With Firing of Tax Agency Chief, Guatemala’s Status Quo Makes Its Move

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Juan Francisco Solórzano Foppa, the crusading head of Guatemala’s notoriously graft-ridden tax agency, has been fired from his post, in the latest sign that the forces that control the levers of power in Guatemala are prepared to eliminate opponents of the corrupt system to which they belong.

Solórzano Foppa, or Foppa as everyone calls him, was fired from Guatemala’s Internal Revenue Service (Superintendencia de Administración Tributaria – SAT), after the Finance Ministry said he had missed the goals it set. No one believes this explanation. Foppa missed the goal by 0.3 percent during a year in which the SAT had historic returns.

“The firing of Solórzano Foppa can only be interpreted as the greatest sign of a return to the past,” La Prensa Libre, the country’s most important newspaper, wrote in an unsigned editorial, referring to a period in which corrupt networks dominated Guatemala.

Foppa probably knew he was a short-timer. He came from a revolutionary family, one that was accustomed to reversals of fortune and tragedy. His grandfather was a communist, a member of the Guatemala Worker’s Party (Partido de Trabajadores de Guatemala), a party that fought a dictatorship before helping to install a reformist president, Jacobo Arbenz. Arbenz was overthrown in 1954 by right-wing forces with the help of the United States.

Foppa’s grandmother, Alaíde Foppa, was a feminist, a professor, a celebrated poet and a human rights activist. She was kidnapped and disappeared, presumably by the army, in 1980.

Foppa’s parents were guerrillas. His father, who went by the name “Comandante Camilo,” was an original member of the Army of the Poor (Ejercito de Guatemala de los Pobres – EGP). He was killed by the army when the EGP was trying to set up urban militias in the early 1980s. Two uncles who were guerrillas were also killed in the war.

SEE ALSO: Special Investigation: Guatemala Elites and Organized Crime

Oddly, Foppa decided to work for the government. He cut his teeth at the Attorney General’s Office where he worked for 12 years. In 2013, he became director of the attorney general’s analysis section. There, he and others mapped out cases that had giant implications for the country. The most important of these was La Línea, a huge corruption scheme at the customs division of the SAT, which led to the resignation of then-President Otto Pérez Molina and his Vice President Roxana Baldetti in 2015. Pérez Molina and Baldetti are still in jail as La Línea trial labors through the system.

In 2016, the recently elected government of Jimmy Morales tapped Foppa to be Vice Minister of Security. Foppa was part of a group from the Attorney General’s Office that was selected for important positions in the government. This group included Francisco Rivas, who is now the Interior Minister.

These former prosecutors, along with Attorney General Thelma Aldana, have formed the bulwark of the anti-corruption wing of the government. They have worked hand in hand with the United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG) and its commissioner, the Colombian Iván Velásquez, to take down Guatemala’s deep state, much of which is comprised of former members of the military connected to criminal networks.

Some of these same military networks backed President Jimmy Morales, whose party, the National Convergence Front (Frente de Convergencia Nacional – FCN), is the vehicle of hard-line ex-military personnel. None of them could stomach having Foppa — a “guerrilla” as they termed it — as the head of security, so the Morales administration put him in the SAT.

Foppa did not fret. He focused on cleaning the system of sophisticated criminal networks like the one that created La Línea, and small-time crooks who simply took advantage of their bureaucratic power. He used the maps he and his team had drawn as an analyst in the Attorney General’s Office to identify perennially corrupt nodes, which were most often those designated by politicians.

Foppa also gave polygraphs to those who worked in top-tier positions. And he added an internal affairs unit, which started investigations into how these networks systematically bilked the government of millions of dollars. In all, 800 people were removed and hundreds of others simply left; another 1,500 entered in their place.

“I think it will be difficult for Guatemala to find [a replacement for Foppa] who has as much knowledge,” Attorney General Aldana told reporters after the head of the tax agency was dismissed.

Foppa also targeted the most blatant tax evaders. These included Aceros de Guatemala, or Guatemala Steel, one of the oldest and most venerable companies in the country. In early 2016, the SAT, the Attorney General’s Office and the CICIG announced the company had been systematically avoiding taxes; fifteen people, including the former SAT superintendent, were arrested and charged in the case. The company paid a fine of 783 million quetzales (more than $100 million).

But Foppa made some mistakes. Representatives of the private business sector, for example, complained that infractions quickly became criminal cases instead of remaining as administrative ones. And Foppa himself could have created a more productive relationship with the more progressive wing within the economic sector.

Foppa also seemed to worry little about his reputation or his future. During one meeting with his bosses at the ministry, he reportedly told them that “he did not care what others thought about him,” and proceeded to contradict their directives.

Foppa named and shamed in public as well, a dangerous practice in any business. In December, he tweeted out a list of companies that the SAT and the Attorney General’s Office suspected were “de cartón,” or “made of paper,” and demanded they come clean.

He also touched politically-charged subjects, tweeting recently that Guatemala needed to find a “formula” to resolve human rights violations during the war like that committed against his grandmother.

These overt political pronouncements did not sit well, in particular with the most conservative wing of the traditional elites and the former military inside of Morales’ government.

And when right-wing sectors attacked him, he attacked them back. After a leader of the cattle ranchers, who SAT targeted for evasion, said the country did not need “leftists” and shouted “out with Foppa” in a September public meeting with President Morales, the superintendent got back on Twitter.

“That an … evader like the cattle ranchers ask for my ouster is a compliment,” he wrote on Twitter. “They will pay sooner or later. Consider it done.”

SAT’s superintendent was not the only entity going after the country’s status quo. The Attorney General’s Office, the Interior Ministry and the CICIG were working numerous high-level cases that involved, among others, President Morales’ son, his brother and his political party.

The battles came to a head in August 2017, when, following a series of accusations against the FCN and another political party, Morales declared CICIG Commissioner Iván Velasquez persona non grata, and tried to have him removed from the country. The ploy failed but led to the mass resignation of Foppa, Interior Minister Rivera and others. Morales did not accept the resignations, and the top officials remained in their posts.

But it was clear that from that moment on that the anti-corruption wing of the Morales’ government has been counting its days. Things got worse when the Attorney General’s Office and CICIG implicated Alvaro Arzú, the former president and now mayor of Guatemala City, in a corruption scheme connected to the slain former army captain and so-called “king” of the prisons, Byron Lima. Arzú is powerful political and economic player and quickly aligned his forces. This month, his son became president of congress.

It’s in this context that Foppa was dismissed for missing SAT’s goals by 0.3 percent.

“I think there are certain sectors that are going to be very happy with this news,” he told a radio station just hours before he was fired.

Interior Minister Rivas looks like the next major figure of this reformist wing who faces the axe. There are whispers that he may preempt the move and apply for the job of attorney general. That’s because Thelma Aldana’s time in the Attorney General’s Office ends in May, and the anti-corruption wing needs a strong candidate … and a prayer.

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