Guatemala seems to have brushed aside international pressure to crack down on entrenched government corruption, as authorities dropped charges against an embattled former president on the same day they arrested top anti-graft investigators.
A high court ruled on May 19 that former President Otto Pérez Molina will not be prosecuted in connection to the so-called Network of Power, Corruption and Money Laundering case (Red de Poder, Corrupción y Lavado de Dinero), Guatemalan media reported. This followed a January ruling that the evidence presented by the anti-impunity unit (Fiscalía Especializada Contra la Impunidad -- FECI) within Guatemala’s Attorney General’s Office was not strong enough to move forward with criminal charges against Pérez Molina.
Uncovered in 2019 by the United Nations-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala -- CICIG), the case centers on a criminal network of powerful elites that demanded millions of dollars in bribes from businesses in exchange for state contracts.
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On the same day Pérez Molina had the charge against him dropped, the Attorney General’s Office announced the arrest of Juan Francisco Solórzano Foppa, the country’s former tax chief who helped build a corruption case against Pérez Molina. Anibal Arguello, a former lawyer and CICIG investigator, was also arrested. Both face charges related to a case involving allegedly forged official documents for a new political party that Solórzano Foppa was attempting to create.
Arguello is also a key witness in the landmark La Línea corruption case, the multimillion-dollar customs fraud scandal that led to Pérez Molina’s resignation and arrest, along with that of his vice president at the time, Roxana Baldetti. After coming to light in 2015, the case is set to go to trial in January 2022.
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This appears to be the latest, and arguably the most blatant, example of Guatemala protecting powerful elites from criminal prosecution and attacking anti-corruption crusaders instead.
A State Department spokesperson told InSight Crime in an email that it is concerned about the apparently “systematic effort in Guatemala to isolate those known to be fighting against corruption” and the “arrest on spurious charges of people involved in past efforts to promote transparency.”
Former President Jimmy Morales (2016-2020) led a crusade against CICIG, declaring its director “persona non grata,” refusing to renew the commission’s mandate and expelling its prosecutors from the country without any repercussions despite the international community's concerns. The move directly benefited those targeted by the CICIG’s investigations, including Morales and a number of his allies.
This open defiance has continued under President Alejandro Giammattei. The arrest of Arguello and Solórzano Foppa came mere hours before US Vice President Kamala Harris met with four former Guatemalan officials, including former Attorney General Thelma Aldana, who was granted asylum in the United States after being forced to flee her home country in the wake of several high-profile investigations.
Just days earlier, the US State Department released a list of Central American officials -- including six from Guatemala -- “credibly alleged” to have facilitated the “financing of political campaigns with the proceeds of narcotics trafficking or other illicit acts in the last two years.” Dozens of former and current Guatemalan officials were also included on two other corruption lists released by the US government since 2019.
SEE ALSO: Will US-Central America Relations Falter With Latest Corruption List?
One of those singled out in the latest list -- Gustavo Alejos Cámbara -- is currently jailed on corruption charges and has been implicated in trying to influence the appointments of high court judges. He’s also suspected of leading the scheme detailed in the Network of Power, Corruption and Money Laundering case that ensnared officials from the country’s past three administrations, a case Pérez Molina will no longer be prosecuted for.
Despite significant progress made during the CICIG’s 12-year tenure, since its departure elites in Guatemala have focused on “rolling back what progress had been achieved and became emboldened as they suffered no consequences for their actions,” Mike Allison, a Central America expert at the University of Scranton, told InSight Crime.
“At this point in time political and economic elites … do not take the United States seriously. They do not fear sanctions, nor do they seem to respond to the same economic enticements as they did in the past,” he added.
This article was updated to include comment from a State Department spokesperson.*