May 18, 2015
Maldonado Aguirre was not originally included in the shortlist of candidates that President Otto Pérez Molina sent to Congress. The original list included police reform commissioner Adela Camacho de Torrebiarte, Minister of Labor Carlos Contreras and Adrian Zapata, executive secretary of the Cabinet for Rural Development. But due to a constitutional impediment, Contreras was replaced by PP Congressman Oliverio García Rodas.
However, if Congressman García Rodas left his seat in Congress, he would have been replaced by former Vice President Roxana Baldetti’s personal assistant, Daniela Beltranena, which would have exacerbated the widespread discontent with the current administration. This forced Pérez Molina to remove García Rodas from the shortlist and replace him with Maldonado Aguirre.
In the final vote count, 115 members of Congress voted for Maldonado Aguirre, 14 voted against him and 29 were reported absent.
May 14, 2015
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.
May 13, 2015
Guatemalan Vice President Roxana Baldetti resigned last Friday, ending a tumultuous three weeks of protests after an investigation raised questions about her possible involvement in a high-profile corruption scandal known as Caso SAT. Baldetti’s former private secretary, Juan Carlos Monzón, was recently accused of organizing a corruption network targeting Guatemala´s tax collection agency—the Superintendencia de Administración Tributaria (SAT)—and is now at large.
President Otto Pérez Molina praised Baldetti’s “brave decision” in a press conference on Friday. He said, “This was a voluntary, personal decision of the vice president. It was thoughtful, difficult, courageous, but consistent with her principles and values.”
The vice president was facing a congressional impeachment hearing this week, after the Supreme Court unanimously ruled to send one of the four motions filed against Baldetti about her possible involvement in Caso SAT to Congress.
Baldetti’s resignation marked the culmination of a difficult period. In March of this year, she was left on the sidelines of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Guatemala. She received further scrutiny after the disappearance of Monzón, who is suspected of masterminding the SAT’s fraud. By the time Guatemala’s business elite from the Comité de Asociaciones Agrícolas, Comerciales, Industriales y Financieras (Coordinating Committee of Agriculture, Commercial, Industrial and Financial Associations—CACIF) withdrew their support for Baldetti, the writing was on the wall. A few days later, the Conferencia Episcopal de Guatemala (Episcopal Conference of Guatemala—CEG) publically condemned fraud committed by the SAT.
May 1, 2015
Tens of thousands of Guatemalans protested last Saturday, calling for the resignation of Vice President Roxana Baldetti for her alleged role in Caso SAT, a scandal involving the defrauding of hundreds of millions of quetzales from the Guatemalan government.
On April 16, Guatemalan authorities arrested 22 people in the culmination of an eight month investigation by the Fiscalía Especial contra la Impunidad (Special Anti-Impunity Prosecutor’s Bureau—FECI)—part of the Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala—CICIG) and the Ministerio Publico (Public Ministry—MP). A number of officials from the Superintendencia de Administración Tributaria (SAT), Guatemala’s tax collection agency, were detained, including the head of SAT, Omar Franco, his predecessor, Carlos Muñoz, and the private secretary of Baldetti, Juan Carlos Monzón.
CICIG was investigating an alleged corruption network called “La Linea” (The Line) that targeted Guatemala’s customs system. Businesses that had their goods in two ports, Puerto Quetzal or Puerto Santo Tomás, would call a certain cellphone number to negotiate the rate to have their property released after passing through Customs. A review of 500 containers revealed that 40 percent of customs taxes would be paid to the state, 30 percent to the fraudsters and the remaining 30 percent was a discount to the company.
April 15, 2015
The murder of Indigenous activist Pascual Pablo Francisco, whose body showed signs of torture when he was found dead on March 27 in the northern department of Huehuetenango, is the latest episode in a long-standing conflict between the Guatemalan government and the Mayan Q’anjob’al community over the construction of a hydroelectric dam on the K’anbalam River.
