Guatemala President’s In-Law on the Run in Money Laundering Scandal

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The sister-in-law of Guatemala’s president is a fugitive from justice, facing embezzlement charges, as well as allegations that she laundered money in Panama and associated with a man who financed Guatemalan drug trafficking gangs.

On Monday, Guatemalan authorities announced the arrest of five people for laundering money in a network which allegedly included Gloria Torres, sister to first lady (and·former presidential candidate) Sandra Torres Colom. The detainees include two former city councilors, according to the Latin American Herald Tribune. There are reportedly at least another 12 suspects still at large, including Gloria Torres, who has been missing since authorities issed a warrant for her arrest on November 30. That day, police raided her home in Guatemala City and arrested her youngest daughter, Cristina, currently in prison. Another daughter, Maria Marta, is also wanted on fraud charges but is missing alongside her mother.

Gloria Torres is a key figure in Guatemala politics. She co-founded President Alvaro Colom’s party UNE in 2000. The president later appointed her as a special liaison with Guatemala’s municipal governments. She was secretary of UNE but resigned in April 2011 due to a squabble with the party over her sister’s candidacy for presidency.

Gloria Torres and two of her daughters are accused of laundering about 1.5 million quetzales (about $192,000) worth of municipal funds between 2004 and 2006. Plaza Publica gives a brief history of the allegations against Gloria, who is no stranger to scandal. According to the news site, she is known to have associated with Obdulio Solorzano, a former congressman who directed a government agency known as FONAPAZ, a fund for rural development projects. He resigned his post after the government began investigating claims that FONAPAZ couldn’t account for some $58 million in contracts.

As InSight Crime detailed in a recent report on the Zetas in Guatemala, FONAPAZ is responsible for administering money to non-governmental organizations (NGOs), frequently used by criminal groups to launder drug proceeds. This casts suspicion on Solorzano’s role as agency director. Plaza Publica notes that he also had rumored links with drug traffickers, including Walther Overdick and the Lorenzana family. He was murdered in June 2010 in an execution-style killing, quite possibly due to his knowledge of how criminal gangs used NGOs to launder dirty money. According to Plaza Publica, Gloria Torres spent time at Solorzano’s country estates in Alta Verapaz, sailing on his yacht and using his private helicopter to pick up fresh produce in the nearest city, Coban.

When the Zetas released a radio message in December 2010, claiming they had donated millions to Alvaro Colom’s presidential campaign, they made an apparent reference to Solorzano’s death, calling him “Bigote” (mustache). 

The current money laundering charges facing the three Torres women concern the embezzlement of funds meant for three municipalities. This is in addition to allegations that Gloria Torres smuggled cash by plane to Panama, for unknown purposes. ElPeriodico broke the story in August. According to a document seen by the newspaper, the director of air traffic security received a letter in May 2010 informing him that a group of six people would soon travel to Panama with bulk amounts of cash hidden in their luggage. The letter described the six as “special guests” of Gloria Torres. According to elPeriodico, there have been more than 18 such flights to Panama, all involving Torres’ “special guests,” which at times have included members of her security detail. Plaza Publica reports that authorities tried to detain Gloria Torres in June 2010 on fraud charges before she boarded a flight to Miami, but she never appeared at the airport where police were waiting for her.

President-elect Otto Perez Molina has said that the charges against Gloria Torres are “an old case,” apparent confirmation that authorities have been collecting evidence against her misconduct for years but did not act on it until the very end of Alvaro Colom’s presidency. The only word from Gloria Torres came shortly after her daughter’s arrest, when she called in to Guatemalan radio station Emisores Unidas to place the blame on her in-laws. “Everything comes from Sandra and Alvaro,” she complained.

The persecution of a member of one of Guatemala’s most powerful political families is another sign that the country’s legal system may be growing some teeth. This year has also seen the arrests of several top drug traffickers, including Elio and Waldemar Lorenzana and Juan Chamale.

A version of this article appeared on the Pan American Post.

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