Opinion / Corruption

Virginia Laparra, a Scapegoat in Guatemalan Prison

El Faro
El Faro

Monday, March 6, 2023
Álvaro Montenegro

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On February 23, prosecutor Virginia Laparra completed one year in prison, held alongside military officers, politicians, and businessmen who she helped to prosecute. The Public Prosecutor’s Office and courts have allied to deny her the possibility of house arrest and even medical treatment for a severe uterine disease. Laparra, like journalist José Rubén Zamora, has become a scapegoat of a judicial system that has exiled more than thirty judges and prosecutors, as well as journalists and activists. Hardline groups have propelled this hunt with spurious lawsuits in court, where they have an increased foothold, and brazen intimidation on social media of those who have sought to clean up the justice system.

This former prosecutor faces very powerful actors who have managed to manipulate the laws to keep her in prison. Their virulence draws applause from those who, from 2015 to 2018, with the anti-corruption fight in full swing, faced jail time. They now seek to distort the facts to cast the defunct International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) and its allies as “also” corrupt. It’s unclear what will happen to Laparra, especially with a second known case against her advancing at a snail’s pace. But most worrying is the state of her health, to which the state appears to give no mind.

On December 17, Laparra was sentenced to four years on charges of abuse of authority, stemming from administrative complaints that she filed against Judge Lesther Castellanos for allegedly disclosing classified judicial information to his friend, lawyer Omar Barrios. These complaints are commonplace and have never been considered crimes, even when dismissed. But the top prosecutor's office and the judges have misrepresented these norms, insisting that she did not have the authority to do so.

On the day Laparra went to trial, November 28, Amnesty International declared her a prisoner of conscience, detecting anomalies in the investigation and considering the case a fabrication because of the role Laparra has played in promoting justice. On the one-year anniversary of her detention, the judiciary prevented Amnesty International from entering the prison to visit her. Even though she was sentenced to under five years in jail, which allows her to pay to get out of prison, the judges ruled that she would not be allowed to leave until the sentence was final and appeals were resolved. That could take several years.

Since her capture in February 2022, she has been viciously mistreated by her accusers and anonymous social media accounts seeking at all costs to break her emotionally into accepting a crime she did not commit. She has been confined in a small room where they barely let her out for an hour of sunlight a day, while others in prison enjoy benefits such as cell phones, unrestricted visits, and better cell conditions.

Since December, her legal team has been requesting that she undergo surgery for a uterine disease that she developed in confinement, leading to hemorrhages. But the prison and justice systems are ping-ponging responsibility to delay the approval, preventing her from traveling to a health care center. She has  received medication but has not been able to undergo surgery.

The intention is to keep her locked up indefinitely. In June, when her legal defense requested that she be placed under house arrest, Judge Sergio Mena argued that the interviews she gave to the press and the publication of newspaper articles about her imprisonment had hindered the investigation. Not only were her human rights violated, but the judge also violated freedom of expression by ordering an investigation into journalists who had entered the prison to speak with her. Judge Mena has made other questionable decisions; for example, he annulled an arrest warrant against Judge Coralia Contreras, accused of falsifying warrants to benefit drug traffickers.

Another example of the Public Prosecutor's Office efforts to crush any possibility of Laparra's release occurred in October, when the request for house arrest was to be discussed again. That day, prosecutors announced another case against her for alleged leaking of information. Details of this case are unknown because it has been sealed, a common move to keep the weakness of investigations from the public eye. Even if the judge had granted her the substitutive measure in October, Laparra would not have been able to go free because she already faced a second warrant; police officers were waiting for her outside of the hearing to notify her.

Three private accusers have signed onto the case against Laparra. One is Judge Castellanos himself, whose brother was a congressional candidate for the UCN party, labeled as having 'narco ideology' by the U.S. Embassy in a 2007 cable released by WikiLeaks. The former presidential candidate of this party, Mario Estrada, was convicted of drug trafficking in New York in 2020. Shortly after promoting the accusation against Laparra, Castellanos was named Rapporteur for Torture for the Western Region by the Giammattei-controlled Congress. The office has been accused of squandering funds and, contrary to its mandate, promoting unjustified pre-trial detention. On social media, Castellanos seems to have forgotten his judicial credentials, labeling as criminals those protesting in favor of Laparra. He writes with irony and fanaticism against the prosecutor he accuses, calling whoever criticizes him a “leftist”.

Another is lawyer Omar Barrios, who, in addition to having been a presidential advisor in the last two governments, is president of the Port Commission and defended several people accused by CICIG. Barrios tried to become a Constitutional Court magistrate with the support of Giammattei but did not obtain enough votes.

The third accuser is the Foundation Against Terrorism (Fundaterror), the unabashed shock troops of the networks seeking revenge against anti-corruption actors. The organization boasts of promoting lawfare against prosecutors, judges, activists, and journalists who are not allied to human rights violators in the military, powerful businessmen, or those accused of corruption. Their leaders were sanctioned in July 2021 by the U.S. State Department but now enjoy greater influence in the justice system, committing a series of arbitrary acts that the judges condone. Self-proclaimed extremists, they bombastically denounce alleged international conspiracies to turn Guatemala into a “communist” country and call anyone who does not sympathize with them a “radical leftist”.

They undoubtedly receive money from wealthy businessmen to be able to maintain the legal team for the cases they handle. In 2013, Fundaterror lawyer Moisés Galindo told Plaza Pública: “Let’s say that all of the oligarchs are hidden here, and all of the sugar cane growers.” The Foundation’s influence seems to be on the rise, especially with the candidacy of Zury Ríos, daughter of former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, who is leading the polls for the June elections despite a constitutional prohibition. The Foundation's leaders have tweeted in favor of Ríos and the president of the organization, Ricardo Méndez Ruiz, was a mayoral candidate with the FRG, Ríos Montt's former party. These people, the same ones who organized “Black Thursday,” a protest that sowed terror in Guatemala City in 2004 to force Ríos Montt's candidacy, went to Congress in 2017 to reject constitutional reforms intended to improve the country's justice system.

The same Foundation is pushing the case against Zamora, president of elPeriódico, who has been in prison for seven months. They applied the same strategy against him as they did with Laparra: After the first case against Zamora, they brought another against him when his former lawyer was captured, alleging obstruction of justice. Then, in a hearing on February 28, Judge Jimi Bremer accepted prosecutor Cinthia Monterroso's request to investigate other elPeriódico columnists and journalists who had written about her, the judge, or the trial under the same reasoning as in Laparra's case: that writing articles about the trial constituted obstruction of justice.

In the last year, the criminalization against justice operators has worsened. People who have been prosecuted for major corruption or human rights violations want to force people into exile, even if it does not end in their capture, because political prisoners are a strain on the Government. The truth is that they have sowed unease, since all of these groups’ denunciations are admitted in the courts, given priority, and sealed. Alternatives to detention are denied, even though the cases have neither rhyme nor reason.

Álvaro Montenegro is a journalist and co-founder the #RenunciaYa movement, later renamed #JusticiaYa, which played a central role in the protests that led to the resignation of Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina. He is seeking his LL.M. from American University in Washington, D.C.

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