Guatemala’s Ex-Vice President Needs a Miracle

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For three days now, Guatemala’s ex-vice president has been trying to hide in a corner, behind the biggest and swarthiest of her lawyers. There, crouched in the corner of Courtroom B, she is taking notes, writing and re-writing the Our Father prayer in her notebook.

It seems like she’s waiting for a miracle. Sometimes she stops to write down a statistic, a date, a name. She looks nervous, and from her improvised refuge she is barely visible. Asides from her giant lawyer, she is blocked by 30 prison guards and another ring of police officers. 

There’s a few ways this miracle could manifest itself. Firstly — the classic miracle — by writing out the Our Father prayer so many times, she will be rescued by a squad of cherubs who will promptly open the bars of Santa Teresita’s prison for women, and will take her directly to some Caribbean beach.

This is unlikely. The other miracles are less dependent on prayer. They have more to do with a corrupt justice system that recently has been putting on quite a show within its rotten insides. 

This is an excerpt from an article originally published by Plaza Publica. It has been translated and lightly edited for clarity with permission. See the original post here

Bit by bit, Baldetti relaxes. She smiles (when she can be seen behind the ring of cops and prison guards). She knows this is only the beginning, just the first step in a penal process. To her favor, the commissions that selected Guatemala’s highest judicial authorities — including the 13 judges who sit on the Supreme Court — were negotiated in her name via the Patriota political party in Congress, in September 2014.

Our Father won’t bring the miracle she needs now. But the country’s highest courts, where judges were placed thanks to political machinations in Congress, that could work. Many of the elected judges are there because of her….

SEE ALSO:  The War for Guatemala’s Courts

From where she is sitting, Baldetti has listened, undeterred, to the accusations that the Public Ministry (MP) and the United Nations’ anti-impunity commission, known as the CICIG, are making against her. She is accused of illicit association, passive bribery, and customs fraud. More seriously, she has been identified as the leader of “La Linea,” the criminal network that, according to the Public Ministry’s investigation, stole a little more that 28.6 million quetzales in a year, between May 2014 and April 2015. Some 50 percent of the stolen funds were handed over to Baldetti when she was still vice president, according to the Public Ministry.  

Those who benefitted from the customs fraud included Guatemala’s former vice president, Roxana Baldetti Elias, and President Otto Perez Molina. The documents called them “number one” and “number two.”

Today, Baldetti is on the verge of finding out if there is enough evidence against her to warrant a criminal trial. However, the judge, Migual Angel Galvez, orders the withdrawal of the prison agents and police officers obscuring the ex-vice president. Baldetti makes a resigned gesture in reaction to the judge’s command; and cameras immediately begin snapping hundreds of photos. 

Up until April 16, Baldetti’s name hasn’t appeared in documents related to the customs fraud investigation. At least not directly. On that day, the Public Ministry and the CICIG identified Baldetti’s former private secretary, Juan Carlos Monzon Rojas (who is still a fugitive) as the top leader of La Linea. Phone recordings and the monitoring of meetings between members of the criminal network had led investigators to that point. After the investigation was made public with the arrest of 22 people and hundreds of documents seized, the Public Ministry and the CICIG were always cautious about mentioning who the other two suspects might be. Attorney Oscar Schaad, who formerly led the special Attorney General’s Office unit against impunity (FECI), had asserted there was no evidence to link Baldetti to La Linea. 

In reality, the accusation against Monzon Rojas was just the midway point, as investigators continued gathering evidence that would lead them to the leaders of La Linea. As demonstrated in documents extracted from computers belonging to those arrested April 16, those who benefitted from the customs fraud included Guatemala’s former vice president, Roxana Baldetti Elias, and President Otto Perez Molina. The documents called them “number one” and “number two.” 

SEE ALSO:  Guatemala News and Profiles

On May 8, a weakened Baldetti — without arguments to defend her former private secretary — was forced to resign the vice presidency. As a result, she lost her immunity from prosecution. Nearly three months later, Judge Galvez issued an order for her arrest, at the request of the Public Ministry, in light of new evidence compiled by the CICIG.

After Baldetti’s arrest on August 21, CICIG head Ivan Velasquez explained, “There is no doubt that, based on the references made and the meetings held with the president, all the references to ‘one’ and ‘two’ correspond to the president and the then-vice president of the Republic.” 

[…]

The names behind Baldetti

“La señora.” “La dos.” “La mera-mera.” “La señorona….” For both the Public Ministry and the CICIG, Baldetti has had many names over the past two years. Nevertheless, behind every pseudonym, there was always an instruction, an order.

Before Judge Miguel Angel Galvez, prosecutor Jose Antonio Morales argued that based on “logic and critical thinking, it can only be inferred that Roxana Baldetti Elia led the criminal structure that defrauded customs.”

“There is no other vice president,” he added. “There is no other number two.”  

