Guatemala Courts at Renewed Risk of Infiltration by Criminal Groups

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Just as Guatemala is completing a selection process to appoint judges to two senior courts, an investigation has revealed a familiar scheme involving criminal groups trying to influence these decisions.

On May 28, the Attorney General’s Office anti-impunity unit (Fiscalía Especializada Contra la Impunidad – FECI) delivered a report to congress stating that Gustavo Alejos Cámbara, a known political operator currently in jail for corruption, had tried to influence the selection process by meeting with deputies, potential judicial nominees and other officials.

This is not the first time that criminal elements, fearing potential investigations against them, have tried to influence the selection of judges to the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals, the highest tribunals overseeing corruption and organized crime cases.

“Most state institutions have been or have seen attempts at being taken over by CIACS [criminal groups within the Guatemalan government known as Illegal Clandestine Security Apparatuses – Cuerpos Ilegales y Aparatos Clandestinos de Seguridad]. The case of these judicial bodies is not an exception. These investigations … have shown that all institutions within the justice system have seen attempts by these groups to guarantee impunity,” read the FECI report.

SEE ALSO: University Deans and Guatemala’s Convoluted Road to a New Attorney General

Alejos was once the private secretary of former president Álvaro Colom (2008-2012). In August 2018, a number of US congressmen asked the State Department to include Alejos in a list of corrupt Central American government officials.

In 2019, Alejos surrendered to authorities after FECI revealed he had received bribes worth up to $7 million through a network that demanded payments from businesses in exchange for public construction contracts.

According to the FECI investigation, Alejos was the leader of this group, which included officials from the governments of Otto Pérez Molina (2012-2015) and Jimmy Morales (2015-2019).

Alejos was imprisoned in Mariscal Zavala, a prison housing most of Guatemala’s most famous inmates accused of corruption, including former president Pérez Molina. Investigations by the media and Attorney General’s Office have concluded that a number of inmates are still capable of running their criminal networks from behind bars.

In September 2019, the Constitutional Court postponed the selection process for new court judges due to procedural failures. Then in May 2020, it ordered the Attorney General’s Office to investigate attempts by Alejos and others to influence the election.

In November 2019, due to alleged health problems, Alejos had obtained special permission to continue his incarceration from a private clinic. From there, he kept trying to manipulate the election of high court judges in 2019, according to a separate FECI investigation.

While in the hospital, Alejos had contact with 41 people involved in the judicial selection process, according to cell phone records seized by investigators.

The latest FECI report shows this list of contacts included Dina Ochoa, a Constitutional Court judge, two members of the selection committee for high court judges, two deputies and two former government ministers.

InSight Crime Analysis

Attempts to manipulate the justice system have been documented, at the very least, since the end of Guatemala’s civil war in 1996. Since then, political elites and their criminal associates have tried to influence the selection process for senior positions in the courts and the Attorney General’s Office.

These complex networks have infiltrated universities, Guatemala’s bar association and other lawyers’ associations to influence these processes. In 2018, InSight Crime documented a strategy to infiltrate the selection of the Attorney General.

Over the last decade, the now-defunct International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala — CICIG) had helped investigations by the Attorney General’s Office and FECI related to the manipulation of high court judge appointments. This scrutiny allowed the election of certain independent officials, such as former prosecutors Claudia Paz y Paz and Thelma Aldana.

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

However, the CICIG was dismantled in 2019 by former president Morales, scuttling a precious ally to FECI and its head, Juan Francisco Sandoval.

Since then, and likely emboldened by the weakening and exit of the CICIG, operators like Alejos and their allies have renewed attempts to hijack the Guatemalan justice system and discredit FECI and Sandoval.

On May 16, an audio recording appeared on social media that accused Sandoval’s brother of leaking privileged information from inside the Attorney General’s Office. But research by the Information Network against Impunity in Guatemala (Red de Información contra la Impunidad en Guatemala — RICIG) concluded that this was a fake operation linked to groups the FECI had brought to court.

Sandoval has stated that the attacks on FECI and his brother could be related to Alejos. He has also asked the Attorney General’s Office to investigate the allegations made against his brother.

“It could be related, due to the timeframe of this last attack and the deadline issued by the Constitutional Court. Attacks intensify when prosecutors are at work or at critical moments in [judicial] processes,” Sandoval told InSight Crime.

Congress has the FECI report in its possession and should appoint the judges in the coming weeks. Even without the support of CICIG, the FECI and Constitutional Court have stopped, at least temporarily, what appeared to be a rigged election concerning the country’s most important courts.

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