With a historic ruling to convict the former president and vice president -- and an incredible off-script riff -- three Guatemala judges illustrated why the most emblematic case of the country’s effort to reform its justice system over the past decade is still dividing Guatemala.
On December 7, the judges ruled to convict former president Otto Pérez Molina and former vice president Roxana Baldetti of fraud and “illicit association” and sentenced them to 16 years each in prison. Pérez Molina and Baldetti were absolved of illicit enrichment, and several others in the case were acquitted of all criminal charges. Both face other charges in Guatemala, and Baldetti faces drug trafficking charges in the United States.
“I am frustrated,” Pérez Molina told the media following the ruling. “I am disappointed because if anyone believed in justice, it was me.”
Many might disagree. The case that ended in the pair’s conviction was known as La Línea (The Line), a reference to a vast corruption scheme in which the two would collect bribes in return for ignoring or lowering customs duties.
It was one of several cases the Attorney General’s Office and its then-counterpart -- the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG), a United Nations-backed judicial body -- brought against numerous officials, elite businessmen, drug traffickers, current and former military officials, and others during the CICIG’s 12-year stay in the country.
But La Línea was the most emblematic since it was the domino that brought down the Pérez Molina government. Prosecutors later likened the regime to an organized crime outfit. After the first wave of arrests in February 2015, massive protests led to Pérez Molina’s and Baldetti’s resignations and later arrests. It was the height of the CICIG’s tenure. CICIG’s Commissioner, Colombian judge Iván Velásquez, achieved rock-star status.
Thereafter, the country divided sharply, and when the anti-corruption investigations spread across a wide enough swath of Guatemala’s elite spectrum to help unite a coalition of counter-reformists, CICIG’s days were numbered. President Jimmy Morales -- who himself was under investigation -- declared Velásquez, who is now Colombia’s defense minister, persona non grata in 2017. Morales ended the commission’s mandate in 2018, and in 2019, the CICIG left the country.
SEE ALSO: The Legacy of How Guatemala Destroyed its Own Anti-Corruption Crusade
With all this history, it was almost inevitable that the debate over the CICIG spilled into the December 7 judgment against Pérez Molina and Baldetti. According to Prensa Libre, before the sentence was read, one of the judges, Jeanette Valdés, accused the commission of manipulating witness statements and the Attorney General’s Office of making “errors.”
“We don’t need foreigners coming to do this work,” she said. “Were there errors in the Attorney General’s Office case? Yes, there were errors.”
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Valdés' startling diatribe illustrates how the divisions that began with La Línea in 2015 continue to this day. But while she condemned those who brought the case to fruition, she ultimately agreed with the bulk of their findings.
“It’s symbolic, emblematic, and courageous,” Juan Francisco Sandoval, who led the anti-impunity unit of the Attorney General’s Office until he had to flee the country in 2021, told the Con Criterio radio program from his own exile about the sentencing.
SEE ALSO: Despite Outrage, Guatemala Continues to Bulldoze Anti-Corruption Edifice
Still, how long will this ruling stick? That may now be in the hands of the counter-reform side of the equation. Since the CICIG was forced out of the country, those counter-reformers, which include current President Alejandro Giammattei, have installed their hand-picked attorney general and numerous judges, brought frivolous criminal, civil, and administrative cases against those who worked with the CICIG; and forced dozens of prosecutors like Sandoval, as well as judges, to flee the country.
They have also archived, subverted, or otherwise destroyed the CICIG-led cases and numerous that were brought after that by the units that had worked with the commission. Even when these cases led to convictions, they have often been overturned by judges selected by people like Pérez Molina and Baldetti when they were in power. Not surprisingly, Pérez Molina said he would appeal his conviction, and the decision by the judges to drop the illicit enrichment charges may make it easier to overturn his conviction.
“In Guatemala, anything is possible,” Thelma Aldana, the exiled former attorney general who decided to charge Pérez Molina and Baldetti in 2015, told InSight Crime. “With an Attorney General’s Office that plants evidence, that manipulates evidence, anything is possible.”
For now, and perhaps forever, Aldana and the dozens of other judicial crusaders may have to settle for partial victories like the one the judges granted them on December 7.