After Portillo’s Acquittal, a Challenge for Judicial Reform in Guatemala

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A Guatemalan court acquitted former President Alfonso Portillo of corruption charges, in a major blow to the credibility of the justice system and a sign that a UN-backed commission in the country still has work to do.

When Alfonso Portillo and two of his former ministers were first indicted by a federal court on charges that they embezzled millions of dollars during his 2000-2004 term, many hailed it as an opportunity to test the effectiveness of recent reforms to the Guatemalan justice system.

Guatemala failed that test. The three-judge panel dismissed two of the prosecution’s key witnesses, claiming that they had lied under oath, as elPeriodico reports. Both the country’s Attorney General and the United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comision Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG) dispute this, and have vowed to lodge an appeal.

Francisco Dall’Anese, the CICIG’s director, condemned the acquittal in a recent statement, claiming that it “reflects the true state of justice in Guatemala and confirms the mission of the CICIG to continue its fight against impunity.”

The failure is all the more frustrating for prosecutors because, as InSight has reported, simply bringing the former president to trial took a herculean effort, and was the result of years of advocacy on the part of prosecutors and the CICIG. After finishing his term in 2004 and losing his immunity from prosecution, Portillo fled to El Salvador and then to Mexico in order to avoid charges.· Following a long legal battle, he was finally extradited to Guatemala in October 2008.

It is a disappointment for the commission, which has had a number of successes since it was established in 2006. Its remit was to combat organized criminal groups in the country, and end the pervasive influence of drug money in the state and judicial system. Most of the sensitive cases handled by the comission involve the shadowy criminal networks controlled by former military and police officials, known as the Illegal Corps and Clandestine Security Apparatus (Cuerpos Ilegales y Aparatos Clandestinos de Seguridad – CIACS).

As a result of CICIG work, 2,000 corrupt police officers have been fired from their posts. According to a November report published in·Americas Quarterly, the commission has also been instrumental in reforming the criminal prosecution process in the country, drastically reducing the role of partiality and bribery in determining court rulings. In recent years, the Guatemalan judiciary has undergone significant restructuring, mostly through the work of the Commission.

Portillo’s acquittal suggests that Guatemala still has not managed to strengthen its judicial system to the point that justice can be done without serious pressure from the CICIG. There are some signs that the Guatemalan government has recognized this: the comission’s mandate has been extended until 2013. The acquittal of Portillo is a considerable setback, but he is still facing possible extradition to the U.S. on embezzlement charges. If Portillo is convicted in the U.S., this would be more damning evidence of Guatema’s incapacity to punish its own criminals.

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