Guatemalan authorities have charged a judge with accepting bribes in a major customs fraud case, an indication of the challenges that lie ahead for Guatemala’s justice system, as the courts prepare to process several huge corruption investigations.
In April, Judge Marta Josefina Sierra de Stalling sent sixteen defendents to jail for pre-trial detention, in connection to their alleged involvement in the massive customs fraud scheme known as “La Linea.” This customs fraud scandal later resulted in the downfall of Guatemala’s president and vice president, who helped run the criminal network.
In May, however, the United Nation’s International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) accused Sierra de Stalling of taking bribes from lawyers representing six of the defendants, in exchange for Sierra sentencing their clients to house arrest rather than remaining in prison. According to El Periodico, Sierra de Stalling’s son, Roberto, allegedly served as the middleman between Sierra de Stalling and the attorneys.
After reviewing intercepted telephone conversations and other information compiled by investigators, Guatemala’s Attorney General’s Office says it now has sufficient evidence to formally charge Sierra de Stalling with malfeasance and corruption.
Throughout the investigation, Sierra de Stalling herself had been jailed and then granted house arrest, but she was ordered back to prison earlier this week.
InSight Crime Analysis
Like the indictments of those involved in the La Linea scandal, the leveling of formal charges against Sierra de Stalling is more evidence of the Guatemalan justice system’s growing ability to build cases against corrupt officials. On the other hand, Sierra de Stalling’s alleged actions also highlight how easily investigative work by prosecutors and police can be undermined by corrupt judges in a courtroom.
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Previous CICIG investigations have uncovered other networks of corrupt lawyers and judges who, as in Sierra’s case, will swap bribes in exchange for favorable rulings. The attorneys of such firms — which the CICIG nicknamed “law firms of impunity” — will connect their clients with corrupt judges, who provide defendants with preferential treatment in exchange for bribes.
It is encouraging that prosecutors from the Attorney General’s Office, with help from CICIG, were able to put together the evidence needed to bring formal charges against Sierra de Stalling. But it’s also safe to say that reformers have a long road ahead of them, in terms of ensuring that other top cases aren’t derailed by corruption in the courtroom.