The conflict dates back to 2011, when Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina’s government granted the company Hidro Santa Cruz, a subsidiary of Spanish corporation Hidralia Energía, a license to build the dam. Indigenous communities that would be affected by the project say that they were not consulted—a violation of International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 169 on the rights of Indigenous and tribal people, which states, among other things, that governments should establish or maintain procedures to consult affected Indigenous communities “before undertaking or permitting any programmes for the exploration or exploitation of […] resources pertaining to their lands.”
The government has since held a series of meetings with community leaders conducted by the Oficina Nacional de Diálogo (National Office for Dialogue) to resolve the conflict, but participants have been unable to reach an agreement.
Meanwhile, two other licenses were subsequently granted to the company Promoción de Desarrollos Hídricos, S.A. (PDHSA) in the nearby municipality of San Mateo Ixtatán. The Ministry of Energy and Mining is also evaluating three other license applications for hydroelectric dams to be built in the municipalities of San Mateo Ixtatán, Santa Eulalia and San Pedro Soloma. According to a recent report published by Contrapoder magazine, if these applications are successful, Huehuetenango would become the third most important department in Guatemala in terms of hydropower.
April 2, 2015
On Wednesday, nearly 800 people filed a $1 billion lawsuit against Johns Hopkins University for its role in a research study that infected more than 1,600 Guatemalans with sexually transmitted diseases in the 1940s and 1950s. The plaintiffs include family members of individuals who died from complications from diseases they contracted during the study, which sought to study penicillin’s effect on the spread of gonorrhea, chancres and syphilis among sex workers, mental patients, prisoners, and soldiers.
The research, known as the U.S. Public Health Service Sexually Transmitted Disease Inoculation Study of 1946-1948, came to light in 2010, prompting apologies from President Barack Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to then-Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom. The next year, a presidential commission on bioethical research called the study a “gross violations of ethics,” and said the experiments constituted “especially egregious moral wrongs because many of the individuals involved held positions of public institutional responsibility.”
Such individuals included the U.S. surgeon general, the U.S. attorney general, Army and Navy medical officials, the presidents of the American Medical Association and the National Academy of Sciences, and experts from Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and the Universities of Pennsylvania and Rochester, who participated on a government committee that reviewed the research proposal and approved it for funding.
Johns Hopkins spokesperson Kim Hoppe called the lawsuit an “attempt by the plaintiffs’ counsel to exploit a historic tragedy for monetary gain.” Robert Mathias, the lead counsel for Johns Hopkins, called the lawsuit "baseless,” saying the university “did not initiate, pay for or direct” the study. A Rockefeller spokesperson called the experiments "morally repugnant," but said the foundation would fight the lawsuit, stating that it had no role in the study’s planning, funding or execution.
The lawsuit, filed in Baltimore Circuit Court, also named the Rockefeller Foundation and pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb as defendants. The victims’ lawyer, Paul Bekman, said the case was about “accountability and responsibility.”
Wednesday’s lawsuit isn’t the first related to the nearly 70-year-old study. Victims and their families filed a class-action lawsuit against the U.S. government in 2012, but the government rejected the suit on the grounds that the U.S. government can’t be sued for damages it caused abroad.
March 17, 2015
Three Guatemalan journalists were killed and another seriously injured last week, exposing the high price to pay for reporting in the nation’s provinces. All three were murdered in the department of Suchitepéquez about 96 miles from the capital, Guatemala City.
Danilo López, a 38-year-old correspondent for national newspaper Prensa Libre, and Federico Salazar, a reporter for Radio Nuevo Mundo, were killed just yards from police and government officials in the central park of Mazatenango. The two were covering an event commemorating International Women’s Day. The suspected gunmen escaped on a motorbike, but one of them, Sergio Waldemar Cardona Reyes, was captured hours later. Another suspected gunman, Artemio de Jesús Ramírez Torres, was apprehended last Friday in Champerico, an hour from Mazatenango.
According to local cable television presenter Marvin Israel Túnchez, who was taken to the hospital with gunshot wounds to his arm and leg, López was the target of the assassination. López’s investigations in 2013 into public works in the department of Suchitepéquez had revealed 2.8 million quetzales ($368,000) worth of non-existent work.
