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Righting Guatemala’s Broken Judicial Selection Process

October 16, 2014

by Mirte Postema

This year has been important for Guatemala’s judicial system. A number of judicial posts are due to be filled in 2014, and so far this year, a new electoral tribunal and attorney general have already taken office.

In July, the selection process for Supreme Court and appeals court magistrates began. However, these two selection processes were rife with irregularities and controversy. On October 9, Guatemala’s Constitution Court (CC) issued a provisional ruling suspending the results of the two selection processes, thus taking an important step towards compliance with international standards and national law.

Although Congress generally appoints judges in Guatemala, the selection process for judges and magistrates involves special comisiones de postulación (selection commissions), which provide Congress with a shortlist of possible candidates. The commissions are made up of representatives from various areas of the legal community: law school deans, judges and lawyers.

This mechanism—which is unique to Guatemala—was designed to depoliticize the selection process. However, it is clear that the model is no longer working as intended. The commissions have been influenced by  special interests—including deans from new, privately-owned universities —and there are currently no tools to adequately counteract them. Meanwhile, national and international organizations, such as DPLF, CEJIL and the Open Society Justice Initiative, have reported that Guatemala’s judicial selection process violates national and international norms.

Guatemala’s 2014 judicial selection processes demonstrate that a profound modification of the proceedings is overdue. The more robust selection criteria developed by the CC in judgment 2143-2014—which requires commissions to research the candidates’ qualifications, interview the candidates, and explain their votes—were largely ignored by the commission to select appeals court judges, and only marginally adhered to by the Supreme Court selection commission. The selection processes were also compromised by conflicts of interest, because some commission members were candidates in the other selection process.

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Tags: Guatemala, Judicial Reform

Arrest of Director of Prisons Helps Take Down Extortion Ring

September 10, 2014

by Nic Wirtz

Guatemala’s Director of Prisons, Edgar Camargo, was arrested on Wednesday, September 3, helping to bring down an alleged extortion group that raked in millions of dollars, property and luxury cars.

Also charged were the former deputy director of prisons, Edy Fischer, and Byron Lima Oliva, the purported mastermind of the operation, who was serving time at Pavoncito prison for his role in the 1998 assassination of Bishop Juan Jose Gerardi.

More than 800 policemen descended on Pavoncito last Wednesday, in one of 15 coordinated nationwide prison raids.  Lima Oliva was transferred to Brigada Militar Mariscal Zavala, a maximum security military prison. Camargo later joined him there, after receiving treatment for hypertension at a private hospital in Guatemala City.

Camargo was named director of prisons in February 2013, after the dismissal of José Luis González Pérez.  González Pérez left office after Lima Oliva was found in a convoy of cars last year, celebrating with various jail officials and women after being allowed out for dental treatment.

Appearing in front of Judge Miguel Ángel Gálvez, a judge in Guatemala’s Corte de Mayor Riesgo (High Risk Court), Camargo appeared unconcerned about the allegations.  "He who owes nothing fears nothing," he said.

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Tags: Guatemala, CICIG, Byron Lima Oliva

CICIG Investigation Could Be a Game-Changer for Guatemala

September 9, 2014

by Mirte Postema

On September 3, 2014, Guatemala's director of the penitentiary system, Edgar Camargo, and its former deputy director, Edy Fisher, were arrested—as were several others—for their participation in a crime ring run by a convicted felon from inside a Guatemalan prison.

These arrests were produced following an investigation done by the Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (United Nations International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala—CICIG), which is tasked with the investigation and disbanding of illicit and clandestine security structures in the country. The investigation (which is still ongoing) revealed that a convicted felon, Byron Lima Oliva, was the real authority in the Guatemalan prison system.

CICIG reported that Lima Oliva had unheard-of privileges, such as access to phones and the Internet, frequently received guests, and left prison when he wished—and documented all this on his Facebook page. Lima's power apparently extended to running a textile factory in Pavoncito prison with the labor of other prisoners, and arranging for benefits—such as cell phones, food, conjugal visits, and the transfers of detainees from one prison to another.

