Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

The Rule of Law in Guatemala

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Guatemala has its own magical realism when it comes to law and justice. In the past two months the fight against impunity in the Guatemalan courts took three notable hits. This put into question the rule of law in a country a Prensa Libre editorial recently called:  “the paradise of impunity and the hell of law enforcement, subject to unforeseen and inexplicable changes.”

On May 11, Alejandro Giammattei, accused of executing five convicts when security forces stormed El Pavón prison outside Guatemala City in 2006, was acquitted due to a lack of evidence. This was the first major case launched in August 2010 by the UN-appointed agency International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). Giammattei was accused by CICIG, led at the time by its then newly appointed head Francisco Dall’Anese Ruiz, of forming part of a criminal organization based in the interior ministry and the civil police. This unit was called on as being responsible for the executions of people detained in prisons. Alleged crimes included murder, drug trafficking, money laundering, kidnapping, extortion, and the theft of drugs. 

Two days before Giammattei’s acquittal, the Eleventh Court of Criminal Sentencing in Guatemala acquitted former President Alfonso Portillo Cabrera of embezzlement. Portillo was accused of diverting Q120 million ($16.1 million) from the Ministry of Defense. Manuel Maza Castellanos and Eduardo Arevalo Lacs, former ministers of finance and defense, were also acquitted in a case that involved money laundering through accounts in Guatemala as well as U.S. and European banks.

The acquittal came because two of the three members of the Guatemalan court felt that the Attorney General and CICIG had no hard evidence to prove the charges and questioned the quality of the witnesses.  Upon hearing the sentence, Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz warned she would promptly be submitting an appeal with the belief that there was sufficient testimonial evidence to issue a guilty verdict. The attorney general said she would use all state resources to challenge the ruling.

Even so, Portillo will remain in prison pending extradition to the United States for charges of laundering $70 million. Preet Bharara, a U.S. attorney in Manhattan, described the former president in TIME Magazine as turning “the Guatemalan presidency into his personal ATM.”

To top off the hits to law and justice last week, Sandra Torres, the only person who has commented favorably on the acquittal of Portillo, registered last week as a political candidate for the elections in September. She was able to do so after successfully divorcing President Álvaro Colom, thus, is skirting Guatemala’s constitutional ban on close relatives of the president succeeding him.  “I am divorcing my husband but I am getting married to the people,” she said at a news conference in March amid tears. On April 11 the divorce was approved by a Guatemalan judge. On September 11, she might share space on the ballot with Alfonso Portillo who was nominated—while still sitting in his jail cell—to be a candidate by the political party Unión del Cambio Nacional (UCN).

“In the coming weeks all this will be forgotten in the heat of the election and become an anecdote to demonstrate how in Guatemala ‘nothing works,’” remarked Trudy Mercadal, cultural studies professor at Florida Atlantic University. “There is no rule of law in Guatemala, the justice system is broken and it works, but works very poorly and very inefficiently.”

While the Portillo acquittal is a setback for the attorney general and CICIG very few Guatemalans expected that it was going to be easy to prosecute a former president and former ministers for their actions as public officials. Regardless, Carmen Aída Ibarra Morán of Movimiento Pro Justicia stated that the acquittal is a message that reinforces the country’s impunity. This is especially true in cases of white collar and computer-related corruption involving government officials and political leaders who are supported by groups with substantial political and economic power. It confirms the need for judges and judicial officers who are willing to prosecute white-collar criminal behavior.

“It is a sign that the pattern of political, cultural and ideological impunity has not been affected in the slightest. The pattern of impunity remains unchanged,” Ibarra Morán said.

The open question in the Portillo case, as in many past such cases, is whether the prosecutor was negligent by not presenting sufficient evidence or if the entire judicial process is symbolic of a democratic process that is also in need of reform.


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*Kara Andrade is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. She is a Central American-based freelance journalist who has worked as a multimedia producer and photojournalist for Agence France-Presse, Associated Press, San Jose Mercury News, and Oakland Tribune, among other publications.


Kara Andrade is an Ashoka fellow working in Central America. She is co-founder of HablaCentro LLC and NFP which develops curriculum to help people in Latin America become more digitally literate and civically engaged; conducts trainings in the use of digital tools to create more informed citizens; and connects collaborators to opportunities for economic sustainability. She has worked as a multimedia producer and photojournalist for various publications, including The New York Times and Christian Science Monitor.


Tags: Alfonso Portillo, Guatemala, Sandra Torres de Colom
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