March 16, 2015
During a recent visit to Guatemala on March 2, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden praised the achievements made by the UN-sponsored Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala—CICIG). He also urged Honduran and Salvadoran leaders to follow the Guatemalan example by replicating the CICIG model in their own countries or to consider the creation of a regional CICIG.
However, Central American leaders do not share Biden’s enthusiastic support for CICIG, particularly Guatemalan president Otto Pérez Molina, who refuses to renew its mandate for the third time. Civil society groups that regard CICIG as the last remaining bulwark of judicial independence in Guatemala say this does not bode well for the country’s fight against organized crime and corruption.
During their recent meeting, Biden urged President Pérez Molina to renew CICIG’s mandate—which expires on September 3, absent another extension—and stressed that Central American leaders must cooperate with efforts to reduce levels of impunity in the region as a condition for receiving a $1 billion aid package from the U.S.
“The work of organizations like the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala are so important,” Biden wrote on his official Twitter account.
March 11, 2015
Last Friday, Judge Claudia Escobar announced in a statement that a number of Guatemalan judges are being harassed and persecuted after speaking out against corruption during the election of the new Supreme Court and Appellate Court magistrates in 2014. The retaliatory measures taken against them, she said, include being forcibly transferred to remote locations or unfairly dismissed.
On October 5, 2014, Judge Escobar, who had been re-elected as Appellate Court magistrate days earlier, resigned just before being sworn in for a second period, and handed over to the authorities an audiotape of Congressman Gudy Rivera seeking her support in a case implicating Vice President Roxana Baldetti in exchange for Rivera’s support during the nomination process. Judge Escobar’s resignation in protest against Congressman Rivera’s attempt to bribe her came after a highly contentious nomination process that was mired in corruption and influence peddling allegations against the members of the nomination committee in charge of assessing candidates and submitting a shortlist to Congress, which made the final choice.
More than 50 judges, as well as Human Rights Ombudsman Jorge de León Duque, supported Judge Escobar’s call for an annulment of the appointments and the initiation of a new nomination process.
Judge Escobar became an overnight heroine, and in the face of a huge public opinion backlash against the country’s judicial institutions, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court (CC) temporarily suspended all of the nominations. However, on November 20, the CC controversially endorsed the results after three out of five CC magistrates, including the CC’s president, Roberto Molina Barreto, voted against the annulment of the appointments, arguing that there was insufficient evidence of irregularities during the nomination process.
March 3, 2015
Former President Alfonso Portillo returned to Guatemala on February 25, 2015 after spending just nine months of a six-year sentence at the Federal Correctional Institution in Englewood, Colorado.
In May 2014, he was convicted of conspiring to use U.S. banks to launder a $2.5 million bribe he received from the Taiwanese government in exchange for
Guatemala’s diplomatic recognition of the island in its long-standing dispute with China.
A crowd of sympathizers gathered at La Aurora airport hours before his plane was due to land in Guatemala, carrying banners with messages of support. During his administration (2000-2004), Portillo imposed price controls on basic foodstuffs, subsidized electricity tariffs for the poor, increased the minimum wage and challenged monopolies. As a result, despite his tainted past, he still enjoys considerable support among disenfranchised rural and urban Guatemalans.
“Portillo is one of the few politicians who’ve understood that putting food on the table is the standard by which a politician is judged,” explains political analyst Christians Castillo, of the the University of San Carlos’ Instituto de Problemas Nacionales (Institute of National Problems—IPNUSAC). According to Castillo, Portillo is seen as “a Robin Hood figure who steals to defend the rights of the masses.”
A poll carried out by Borge y Asociados for Contrapoder magazine in August 2014 revealed that two out of three Guatemalans would re-elect Portillo out of all of the country’s former presidents since the peace agreements were signed in 1996 (the survey was hypothetical, as the Guatemalan Constitution forbids re-election). Guatemala’s general elections are scheduled for September 13, 2015.