Those transfers provide a good example of how the crime ring operated: Lima would receive a detainee's request. A sum of money would then be paid to Lima's romantic partner, Alejandra Reyes (now also detained) in the spa she operated in Guatemala City. A small part of that money would be paid to Camargo, who then authorized the transfer. During his imprisonment, Lima thus acquired a large amount of luxury properties, vehicles and horses.

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Tags: prison system, Guatemala, Byron Lima Oliva

Guatemalan Armed Forces Chief Dies in Helicopter Crash

August 21, 2014

by AQ Online

General Rudy Israel Ortiz Ruiz was one of five military officials involved in a helicopter crash Wednesday morning.  After the Fuerza Aérea Guatemalteca (Guatemalan Air Force—FAG) helicopter Bell 206 took off from Huehuetenango for a routine fly-over inspection of units along the Mexican border, the pilot rerouted from landing in Ixquisis to Las Palmas due to inclement weather before crashing into a mountainous forest area 1.2 miles from the El Aguacate village.

In the helicopter with Ortiz were Brigadier General Braulio Rene Mayen Garcia, Colonel Rony Adolfo Anleu Del Aguila, Major Selvin Ricardo Raymundo, and the pilot, Colonel Juan de Dios Lopez Gomez. According to Defense Minister Manuel Lopez, there were no survivors. Due to the terrain of the crash location, it took over four hours for soldiers and civilians to recover the bodies. Several helicopters were sent by the FAG and the Policía Nacional Civil (National Civil Police—PNC), but the bodies had to be transported by foot to an air base in Huehuetenango before they could be air-lifted to the capital.

Huehuetenango is known for being a drug trafficking route plagued by Mexican and Guatemalan drug cartels. However, the helicopter was reportedly in good condition and there is no reason to suspect foul play, although there is an investigation underway.

Ortiz, 51, had served in the armed forces for over 32 years and had been chief of the Estado Mayor de la Defensa Nacional (General Staff—EMDN) since July 2013. Many speculated that Ortiz was in line to become the next minister of defense. Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina gave his condolences to the families of Ortiz and the other officers, praising them for their service to the nation, and declared three days of mourning for the death of the five officials.

Tags: General Rudy Ortiz, Guatemala, Huehuetenango

Report Urges Immediate Action on Guatemala-Honduras Border

June 5, 2014

by AQ Online

The International Crisis Group (ICG) released a report on Wednesday detailing the increase in drug-related violence on the Guatemala-Honduras border and calling for immediate action on the part of both national governments to combat the situation.

The large network of narco-trafficking gangs in the region have been competing over increasingly disputed drug routes that move substances through Central America, up to Mexico and eventually to the United States. According to the ICG report, since the 2009 coup d’état that unseated former President Manuel Zelaya, Honduras has become a primary entrance point for such drugs trafficked through Guatemala by smaller outfits with ties to Mexican cartels like the Zetas.

The report outlines eight recommendations of steps the Guatemalan and Honduran governments can take to improve the current situation, including implementing a long-term violence prevention strategy and working with countries that have pursued similar strategies like Colombia, Peru and Ecuador. The report also advises both governments to send health workers, educators, community organizers and other members of civil society to develop the border area and provide opportunities for the local population that has been impacted by violence.

“Tackling criminal violence requires sustained, concerted efforts to promote local development and guarantee rule of law,” said Mary Speck, project director for the ICG’s Mexico and Central American project.

Tags: International Crisis Group, Guatemala, Honduras, Cross-Border Violence

Paz y Paz Sidelined in Guatemala Attorney General Vote

May 5, 2014

by Nic Wirtz

Guatemala’s Comisión de Postulación, a national selection committee, announced the six nominees for country’s next attorney general  last week, with the name of current attorney general Claudia Paz y Paz conspicuously absent from the list. Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina will make his choice after interviewing the remaining candidates, and must announce a new attorney general by May 17.