The phone recordings appear to support accusations that the president and ex-vice president intervened at decisive moments, thus allowing La Linea to continue operating…

The Public Ministry’s formal accusation against Baldetti, as heard during the hearing in Court B, was a chronological narration of how La Linea worked. Above all else, it focused on a minor crisis within the network, as they made certain internal changes, moved some people around. More than 30 phone recordings were played in court, as evidence of the ex-vice president’s involvement. Nevertheless, the name “Roxana Baldetti” was never mentioned once in the recorded phone calls between members of La Linea.

“It’s not possible for a criminal trial; the Public Ministry hasn’t been able to place responsibility on Roxana Baldetti,” argued defense lawyer Mario Cano. “Her name never appears.”

But the phone recordings appear to support accusations that the president and ex-vice president intervened at decisive moments, thus allowing La Linea to continue operating…

In that sense, some of the most important evidence that the Public Ministry presented against Baldetti was meant to show her links with key operatives in La Linea. Not only that, the Public Ministry’s evidence showed that Baldetti issued orders to the criminal network; had the power to appoint people in key positions, including the head of Guatemala’s Superintendency of Tax Administration (SAT).

The phone conversations played during the hearing presented Baldetti as not just an operative in La Linea, but as a boss. The aliases “La Señora” and “La Dos” were mentioned by the voices describing internal changes within the criminal structure. In one example, between August and October 2014, the Public Ministry argued that Baldetti was involved in appointing Javier Ortiz Arriaga, alias “Lieutenant Jerez,” as a new key operator in La Linea.

The Public Ministry also named Baldetti as responsible for naming Oscar Franco as the head of the SAT in January 28, 2015.

As revealed in the wiretaps, these reaccommodations showed the consent, interference, and participation of “La Dos,” “La Gran Señora,” “La vicepresidenta” in La Linea, argued the prosecutor, Morales. Not a single person within La Linea would make a move, without the mid-level operators making a coded reference to some higher authority above Juan Carlos Monzon (referred to in the calls as “J” or “JC.” 

At that moment during the hearing, Baldetti looked serious, paying attention, as though she was a university student in class.

For example, in a recording dated December 23, 2014, the intermediary between Monzon and “Lieutenant Jerez,” said:

“CM [Carlos Muñoz, the former head of trade authority the SAT], is out. His replacement is ‘Anteojitos’ [Omar Franco]. La Señora wants him there and she wants it, that’s the way it’s going to be. That’s what J is doing, on behalf of La Señora.”

In a recording that same day, Omar Franco told that same intermediary:

“The private of ‘Number Two’ called me. She wants a meeting.” 

Judge Galvez listened to these recordings before issuing his judgement against Baldetti. He then spoke of the way that parallel criminal networks can be created, and co-opt the state. And how these criminal networks can use legitimate business models. “Between the legal and illegal,” the judge said. At that moment during the hearing, Baldetti looked serious, paying attention, as though she was a university student in class. Sometimes, upon hearing her name, her head would move up and down, as though in affirmation. Other times she looked lost in thought. From one day to the next, she abandoned her obsessive rewriting of the Our Father. 

Despite the degree to which Guatemala’s selection process for justice officials has corrupted the system, there are nevertheless some honorable judges. Among them is Galvez, recognized by many within the judiciary as incorruptible. 

Baldetti is not alone

Before the judge, the Public ministry revealed other evidence that did not only implicate Baldetti. During the hearing, Morales, the prosecutor, presented some audio recordings that implicated President Otto Perez Molina in the customs fraud scheme. “He was involved. Everything was done with his consent,” the prosecutor said.

In a recording dated November 3, 2014, Otto Perez Molina asks Carlos Muñoz to change the head of human resources in trade authority body the SAT. 

The president ordered the creation of bank accounts, where the money stolen by La Linea could be deposited…

“The human resources guy, that we talked about changing. The unions are already threatening. Why won’t you change the human resources guy for me? We need that to keep up with the changes…”

“How is possible that the president did not respect the SAT’s autonomy?” Judge Galvez said in reaction to this. “Without doubt, he is motivated by his own interests.”

After the president made this call, Sebastian Herrera was appointed as the head of human resources at the SAT. He was among those arrested for involvement in La Linea on April 16. As the Public Ministry has signaled, Herrera was appointed in order to have influence over who was hired at Guatemala’s customs agency, with “Lieutenant Jerez” in charge of the internal reaccommodation of La Linea at the time. 

At the president’s orders — as indicated in another audio recording presented by the Public Ministry — Lieutenant Jerez was in charge of running La Linea’s operations within customs, which had “turned into a marketplace. The president ordered the creation of bank accounts, where the money stolen by La Linea could be deposited, Morales said. 

[…]

The distribution of the profits

When the Public Ministry announced the dismantling of La Linea in April, some phone recordings mentioned “La R.” This was not a code to refer to Roxana Baldetti — this was apparently a reference to how money was collected. 

