A New Guatemala Attorney General Brings New Concerns

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Guatemala President Jimmy Morales has chosen a new attorney general whose judicial independence has been questioned, a decision that comes as little surprise given the administration’s ramped-up efforts to derail the fight against graft.

In a statement posted on an official Twitter account on May 3, the Guatemalan government announced that Morales had chosen María Consuelo Porras Argueta to replace current Attorney General Thelma Aldana.

“I am convinced that the new attorney general fulfills the professional characteristics and qualifications inherent to the position, in addition to having a plan that will permit the strengthening and broadening of the capacities of the Attorney General’s Office,” Morales wrote in the statement.

Aldana, and her predecessor Claudia Paz y Paz, led historic efforts to go after high level officials, former military officers and economic powers involved in graft, criminal schemes, and human rights violations. Ahead of the decision, several top officials in the Attorney General’s Office resigned their positions, although it’s not clear if those departures were in response to Porras Argueta’s impending appointment as head of the country’s top prosecutorial body.

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Porras Argueta, an alternate judge on the Constitutional Court, has been tentatively linked to elite networks with an interest in upending the hard-driving anti-corruption investigations carried out in recent years by the Attorney General’s Office and a United Nations-backed judicial support mission known as the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG).

Just minutes after the announcement of Porras Argueta’s selection, allies of the president began to express hope that she could roll back the progress made under her predecessor.

“The new attorney general should investigate Thelma Aldana,” said Vice President of Congress Felipe Alejos in comments reported by Canal Antigua.

Still, the new attorney general received an overall score of 75 points out of a possible total of 100 during the selection process, tied for the highest amongst the final candidates. And in a press conference, Porras Argueta said she would continue to cooperate with the CICIG.

For its part, the CICIG released a statement congratulating Porras Argueta and expressing “confidence” that the body would “continue working in close cooperation with the Attorney General’s Office in combating impunity, as well as strengthening judicial institutions and the culture of lawfulness in Guatemala.”

InSight Crime Analysis

The selection of Porras Argueta as Guatemala’s next attorney general was expected by many observers who spoke to InSight Crime during its months-long investigation of the process, particularly given the renewed vigor with which the Morales administration has dug in against investigations by the Attorney General’s Office and the CICIG that have ensnared the president and his allies.

In late 2017, after prosecutors announced an investigation into alleged illegal financing of Morales’ 2016 presidential run, the president sparked a political crisis by trying to expel CICIG commissioner Iván Velásquez. That move failed, but Congress nevertheless voted to protect Morales from further investigation and attempted to pass a reform to protect themselves from graft-related prosecutions. Congress was forced to retract the so-called “impunity pact” after widespread public outcry.

Last month, however, the Attorney General’s Office and the CICIG revealed a new round of illicit campaign financing accusations against Morales and his political party, the National Convergence Front (Frente de Convergencia Nacional – FCN). Local business leaders issued a public apology for their part in the scandal, lending credence to the allegations.

But rather than allowing justice to run its course, Morales and his allies launched an intense counterattack. Shortly after the announcement of the second round of the investigation, Morales published a video on Twitter accusing the Attorney General’s Office and CICIG of “abuse of authority, arrogance and violation of several of the country’s criminal laws” during a November 2016 raid on the presidential residence.

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Around the same time, a bizarre and baseless narrative about supposed Russian influence over the CICIG began to resurface, even sparking an official US government hearing on the issue. Before the announcement of Porras Argueta’s selection, some of the most vehement groups fighting against anti-corruption efforts had called for a march on May 5 to demand Velásquez’s removal from Guatemala.

To be sure, Porras Argueta’s appointment may be an effort by Morales to shore up his position in the face of several important blows to his political legitimacy and capital. The president been hit by multiple rounds of corruption allegations. He also lost a key ally in Álvaro Arzú, the former president of Guatemala and once powerful mayor of Guatemala City who died recently.

Still, Porras Argueta’s appointment is not the end of the story. While it seems Morales is attempting to protect himself from anti-graft investigations, Porras Argueta may prove to be an independent actor, much like the current Attorney General Aldana.

When Aldana was selected in 2014, InSight Crime declared it a “blow to anti-impunity campaigners” since Aldana was thought to be beholden to then-President Otto Pérez Molina and his criminal networks. Aldana, however, surprised her boss, who is now in jail along with a slew of his former cabinet members and others from his government facing charges of corruption.

* This article was written with the assistance of Felipe Puerta and Héctor Silva Ávalos

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