Paz y Paz’s exclusion has generated outrage in Guatemala and abroad from human rights groups who say the snub was politically motivated. “We knew that the prosecutor [Paz y Paz] had many enemies, but we hoped the Commission would be independent,” said Helen Myrna Mack, of the Myrna Mack Foundation. “I think everybody was surprised and disappointed.  It shows the system lacks credibility, it means that there’s no autonomy.”

Diego Álvarez, the spokesman for the Comisión Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (Commission against Impunity in GuatemalaCICIG) said, “We are surprised that Paz y Paz is not on the list of six candidates, despite her excellent performance during her term, along with her classification in the process.”

After an intensive interview before the Comisión de Postulación, Paz y Paz’s score (69 out of 100, later amended to 73) placed her first among the 26 competing candidates.  The Commission reviewed each candidate’s work experience and credentials and asked the candidates generic questions, followed by a round of more personal, specific questioning. The candidates also completed a written law exam.

However, Paz y Paz’s true test was whether the 14 members of the Comisión de Postulación would cast their vote for her. Milton Argueta, the dean of the faculty of law at Universidad Francisco Marroquin, reported that he had received death threats prior to making his vote, and two text messages to his cell phone suggested that his wife would be murdered if he remained on the Commission, but he remained.

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Tags: Guatemala, Claudia Paz y Paz, Human Rights

Portillo Admits Guilt, Awaits Sentence

March 21, 2014

by Nic Wirtz

On Tuesday former Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo plead guilty to a money-laundering case in New York City federal court and will be sentenced to four to six years in federal prison on June 23.

In exchange, prosecutor Preet Bharara has agreed to drop additional charges against Portillo that could result in a life-long sentence behind bars in the United States. 

Portillo was extradited in a surprise morning operation in May 2013, one that he was unaware of until an hour before he was flown out of the country.  Since then, he has been held at the Metropolitan Detention Center in New York.

U.S. District Judge Robert P. Patterson will officially announce the sentence later this year, but Portillo’s lawyers are hopeful that his sentence will account for time served, given that he has spent the last 50 months in jail. However, as the majority of his jail time was spent in the Guatemalan system, the final outcome rests in the hands of Judge Patterson.

A far cry from the initial charges of misappropriating an excess of $70 million dollars, current charges indict Portillo for receiving five checks from the Taiwanese Embassy in Guatemala, totaling $2.5 million dollars.

“I am guilty. I knew at the time that what I was doing was wrong, and I apologize for my crimes, take responsibility for them, and accept the consequences of my actions,” Portillo told the court through an interpreter.

"I understood that, in exchange for these payments, I would use my influence to have Guatemala continue to recognize Taiwan diplomatically," the former president said.

Speaking in defense of his client, David Rosenfield told the court, “He is a good and decent person, with an abiding love for the people and country of Guatemala.  [This is] an aberration in an otherwise unblemished life.” 

However, Rosenfield’s statement will be highly suspect to biographers of Portillo’s life, given that he remains the lead suspect of a double murder case in Mexico that took place in 1982. During the fiesta de la Reina de Independencia, a homecoming party in Zumpango del Rio, Portillo was involved in a disagreement during a late night trip to buy alcohol. The confrontation left two students dead, another injured and the future Guatemalan president on the lam, back to his native country.  A Mexican judge declared the case “inactive” in 1995 but Portillo’s claims of innocence by virtue of self-defense are difficult to uphold given that the case never went to trial.

Astonishingly, Portillo went on to make political capital out of the situation in his 1999 presidential campaign, claiming that strong, no-nonsense leaders are able to make tough decisions, such as fleeing from country to country to avoid capture.

A month after Portillo’s presidency finished in January 2004, he made his second escape from prosecution.  With the Ministerio Publico (MP) looking to pick him up on corruption charges, he fled to Mexico with four passports in his possession.

