Behind the Fight to Hijack Guatemala’s Justice System

Ensuring impartial, professional, and honest officials in Guatemala’s highest courts is crucial to the rule of law, independence of the judiciary, and advancing the fight against corruption.

Adriana Beltrán, of Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), outlines the various levels of corruption inherent in perverting the Guatemala justice system at this critical point. The article focuses on the current process of selecting the magistrates as part of the renewal of the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals, which has been marred by irregularities and attempts by corrupt and illicit groups to manipulate the process and its outcome.

According the Guatemala Constitution, 13 magistrates to the Supreme Court and all 135 magistrates to the Courts of Appeal are replaced every four years through a nomination process entrusted to groups known as postulation commissions, made up of appellate judges, law school deans, and representatives of the Guatemalan Bar Association that submit a list of candidates to Congress, which is then responsible for selecting from among the list of nominees.

Corruption has even led to a proliferation of law schools to influence the outcomes.

By influencing the process by which justices are elected, criminal actors find corrupt allies willing to ensure their protection and impunity and, after a decade of historic progress in tackling high-level corruption, the risk of Guatemala’s justice system falling under the control of criminal groups is extremely high. Conflicts of interest and competition over who gets seats has also resulted in nominees themselves competing for political support.

The article discusses the manipulation of the appointment process in 2014 as a result of a deal between Otto Pérez Molina’s Patriot Party (Partido Patriota, PP) and Manuel Baldizón’s Renewed Democratic Liberty Party (Libertad Democratica Renovada, LIDER). Both men now charged with corruption.

Observers of the current selection process have noted that qualified judges were excluded from the process without cause and that the commissions failed to implement basic selection procedures.

Earlier this year, the Special Prosecutor’s Office against Impunity (FECI) unearthed one of the biggest scandals of interference in the justice system by illicit groups. The investigation found that Gustavo Alejos Cámbara, a powerful political operator and businessman currently in detention for corruption, had set up a scheme to influence the selection process. It was revealed that he had had contact with at least 41 people involved in the judicial selection process; including 10 legislators, two of whom are part of the current leadership. Alejos is a businessman who made his fortune by using his political connections to obtain government contracts, and has financed various political parties. Prior to this investigation, Gustavo Alejos was implicated in five separate cases of corruption, each of which is outlined in the article. The U.S. Dept of State had him designated for his involvement in grand corruption and so deemed ineligible to enter the United States.

The article also discusses congressman Felipe Alejos Lorenzana, no relation, who has been implicated in a considerable corruption scandal. He was one of the fiercest opponents of the CICIG, and helped support a regressive legislative agenda to favour those accused of political corruption. The Public Prosecutor’s Office has asked the Supreme Court to lift his congressional immunity, but it repeatedly declined to do so, while the Constitutional Court has ordered the Supreme Court to reconsider the case.

Regarding the long-delayed election of magistrates, the Constitutional Court, in May 2020, ordered Public Prosecutor’s Office to submit a report to Congress on its the investigation into the list of candidates which it felt had been manipulated and influenced by individuals facing criminal charges. The Court also ordered Congress to take the report into account in order to exclude those who do not meet conditions of suitability and honourability.

The report was submitted and contained information on 22 candidates linked to the case headed by Gustavo Alejos Cámbara – five candidates to the Supreme Court and 17 candidates to the Courts of Appeal. The report also described how another 109 candidates have been implicated in other investigations carried out by the Public Prosecutor’s Office.

Another attack on the integrity of the judicial system outlined in the article concerns a motion to lift immunity against four Constitutional Court magistrates, Boanerge Mejía, Gloria Porras, Neftaly Aldana, and José de Mata Vela. The motion seeks to argue that the act of excluding nominees, due to alleged meetings with Gustavo Alejos or for being under investigation, violates the Constitution. A special tribunal of the Supreme Court granted the request to lift the magistrates’ immunity and gave the green light for Congress to move forward with impeachment proceedings. The article notes that five of the thirteen judges who signed the judgement are candidates to occupy a judgeship and four were named in corruption probe, indicating that they have a personal interest in the case before them. The piece then outlines the conflict of interest relating to each of the following judges:

Wilber Estuardo Castellanos Venegas, Edgar José López Espaillat, Franc Armando Martínez Ruiz, Rosamaría de León Cano, Henry Alejandro Elías Wilson, Roaldo Isaías Chávez Pérez, Leonnel Rodrigo Sáenz Bojórquez, Artemio Rodolfo Tánchez Mérida, Horacio Enríquez Sánchez, Alberto Mis Ávila, Karina Gonzalez Escobar, and Nicolas Cuxil Guitz.

An appeal was filed and the Constitutional Court granted provisional protection in favour of the judges. The court also suspended impeachment proceedings.

Despite this, Congress moved forward with the impeachment proceedings, as well as creating a special legislative commission to look at the case and to issue recommendations on whether or not to impeach the magistrates. The commission is composed of members (Allan Estuardo Rodríguez Reyes, Sofía Jeaneth Hernández Herrera, Luis Alfonso Rosales Marroquín, Armando Damián Castillo Alvarado, Carlos Santiago Nájera Sagastume, Rudy Werner Pereira Delgado, and Douglas Rivero Mérida) who have a clear conflict of interest, presented in the article.

In response to the legislative commission’s actions, a group of 50 legislators from several political parties sent a letter to the Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), requesting his support in helping to resolve the present constitutional crisis, highlighting that the legislative commission is engaged in a political persecution of the Constitutional Court, which threatens the constitutional order, the rule of law, and the democratic governance of Guatemala’s institutions.

There have also been attempts to discredit the head of FECI, Juan Francisco Sandoval, as well as targeting independent judges, including judge Erika Aifán, who oversees multiple cases involving Gustavo Alejos and other high-profile politicians and businessmen. In addition, attacks have been made against the Human Rights Ombudsman, Jordán Rodas Andrade.

The battle for control of the justice system will determine Guatemala’s ability to fight the corruption that is weakening its institutions, draining state coffers, impacting the government’s ability to confront crises like COVID-19 and climate change, and leaving many Guatemalans to feel as though their best shot at a life with economic opportunities and basic dignity is to migrate.

From their actions, it is clear that the aim of these corrupt networks is to impose and uphold a system that would benefit the illicit activities of corruption networks and organized crime in Guatemala. Such an outcome would have serious repercussions for the security and stability of Guatemala and the region.

This is such a good piece and manages to encapsulate the many facets of corruption that is currently plaguing Guatemala and highlighting that there are no depths below which the corrupt will not stoop to protect their own interests ahead of those of the Guatemalan people.

This is a brief summary and you can read the full article, here, on the WOLA website.

Categories: Culture, Guatemala, Human Rights, Justice, Legal, Solidarity in Action

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