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Guatemalan Customs Fraud Scandal Taints Lawyers, Judges

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In Guatemala's Caso SAT scandal, a probe reveals lawyers bribed judges to favor organized crime.

On May 8, Guatemalan authorities arrested three lawyers representing defendants in a massive customs tax fraud case known as Caso SAT that has thrown the current administration into a state of disarray and forced Vice President Roxana Baldetti to resign.

The UN Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala—CICIG), which launched the investigation into the La Linea corruption network, accused lawyers José Arturo Morales, known as “Chepito,” Jorge Luis Escobar and Ruth Emilsa Trigueros of running a “law firm of impunity” that bribed corrupt judges to make unjustified decisions favoring organized crime groups. 

A total of 27 individuals—including the director and former director of Guatemala’s Superintendencia de Administración Tributaria (Tax Administration Superintendency—SAT)—Álvaro Omar Franco Chacón and Carlos Enrique Muñoz Roldán, have been arrested as part of the wider investigation into La Linea.

Wiretap recordings show how six other leading defendants in the case—Francisco Javier Ortiz, known as “Teniente Jerez,” Salvador Estuardo González, known as “Eco,” Miguel Ángel Aldana, Mónica Patricia Jáuregui, José Rolando Gil, and Carlos Ixtuc—used the three lawyers to bribe the judge presiding over the case, Marta Josefina Sierra González de Stalling, in exchange for obtaining release on bail and unguarded house arrest instead of prison.

According to investigators, instead of being remanded in custody, Gil and Ixtuc paid a bail amount of 250,000 quetzales ($32,000) each, whereas the organization’s alleged ringleaders, González, Aldana, Jáuregui and Ortiz, paid 200,000 quetzales ($25,000) each.

González became president of a news corporation that owns Siglo 21 and Al Dia newspapers in July 2013, and was accused by a Siglo 21 journalist of pressuring Siglo 21 editors to publish articles portraying President Otto Pérez Molina and Baldetti in a favorable light.

Ortiz had already been arrested in 1996 for his alleged involvement in a powerful contraband ring made up of corrupt military, police and government officials and led by the late Salvadoran smuggler, Alfredo Moreno Molina. According to a 2003 report published by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), the organization, known as “La Red Moreno” (the Moreno network), confiscated contraband shipments and forced their owners to pay bribes in order to recover the goods.

“The customs fraud structures that were dismantled yesterday have operated since the Moreno network in 1995, and never disappeared,” said CICIG Commissioner Ivan Velásquez during a press conference.

In light of the evidence that she accepted bribes from the La Linea defendants, on May 8, CICIG filed a request for Judge Sierra González de Stalling to be removed from the case and impeached.

Sierra de Stalling’s sister-in-law, Blanca Aida Stalling Dávila—who is president of the criminal chamber of the Supreme Court—was also mentioned in wiretap recordings. However, Stalling Dávila insists that the names of the two judges were mixed up and voluntarily agreed to cooperate with investigators in order to clear her name.

The wiretap recordings also show that businessman Luis Mendizábal, who is currently on the run, was part of La Linea and had assured Ortiz on April 16 that he would soon be set free. “We are here, we haven’t abandoned you at all. You know that. Blanca Stalling is behind all of this and they [the corrupt law firm], have very good connections, we’re working on that,” Mendizábal reportedly told Ortiz in one of the recorded conversations.

According to CICIG’s investigators, the members of La Linea periodically met in a clothes boutique owned by Mendizábal.

Mendizábal is a controversial figure who was involved in the production of a video in 2009 in which the late Rodrigo Rosenberg, a well-known lawyer, publicly accused former President Álvaro Colom and his wife, Sandra Torres, of plotting to have him killed. However, a CICIG investigation later cleared Colom and Torres of any involvement in the case and proved that Rosenberg had orchestrated his own killing.

“To successfully convict the powerful figures behind the alleged fraud ring, the CICIG and prosecutors will first have to overcome deeply ingrained judicial corruption, which has long served to ensure such elites enjoy widespread impunity,” reads an analysis report on the La Linea case published by Insight Crime.

On May 7, as part of a separate investigation conducted by CICIG, the Supreme Court agreed to impeach Judge Jisela Reinoso, who is accused of money laundering and illicit enrichment.

CICIG’s attempts to prosecute corrupt lawyers and judges follows from a 2012 report that identified 18 judges that consistently made controversial decisions favoring organized crime groups.

*Louisa Reynolds is an independent journalist based in Guatemala. Her work has been published in a wide range of local and international publications. She is the 2014-2015 International Women's Media Foundation Elizabeth Neuffer Fellow. Follow her on Twitter: @ReynoldsLouisa.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Guatemala, Caso SAT, corruption

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