He was eventually captured in Puerto Barrios in 2010, hiding in a boat about to set sail for Belize. Since then he has been in military prison, from where he successfully beat the 2011 case of embezzlement of the Ministry of Defense brought against him.

The scandal has placed Guatemala’s relationship with Taiwan in question.  Foreign minister Fernando Carrera has admitted that there is a $1 million annual rolling fund from the Taiwanese financing the redecoration of the ministry and the purchase of new vehicles. However, there have been calls to ditch ties with Taiwan and attempt to open diplomacy with mainland China, a relationship that currently does not exist.

Journalist Oscar Clemente Marroquín revealed that Portillo had been receiving gifts from the Taiwanese since the 1970s, including luxuries such as all-expenses-paid trips to five star hotels in Taiwan. “Almost all (Guatemalan) ambassadors told me to accept the offers.  I never accepted these invitations because I always thought it was stupid for our country to allow itself to be used as a pawn in Taiwan’s political struggles with China,” said Marroquín.

Although Portillo was the one eventually caught, the question of the day is: how many other Guatemalan presidents have taken similar bribes over the past 40 years?

Tags: Guatemala, Alfonso Portillo, money-laundering

Guatemala’s Attorney General Faces Legal Fight to Stay in Office

February 12, 2014

by Nic Wirtz

Last week’s decision by Guatemala’s Corte de Constitucionalidad (Constitutional Court—CC) to reduce Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz’s term in office has been met by a wave of criticism and legal challenges.

The internationally-recognized Paz y Paz, who was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2013, is credited with improving the investigative work of the Ministerio Publico (Public Ministry) and reducing the rate of impunity in Guatemala from 95 percent in 2008 to 70 percent in 2013 (measured by the amount of cases that end in a prosecution, not necessarily a conviction).  Paz y Paz also created Guatemala’s Cortes de Alta Riesgo (High Risk Courts), permitting vetted judges with international training to receive certain protections and resources so they can preside over difficult cases.

On February 5, however, the CC ruled that Paz y Paz must step down by May 2014, though her term would not have ended until this December. The court justified the decision by claiming that Paz y Paz’s term officially began in May 2010, when former Attorney General Arnulfo Conrado Reyes Sagastume was removed from office due to irregularities in his selection process. Paz y Paz took his place in December 2010.

Supporters of Paz y Paz claim that the CC’s decision—initiated by the prominent lawyer and businessman Ricardo Sagastume Morales , who is a member of the right-wing Frente de Convergencia Nacional (FCN)—is in itself illegal, based on transitional guidelines handed down in 1993. Article 251 of Guatemala’s Constitution clearly states that the attorney general’s term will last four years and that the attorney general can only be removed from office by the president for “duly established cause.”

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Tags: Guatemala, Claudia Paz y Paz

Monday Memo: Chile-Peru Maritime Dispute -- CELAC Summit -- Argentina's Economy -- São Paulo Protests -- Belize-Guatemala Agreement

January 27, 2014

by AQ Online

Likely top stories this week: the International Court of Justice will rule on the Chile-Peru Maritime border; the CELAC Summit begins on Tuesday in Havana, Cuba; Argentina begins easing restrictions on purchasing US dollars; protesters of the World Cup clash with police in Sao Paulo; Belize and Guatemala sign an agreement at the OAS.

International Court to Rule on Chile-Peru Maritime Dispute: The United Nations’ International Court of Justice in The Hague is due to make a decision today on Peru and Chile’s disputed maritime border. The ruling will decide which country owns 38,000 square kilometers (14,670 square miles) of ocean, which includes one of the world’s richest fishing grounds with an annual catch of $200 million. If Peru wins the dispute, some 2,000 Chilean fishermen fear they could lose their jobs. Presidents of both countries have each said they will adhere to whatever decision the court makes.

