A fugitive former minister linked to a multi-million dollar cash seizure has turned himself over to Guatemalan authorities at an opportune time – after the anti-impunity unit investigating his case has been gutted.
José Luis Benito Ruiz, who surrendered January 21 at a courthouse just outside Guatemala City, had not been seen since the Attorney General’s Office charged him with money laundering more than a year ago. Benito Ruiz had been part of the cabinet of former President Jimmy Morales (2016-2020), serving as his minister of communications, infrastructure and housing.
The Attorney General’s Office charged Benito Ruiz with money laundering after the seizure of 122,351,456 quetzales (around $15.5 million) in October 2020. The cash was found in 22 suitcases inside a home that had been leased by Benito Ruiz, according to prosecutors from Guatemala’s anti-impunity unit (Fiscalía Especializada Contra la Impunidad – FECI), which conducted the seizure.
The former minister also faces fraud charges in a separate case. The charges relate to the construction of a major highway project while he was in office. Prosecutors accuse Benito Ruiz of signing off on a fraudulent public works contract that had been awarded to an engineering company as part of the project.
Handcuffed and facing a swarm of reporters on leaving the courthouse, Benito Ruiz told reporters that he had “spontaneously” and “voluntarily” turned himself in. When asked to explain his fifteen months on the run, he replied, “these are political questions.”
“We have to prepare ourselves emotionally and legally,” he added.
The former official, who is now awaiting a first appearance hearing, was appointed minister in 2018 by President Morales. Morales has also been linked to the highway corruption probe.
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Benito Ruiz’s surrender comes amid a climate in which the Guatemala Attorney General’s Office has shown little will to tackle corruption cases. In fact, Attorney General Consuelo Porras has led a campaign to enfeeble the same anti-impunity unit and courts handling the former minister’s case.
Porras removed both lead prosecutors spearheading the cases against Benito Ruiz. First, in April 2020, she transferred a top anti-corruption prosecutor, Stuardo Campo, away from the unit leading the highway corruption probe.
Then, just months later, Porras fired FECI director Juan Sandoval, whose unit charged Benito in the money laundering case. Sandoval is now exiled in the United States.
Benito Ruiz’s decision to turn himself in also comes days after the Attorney General’s Office launched legal attacks against an internationally heralded judge on Guatemala’s court of High Risk (Mayor Riesgo), one of those in line to hear Benito Ruiz’s case. The judge, Erika Aifán, was also hit recently with a legal challenge from FECI, demanding that she be removed from a high-profile corruption case, elPeriódico reported.
There has been speculation that Benito Ruiz may have reached a deal with the Attorney General’s Office to become a collaborative witness before turning himself in, though the head of FECI has denied any knowledge of such an agreement.
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