Guatemala President Fires Security Service Chiefs Accused of Spying

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The president of Guatemala has fired the two highest-ranking officials in the executive’s security service after they were accused of illegal surveillance, illustrating the persistence of clandestine networks of security officials seeking influence in Guatemalan politics.

On September 5, President Jimmy Morales dismissed the head of the Secretary of Administrative and Security Matters of the President (Secretaría de Asuntos Administrativos y de Seguridad de la Presidencia – SAAS), Jorge López Jiménez, and his deputy César Sagastume, elPeriódico reported.

In a press release, the president said that he had fired the two men because the Attorney General’s Office is investigating their suspected involvement in illegally spying on journalists, human rights defenders, business owners and politicians.

The statement said the president would offer “any element that would contribute to the investigation and the search for the truth.”

Members of congress belonging to the opposition party National Unity of Hope (Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza – UNE) denounced the alleged surveillance in August, and accused President Morales’ confidant Herbert Armando Melgar Padilla of being behind the operations.

Melgar Padilla has a long history of involvement in Guatemalan politics. But his most recent foray into the political realm came around the time UNE raised questions about the alleged spying at SAAS; soon thereafter, a sitting congressman abruptly stepped down and Melgar Padilla took his place.

Morales responded to speculation that the move was meant to help Melgar Padilla attain parliamentary immunity by saying that his administration would “never protect anyone.”

Melgar Padilla served as Morales’ security chief during his campaign and subsequently became an advisor to the president. Citing “officials close to the presidency,” elPeriódico reported that López Jiménez was the public face of the SAAS, but Melgar Padilla was the one who actually controlled the agency. The journal also reported that Melgar Padilla’s name appears in a criminal complaint filed with the Attorney General’s Office, but he continues to serve in congress and has not been formally charged.

InSight Crime Analysis

It would come as little surprise if it were proven that members of Guatemala’s presidential security service were engaged in illegal spying operations. Such activities have a historical precedence stretching at least back to the civil war that wracked the country from the 1960s to the 1990s. During that time, the presidential security and intelligence service known as the Estado Mayor Presidencial (EMP) surveilled and even tortured, disappeared and killed political opponents.

Although the EMP was abolished in 2003, similar underground structures, known as Illegal Clandestine Security Apparatuses (Cuerpos Ilegales y Aparatos Clandestinos de Seguridad – CIACS), continued to exert influence in Guatemalan politics. These CIACS often maintained ties with criminal organizations that sought to benefit from close relationships to powerful political actors.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of CIACS

It is an encouraging sign that Morales has removed López Jiménez and Sagastume from their positions, and that the president has expressed a willingness to cooperate with the ongoing investigation into allegations of illegal surveillance by SAAS. Rooting out such networks is essential to avoiding a repetition of the abuses of the past. However, Morales has remained ambivalent about Melgar Padilla’s possible involvement in illegal spying, and it remains to be seen whether the president’s attitude toward the investigations changes as they progress.

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