CELAC Summit Begins in Havana: World leaders from around the hemisphere are traveling to Havana, Cuba this week for the two-day Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) summit, which begins tomorrow. Thirty-two heads of state will be attending the summit, including presidents Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina, Evo Morales of Bolivia and Raul Castro of Cuba, among others. Dozens of dissidents have been detained in a new “wave of political repression” ahead of the summit. Activist Guillermo Farinas has been kept under house arrest for three days, and as many as 100 members of the Ladies in White have been arrested to prevent them from attending a forum on human rights on Tuesday.

Argentina Lifts Restrictions on Purchasing U.S. Dollars: Argentina’s Economy Minister Alex Kicollof announced on Friday that it was relaxing restrictions on the purchase of U.S. dollars starting Monday. The decision came amid a 28 percent inflation rate and the sharpest slide in the value of the Argentina peso since the 2002 economic collapse. However, in an interview published by Pagina 12 on Sunday, Kicillof said that the lowering of the tax rate on credit card purchases made in U.S. dollars from 35 percent to 20 percent would not happen on Monday, with no indication of when the change will happen. It’s not clear whether the easing of restrictions will be enough to stabilize the country, given the already high inflation rate and the general lack of confidence in the government—from chronic blackouts, recent looting in the provinces, and President Kirchner’s recent absence—that has grown.

World Cup Protests in São Paulo Turn Violent: Protesters clashed with police this weekend in São Paulo, where thousands had taken to the street to protest the cost of the 2014 World Cup. More than 130 protesters were arrested, and one man is in critical condition after being shot by police for allegedly carrying an explosive in his backpack. The Anonymous Rio protest group organized the demonstrations using social media and called it “Operation Stop the World Cup”. Following the massive protests last year, Brazil has seen “rolezinhos—flash mobs by young people from the favelas targeting affluent shopping malls —crop up across the country.

Belize and Guatemala Sign Bilateral Agreement: The foreign ministers of Belize and Guatemala met with Organization of American States (OAS) Secretary General José Miguel Insulza over the weekend, and signed on to a “Road Map and Plan of Action” to deepen transnational cooperation. According to Insulza, the agreement will allow the two countries to “develop significant projects in the areas of the environment, security, labor, immigration, health or education, (which) helps people to get to know and value each other.” Through the agreement, both nations also pledged that they will adhere to the International Court of Justice’s ruling on the pending territorial dispute.

Tags: Chile-Peru relations, CELAC, Brazil protests, Belize, Guatemala

Ríos Montt Trial Resumption Delayed Until 2015

November 13, 2013

by Nic Wirtz

Last week, Guatemala’s Court of High Risk “B” (Tribunal de Mayor Riesgo “B”) announced that the genocide trial of Guatemala’s former president, General Efraín Ríos Montt,  will not resume until January 2015. The trial was pushed back from an earlier date of April 2014, and by the time proceedings continue, Ríos Montt will be 88 years old. 

Ríos Montt had been tried and convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity committed against the Mayan Ixil people during one of the most violent periods of Guatemala’s civil war. On May 10, he was sentenced to 80 years in prison, but served just two days before being transferred to a military hospital. 

A day later, one of the defense team’s 100-plus amparos—measures designed to provide constitutional protection of individuals—was upheld by Guatemala’s Corte de Constitucionalidad (Constitutional Court—CC). The result of the successful amparo was to move the trial back to its middle, where there was a judicial battle over who was to hear the case—Judge Yasmin Barrios or Judge Carol Patricia Flores.

The ruling backtracked on previous declarations that the trial would not return to a previous date.  It also contradicted Guatemalan law, which states once a verdict is delivered, the defendant must continue their legal fight in the Appeals Court.

Since then, the original trial judges have recused themselves on the grounds that they have already issued a judgment.  Dozens of judges have avoided hearing the case for fear of repercussions, and in October, the CC reopened the possibility that Ríos Montt may be granted amnesty, based on a 1986 presidential decree by former President Óscar Humberto Mejía Víctores that barred prosecutions for political crimes committed during Mejía and Ríos Montt’s administrations.

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Tags: Guatemala, Efraín Ríos Montt, genocide

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