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Documents Reveal Attempts to Curb Guatemala's Anti-Corruption Unit

ELITES AND CRIME / 5 AUG 2021 BY ALEX PAPADOVASSILAKIS EN

Before the firing of Juan Francisco Sandoval, Guatemala’s top anti-corruption prosecutor, Attorney General Consuelo Porras pressured him to curtail investigations while his unit probed accusations of corruption in Porras' office.

According to documents published by newspaper elPeriódico, Porras, who dismissed Sandoval July 23, had sought to influence investigations conducted by the country’s Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity (Fiscalía Especial contra la Impunidad – FECI). Her memos, acquired by the newspaper, touch on investigations into high-level court appointments and officials in the inner circle of President Alejandro Giammattei. Meanwhile, a lawyer had testified to the FECI that an advisor in the Attorney General's Office offered to transfer a case of his away from the unit for $9,000.

The new documents appear to corroborate accusations made by Sandoval after his firing: that his former boss repeatedly meddled in major investigations and that information about sensitive cases was leaked from the Attorney General's Office.

In the midst of nationwide protests demanding Porras' resignation and calls from the US State Department to have Sandoval reinstated, Porras is reshuffling the FECI, leaving the heralded anti-corruption unit in turmoil.

Pushback From Porras

In a press conference held hours after his dismissal, Sandoval said that Porras had on multiple occasions instructed FECI staff to target certain people during an investigation into influence peddling in the appointment of judges to Guatemala’s high courts.

His comments coincide with two internal memos that Porras sent to Sandoval in March, published by elPeriódico. In the first, Porras questioned Sandoval over FECI’s failure to arrest Estuardo Gálvez, the former dean of Guatemala’s San Carlos University and an influential figure in the court selection process. Sandoval claimed that Porras insisted on Gálvez's arrest, despite being told that FECI did not yet have a strong enough case. In February, the Attorney General's Office put out a warrant for Gálvez's arrest on charges of influence peddling, violating the constitution and illicit association. Seven other people were also charged in the case.

In the same memo, Porras questioned FECI's expansion of the case to include others besides Gálvez. One of these was current Constitutional Court justice Nester Vásquez, who Porras had told FECI prosecutors not to investigate, Sandoval said after his firing. At that time, Vázquez was a Supreme Court justice and had been nominated for a spot on the Constitutional Court.

Porras also pushed back when FECI began probing President Alejandro Giammattei’s former private secretary, Leyla Lemus. At the time, FECI was reportedly investigating an alleged plot to overthrow the former president of Guatemala's Social Security Institute (Instituto Guatemalteco de Seguridad Social – IGSS). Prosecutors sent a request to Giammattei's presidential office for information, including from Lemus.

In a document sent out by Porras’ office referencing the case, also published by elPeriódico, Porras told Sandoval’s anti-impunity office to act “respectfully and cordially” when dealing with presidential matters, “in line with the high office held by the president.” The case was eventually transferred away from FECI to another branch of the Attorney General's Office.

Sandoval, who fled the country after his dismissal and is in the United States, told InSight Crime that Porras' resistance to certain investigations began in 2018 and then gradually increased as she gained the president's confidence.

"That coincided with internal pressures within the Attorney General's Office over documents in which they thought we were asking for information related to people close to the president," Sandoval said.

Cash for Escaping FECI 'Hell'

In a separate report from the Porras memos, elPeriódico published testimony given to FECI by a lawyer who said an assistant in Porras’ office offered to transfer cases away from certain branches of the Attorney General’s Office, including FECI, in exchange for cash.

Marco Alveño Hernández told FECI about discussions with Claudia Paola Mansilla Figueroa, who confirmed that his client was involved in a FECI case and demanded $9,000 to transfer the case to another unit. Mansilla Figueroa is an assistant to Héctor Anibal de León Velasco, an advisor of Porras' in the Attorney General's Office. Alveño Hernández handed $4,500 in cash to Mansilla Figueroa on behalf of his client, but the case was never transferred.

Mansilla Figueroa also sent a memo to Alveño Hernández. In it, she referred to a "formula" for successfully transferring cases between units by claiming collusion among prosecutors and judges, according to evidence submitted to FECI.

Further evidence provided by Alveño Hernández includes chats in which Mansilla Figueroa reveals sensitive information related to FECI investigations, including the one concerning appointments to the top courts. The Attorney General's Office advisor also provided Alveño Hernández with a list of individuals involved in FECI cases, according to his testimony. In one chat between the pair, Mansilla Figueroa equates being investigated by FECI with “falling into hell.”

In a statement, the Attorney General’s Office said it would analyze the authenticity of Alveño Hernández's claims. Speaking on local radio, Porras said that the lawyer was looking to guarantee impunity for himself, according to elPeriódico.

After confirming that the testimony reported by elPeriódico was authentic, Alveño Hernández left the country, telling the Associated Press he feared for his life and that of his family.

The Giammattei Connection

In his testimony, Alveño Hernández also alleged that Édgar Barquín, an unofficial economic advisor to President Giammattei and the former head of Guatemala’s national bank, was tipped off about an investigation into him.

Alveño Hernández, who was Barquín's lawyer at the time, said he coordinated with Mansilla Figueroa to have the Attorney General’s Office give the green light to have the case transferred from the FECI. Mansilla Figueroa asked for a total of 50,000 quetzales (approximately $6,500) in cash for the favor, which Alveño Hernández delivered in two installments, according to the testimony.

In 2019, Giammattei admitted to attending meetings with Barquín and seeking economic advice, despite the latter having been found guilty of influence peddling in a money laundering case earlier that year. But the president distanced himself from Barquín following Alveño Hernández's revelations, saying "[Barquín] doesn't work for the state nor is he a government advisor."

Sandoval told InSight Crime that there are "solid elements" to suggest that Giammattei pressured the Attorney General to fire him, citing Porras' efforts to transfer cases linked to the president's administration away from FECI and target investigators from the anti-impunity unit with administrative sanctions.

Porras’ Reshuffle

In the wake of Sandoval’s exit, Porras has continued to shake up the Attorney General’s Office. Days after replacing Sandoval with long-time state prosecutor Carla Isidra Valenzuela Elías, Porras removed her and named José Rafael Curruchiche as the new head of FECI.

Curruchiche, the former head of the electoral crimes unit within the Attorney General’s Office, is currently involved in a controversial investigation targeting two high-profile officials who worked on major corruption cases for the defunct International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala — CICIG), the United Nations-backed body that worked with the FECI on prosecutions of powerful businessmen, organized crime figures and politicians, including presidents.

In his previous role, Curruchiche was the target of complaints about his alleged mishandling of a corruption probe into the campaign finances of former President Jimmy Morales' political party, elPeriódico reported.

Sandoval said to expect "nothing good" from Curruchiche's appointment. He told InSight Crime that Curruchiche's actions have consistently aligned with certain political factions implicated in major corruption cases and that, as a state prosecutor, he attempted to protect businesspeople who had illegally financed Morales' campaign.

"Our expectation is that [FECI] cases won't advance," Sandoval said. "On the contrary, there will be actions taken against those who worked for the CICIG."

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