Arrest of Guatemala’s ‘Tennis Shoe King’ Could Impact Prosecutor Selection Process

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The recent arrests of an elusive and powerful Guatemalan businessman-turned-lobbyist and an influential judge could impact the current search for the new attorney general.

Guatemalan authorities detained Roberto López Villatoro, aka “El Rey de Tenis,” or the “Tennis Shoe King,” and Judge Giovanni Orellana Donis on charges of judicial corruption on February 23.

According to the Attorney General’s Office investigation, which was assisted by the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG),  Orellana Donis is charged with accepting a luxury apartment as a gift from López Villatoro, a wealthy entrepreneur with alleged underworld ties. In exchange, Orellana Donis purportedly influenced the 2014 selection of Supreme Court justices in López Villatoro’s favor.

In Guatemala, committees known as “postulation commissions” play an important role in the selection of the country’s high court justices. Comprised of judges, lawyers, and law school deans, these supposedly “independent and depoliticized” commissions select the final list of candidates that will be sent to Congress for consideration.

SEE ALSO: Backroom Justice – The War for Guatemala’s Courts

In 2014, Orellana Donis used his vote as a member of the postulation commission tasked with selecting the final list of Supreme Court justice candidates to sway the judicial selection process. In his role as a commissioner, Orellana Donis voted in favor of four of the candidates that were eventually appointed to the Supreme Court. Last year, one of these four justices, Jose Pineda Barales, was elected president of the country’s highest judicial body.  

Prensa Libre says both López Villatoro and Orellana Donis are being held in Mariscal Zavala, a facility that has earned a reputation as Guatemala’s VIP prison, to await trial. Authorities have also issued an arrest warrant for López Villatoro’s sister, Clara Guadalupe López Villatoro, and two lawyers on related charges, Soy502 reported.

InSight Crime Analysis

The corruption case implicating López Villatoro and Judge Orellana Donis is intimately linked with the ongoing process to select Guatemala’s next attorney general.  In May of this year, a postulation commission of 15 legal professionals will select six candidates, one of whom will be chosen by the president to replace Attorney General Thelma Aldana, who is a staunch ally of the United Nations backed anti-graft body, the CICIG.

As President of the Supreme Court, Pineda Barales will cast one of the 15 votes to select the country’s next attorney general. The prosecution of his progenitors might sway him to act in good faith, or do the opposite and work with those trying to subvert Aldana’s and the CICIG’s efforts. Either way, the arrests are “a clear message to the commission,” a member of a civil society organization following the selection process closely told InSight Crime.

The fact that Pineda Barales owes his appointment in part to Orellana Donis and López Villatoro is emblematic of the corrupt interests that pervade Guatemala’s judicial selection processes, and is especially concerning considering the future of anti-graft efforts in Guatemala depend heavily on who will become the next attorney general.

López Villatoro has a long history of influencing the Guatemalan justice system that began around the same time he earned the nickname the Tennis Shoe King.  From humble beginnings selling knock-off shoes out of the trunk of his car, López Villatoro built a tennis shoe empire that, at its apex in 1999, sold 10 million shoes and earned him his moniker. His wealth, along with substantial political capital gained from having a brother in the Senate and marrying Zuri Ríos Montt — a politician and daughter of former military dictator Efraín Ríos Montt — made López Villatoro a very powerful man.

SEE ALSO: Guatemala Elites and Organized Crime: The CICIG

The extent to which his influence extended into the Guatemalan justice system, though, did not become public until 2009, when then head of the CICIG, Carlos Castresana, accused López Villatoro of corrupting the postulation committees’ selection process to serve criminal interests. According to Castresana, the Tennis Shoe King was behind the appointment of 26 individuals charged with selecting the future judges of Guatemala’s highest courts. Castresana claimed that López Villatoro even sponsored 32 aspiring Guatemalan lawyers to study law at the University of Seville in Spain.

As one of the most prominent faces of Guatemalan corruption, the Tennis Shoe King’s arrest is a promising development in Guatemala’s uphill struggle against endemic graft. The charges against him, however, highlight the importance of selecting a new attorney general who is able and willing to combat institutional corruption in the justice system and beyond.

In the face of increasing opposition, this will be no easy task. The Tennis Shoe King is not the only powerful figure who harbors ill-will against the Attorney General’s Office and the CICIG. In the past few months alone, members of Guatemala’s political elites have illustrated that they will do everything in their power to impede the Attorney General’s Office and the CICIG’s anti-corruption efforts.  

In August, President Jimmy Morales attempted to expel Iván Velásquez, head of the CICIG, from the country.  Although a court later reversed the motion, President Morales was successful in firing several government officials considered to be friendly towards the CICIG. In recent weeks, other powerful politicians including former Guatemalan Presidents Álvaro Arzu Irigoye and Otto Pérez Molina have both attempted to subvert the CICIG’s fight against impunity.

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