This may yet be the third miracle for Baldetti: the possibility that the Public Ministry or the CICIG have a weak case; that the evidence collected so far does not convince the judges. But this seems unlikely. The prosecutors took their time. They listened to 88,920 recordings. They read 5,906 e-mails. Both the CICIG and the Public Ministry resisted pressure to deliver the heads of those that led La Linea. They waited. It is quite probable that they have a strong case. 

From May 5 to May 31, La Linea stole 1.35 million quetzales. Levels one and two of La Linea received 677,000 quetzales. “Levels one and two involved Otto Perez Molina and Roxana Baldetti,” Morales, the prosecutor, said.

According to the documents presented before Judge Galvez — a moment in which Baldetti, in her hiding place behind her lawyer, took copious notes about what was being projected via slides — La Linea kept track of  two types of money collection. The first was “R1” — money that was collected as customs tax and then delivered to the Treasury. Then there was “R2” — money for La Linea.   

The Public Ministry seized these “official” collection tables in the office of Estuardo Gonzalez, a ranking member of La Linea, a subordinate of Juan Carlos Monzon, and linked — via businesses — to Baldetti.

During Baldetti’s hearing, the Public Ministry said that 50 percent of the stolen customs funds were given to levels one and two of La LInea. The other 50 percent were distributed to the other members of the criminal network. From May 5 to May 31, La Linea stole 1.35 million quetzales. Levels one and two of La Linea received 677,000 quetzales. “Levels one and two involved Otto Perez Molina and Roxana Baldetti,” Morales, the prosecutor, said. 

According to documents presented by the Public Ministry, money was distributed within La Linea as follows: Juan Carlos Monzon received 7.5 percent, Estuardo Gonzalez, 6.5 percent, and for number one (Otto Perez Molina) and number two (Roxana Baldetti), 50 percent. So in total, 61 percent of the stolen funds went to La Linea’s upper command. 

Baldetti’s defense lawyer, Mario Cano, made no argument against this evidence. He made no mention of these documents — documents that lay out how the customs fraud funds were distributed — during his turn to speak in court. 

Baldetti’s defense lawyer made no argument against this evidence.

Among the other documents seized in the office of Estuardo Gonzalez — and presented before Judge Galvez during the hearing — were various checks in Baldetti’s name. Two of these were issued by a company, Proyectors Rentables de Inversion SA. According to an investigation by elPeriodico, Baldetti is a shareholder of this finance company, dedicated to mortgage loans. In total, the Public Ministry signaled that the ex-vice president received 7.9 million quetzales in just six checks.

The defense argued that these checks represented “the dividends, the earnings that are divided between the shareholders of a company. We have documents showing that taxes were paid for this money.” 

Baldetti spoke in a low voice to her defense lawyer. “We will show evidence of the origin of all this money at another point in the process,” the defense said.

For Judge Galvez, the mix of items found among the checks was also worth serious consideration: a memorandum addressed to President Otto Perez Molina, describing changes necessary within customs; lists of prices, calculations; papers about customs procedures; information pointing to illicit activity. All of this found within the office of Estuardo Gonzalez, all of this found among the checks in Baldetti’s name. 

“Alarming corruption”

“The wiretaps reveal that every operation, every reacommodation, including the distribution of earnings, was done within the structure,” Judge Galvez said. “Within the phone calls, we can understand that there are references to Roxana Baldetti. There are orders and instructions. Who can change the director of the SAT? We’re talking about a vice president. There’s a moment in which they think they are untouchable.”

“The SAT is how the state is supposed to pay for security, education, the health of all of us,” the judge added. “But here, the purpose of the agency was altered. The amount of corruption became alarming.”

During the defense arguments, Mario Cano never denied the existence of La Linea. Nor did he deny the possibility that Baldetti participated in La Minea. He even congratulated the CICIG for dismantling a criminal structure within the customs agency. He did object to one of the charges that the Public Ministry had presented against Baldetti: passive bribery. “That can’t happen alongside illicit association,” he said.

The same day that Roxana Baldetti had her first hearing, Minister of Government Eunice Mendizabal signed an agreement that would benefit Baldetti. A new women’s prison, established within the Matamoros military barracks. While issuing his ruling against Baldetti, Judge Galvez confessed he was surprised that this jail was so recently inaugurated in the site where Baldetti is being held. During his final ruling, Galvez decided to send the ex-vice president to preventative prison, but out of “balance,” he placed her in the Santa Teresita women’s prison. “Creating a prison after one’s arrest is out of order,” Galvez said.

He granted three months for the Public Ministry — with support from the CICIG — to carry out the investigation which will bring Baldetti to trial. During that time, we will see if a real miracle will happen. The classic miracle? Will prosecutors and the CICIG end up without proof? It all seems unlikely. There’s one miracle left — that Guatemala’s highest courts will swoop in, and this is perhaps the only option left for the rescue of Roxana Baldetti.

This is an excerpt from an article originally published by Plaza Publica. It has been translated and lightly edited for clarity with permission. See the original post here

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