Developments in recent days shed light on the intensifying battle for civic space and judicial independence.
- Lead Anti-Corruption Prosecutor Dismissed The Public Prosecutor’s Office has removed Juan Francisco Sandoval as lead prosecutor for the Special Prosecutor’s Office against Impunity (FECI). According to El Faro, this step taken by Attorney General Consuelo Porras, on July 23, represents “a major move against the most independent wing of state prosecutors tasked with investigating corruption and impunity.” Guatemala’s Human Rights Ombudsman, Jordan Rodas, publicly called for Attorney General Consuelo Porras’ resignation. “The message that you are implicitly sending is that those who ensure strict compliance with the law and defend the independent action of the prosecutors’ offices will be removed from the duties, marginalized, exiled, or persecuted . . . .Given so much damage that you have caused to the rule of law, to the institutionality of the Republic and the hope of obtaining justice that you have systematically frustated for millions of Guatemalans, Madame Attorney General, I publicly recommend that you present your irrevocable resignation from your position.”
US Congressman Albio Sires tweeted, “The removal of Juan Francisco Sandoval from #FECI is a lethal blow to the fight against corruption in #Guatemala. Unless this decision is reversed, the US Govt should designate AG Porras under US law for obstructing anti-corruption investigations.” Samantha Power, head of USAID, tweeted, “As I stressed in my visit last month, the independence of #FECI is an essential test of Guatemala’s commitment to the rule of law. Attorney General Porras’s firing of anti-corruption champion Juan Francisco Sandoval is an outrageous move. The Guatemalan people deserve better.”
Julie Chung, Acting Assistant Secretary for US Department of State’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, stopped short of calling for a reversal of the decision to remove Sandoval or any consequences related to that move but denounced his firing: “The firing & removal of immunity of Juan Francisco Sandoval, Chief of Guatemala’s Prosecutor Against Corruption and Impunity (FECI), is a significant setback to rule of law. It contributes to perceptions of a systemic effort to undermine those known to be fighting corruption. As with all justice defenders, the safety of Juan Francisco Sandoval must be protected. Guatemalan authorities must ensure his safety. It is also essential that FECI remain intact and empowered to ensure the fight against corruption in Guatemala. Any politically-motivated interruption of investigations has no place in an open and strong democratic system.” National Security Council Director for the Western Hemisphere Juan Gonzalez tweeted, “I don’t know what @MPguatemala Fiscal Porras is playing at, but every day it becomes clearer it’s not the rule of law. The Guatemalan people deserve better.”
Indigenous organizations throughout the country protested the dismissal of Sandoval, including the indigenous municipality of Solola and the indigenous organization of the 48 Cantons of Totonicapan, which demanded the restitution of Sandoval, the resignation of President Giammattei, and the resignation of Attorney General Porras.
In a press conference at the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office, Sandoval said his dismissal was illegal and that he would challenge it. Attorney General Porras, he said, blocked and delayed investigations that affected her allies. After finishing the press conference, escorted by Human Rights Ombudsman Jordan Rodas and other human rights defenders, Sandoval left Guatemala, fearing for his safety and that of his family.
Sandoval was replaced by Carla Isidra Valenzuela. She reportedly is the cousin of Roxana Baldetti, the former Vice President convicted of corruption, and the great niece of former president Serrano Elías. The FECI, created over a decade ago to work closely with the UN-backed anti-impunity commission known as CICIG, has continued prosecuting cases begun with the assistance of CICIG. Sandoval—an “anti-corruption champion,” as the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) deemed this past February 23, spoke to El Faro in the weeks before his dismissal. Without CICIG, the work became more complicated. “CICIG gave us great support,” Sandoval told El Faro, “from the logistic to the political. If we were accusing politicians with power, someone had to give us a sort of cover, and the CICIG did that. Now, we don’t have that.”
- Land Rights Defender Murdered Regilson Choc Cac, a sixteen-year-old land rights and indigenous defender and member of the Campesino Committee of the Highlands (CCDA), was murdered on July 20 in San Juan Tres Rios, Alta Verapaz. Choc Cac is the third member of the CCDA murdered in this community. On June 8, 2016, Daniel Choc was murdered, and on May 13, 2018, Mateo Chaman was murdered. Neither case was successfully prosecuted. The CCDA Committee in San Juan Tres Ríos has petitioned the Land Fund to grant them legal ownership of land disputed with the owner of the Rancho Alegre estate. Choc Cac, although very young, was a community leader and had participated in dialogues related to the land dispute.
Although the murders of CCDA members have not been resolved, CCDA members themselves are being criminalized for “usurpation” of land. According to the CCDA, 962 warrants for the arrests of campesino leaders have been issued, and two CCDA member have been sentenced to 35 years in prison.
- President Declares Temporary Suspension of Certain Constitutional Rights On July 13, Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei declared a state of prevention for fifteen days, limiting freedom of movement and banning unauthorized protests. Although many of the provisions of the decree relate to measures apparently designed to deter the spread of COVID-19, the day before he announced the state of prevention—as hundreds gathered to protest the lack of COVID vaccines and demand Giammattei’s resignation—Giammattei stated, referring to the protests, “[W]e are going to limit this type of thing. I think this is enough already.”
The Human Rights Convergence, a coalition of prominent human rights organizations in Guatemala, decried the state of prevention, stating that it “seeks to prevent the exercise of rights and not to protect the population from the pandemic.” The coalition stated it would “hold the government, particularly President Giammattei and his Minister of the Interior, Gendry Reyes, responsible for any aggression, violation of rights and restriction of freedoms to those who legitimately demand his resignation, due to incapacity, corruption, and dereliction of duties.” In spite of the state of prevention, demonstrations have continued.
The Guatemalan government has instituted an unprecedented number of states of prevention since the start of Giammattei’s term. According to the OHCHR, the government declared 11 states of exception in 2020, “establishing limitations on the rights to freedoms of movement, peaceful assembly and due process rights.”