explain the timing of Porras' decision.
Sandoval's allegations make it highly unlikely FECI will be able to launch future investigations into active government officials without facing further obstruction from within the Attorney General's Office.
His dismissal will also cast a shadow over several ongoing corruption cases led by FECI, including a major case involving Guatemala's jailed former president, Otto Pérez Molina, scheduled for trial in early 2022.
The backlash against Sandoval's dismissal is not happening in a vacuum. FECI was the last vestige of the international push to root out corruption from inside the government. The most visible manifestation of this push was the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala - CICIG), a United Nations-backed judicial body that helped set up FECI and prosecute these corruption cases during the 12 years it was in the country. It was shut down in 2019.
Concerns about the systematic dismantling of Guatemala's anti-corruption mechanisms have been gradually building since, especially in the United States. But with Guatemala a critical partner in the United States' attempts to stop migration and illicit drug flows, it is uncertain if this concern will lead to greater action or simply tweets from afar.