Central America / Corruption

“It’s hard to find an honest judge in Guatemala now”

Thursday, July 15, 2021
Roman Gressier

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When corruption scandals embroil Guatemala’s political class, Helen Mack invariably takes her place on the scrum. A leading Guatemalan human rights advocate, she has spent decades in legal fights over not only government corruption, but also cases of impunity from the four-decades-long civil war ending in 1996 — beginning with her sister Myrna’s death at the hands of the Guatemalan military in 1990.

And when systemic corruption and open attacks against independent judges this year seemed to jeopardize U.S. interests, even Kamala Harris asked for her opinion. “Their priority is immigration, and if that means conceding on other topics where Guatemalan civil society won’t, then they will concede,” Mack says of the Biden administration. “Our challenge is reaching a win-win agenda.”

For Mack, that winning agenda will include justice for civil war-era crimes, as well as accountability for President Alejandro Giammattei’s handling of the pandemic.

Last November, when flames engulfed the Guatemalan Congress amid protests over the government's mid-pandemic cuts to health and other spending, Giammattei narrowly sidestepped calls for his resignation. Eight months later, a politically bruised but recalcitrant Giammattei announced he would summon security forces, yet again, to stamp out renewed street protests against his handling of the pandemic.

The administration paid $80 million for eight million doses of the Sputnik-V vaccine in April, which have yet to arrive from Russia. Foreign Minister Pedro Brolo traveled in late June to allegedly renegotiate the terms of the contract as the Guatemalan government threatened to demand a refund. Upon his return, Brolo offered no vaccine delivery timeline and told congressional inquirers that he hadn’t read the vaccine contract. The Public Prosecutor’s Office opened a criminal investigation in May — though, to the extent of public knowledge, the Health Ministry has yet to hand over the contract to investigators.

The Myrna Mack Foundation, which Helen founded and named in honor of her sister, is one of the most high-profile civil society organizations to issue a joint call for the resignation of Giammattei, Brolo, and Health Minister Amelia Flores.

This isn’t the first time that Mack faces off with the juggernauts of Guatemalan politics. When the Guatemalan state and United Nations negotiated the creation of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) in 2006, she gave input as a representative of civil society. In its 13 years of sweeping high-level corruption probes before it was dismantled in 2019, the CICIG sent former president Otto Pérez Molina to prison for customs fraud and briefly convicted former dictator and retired general Efraín Ríos Montt of a 1982 genocide against the Maya Ixil people.  

Times have changed, and Mack suggests that anti-corruption work is now more precarious than when the CICIG was created. Since the commission left the country, Mack notes an open, systematic courtroom retaliation against judges, prosecutors, and human rights advocates who took part in the Guatemalan Spring. And she is one of them. 

Mack sat down with El Faro in early July to discuss the current state of the country. From her office in Guatemala City’s upscale Zone 14, she offers the somber reflections of an advocate seeing decades of work in the streets and courts crumble. 

Why are you calling on Giammattei, Chancellor Brolo, and Minister Flores to resign?

The state is obligated to follow the constitution. This has to do with your right to health and the common good. Its pandemic response, specifically with the vaccines, has been too shadowy and left us without access to health services. Zero transparency. How can you believe that the foreign minister went on the trip to Russia but didn’t read the contract? He can’t claim that it’s confidential, because when the state is conducting a criminal investigation they have the constitutional responsibility to turn over the information. What we have here is ill will from the government. 

Do you think that ill will amounts to criminal behavior?

Of course there have been crimes, but he has an attorney general who covers them up. He has co-opted the justice system. The common phenomena in the region are asymmetries in political and economic power, which cut across the different sectors of society and lead to the distortion of democracy and a co-opted justice system — which is what the president did most recently here, by co-opting the Constitutional Court. So they’ve secured their impunity. But I think Guatemala has been the most blatant because they’re unwinding the gains of corruption cases investigated by the CICIG and FECI.

Magistrates from the Constitutional Court and Supreme Court of Justice appeared on the Engel List, a roster of targeted State Department sanctions on Central Americans found to have undermined democracy or engaged in corruption. How far would you say the co-optation has reached in the justice system?

For their friends, candidates, magistrates, and judges who are taking their instructions from them, there’s no punishment for wrongdoing and the law doesn’t apply. We citizens and judges who aren’t aligned with the government face the full force of the law. 

Helen Mack has witnessed the backsliding of the fight against corruption since the expulsion of the CICIG in 2019. Now, she says, the Special Prosecutor
Helen Mack has witnessed the backsliding of the fight against corruption since the expulsion of the CICIG in 2019. Now, she says, the Special Prosecutor's Office against Impunity (FECI) is under similar siege. In her office in Guatemala City. Photo: Simone Dalmasso/Plaza Pública

In my case, I’m facing 11 or more criminal suits. There are also categories of enemies, because it’s the very state that is persecuting you. In the cases of Gloria Porras, Juan Francisco Sandoval, Érika Aifán, Jordán Rodas, and all of the judges from high-risk courts, 80 percent of the criminal charges against them come from the Foundation Against Terrorism, with Ricardo Méndez Ruiz and Raúl Falla, who are on the Engel List for obstructing justice. They use social media to discredit and delegitimize you socially, and kill you civilly through malicious litigation where you have judges and prosecutors who can mount a case against you in a day, but when it comes to investigating corruption there’s never enough time or it’s very complicated. The rule of law does not exist and the justice system is being used as a tool of persecution.

Guatemalan prosecutors are looking to pin down those responsible in the Diario Militar case, involving the systematic forced disappearances, torture, and executions of 183 perceived political dissidents from 1983 to 1985. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights found the Guatemalan state guilty of the crimes in 2012. What can we expect, in terms of the fight against impunity, from this case?

To me, the Diario Militar case is well-founded. You have survivors who recognize their torturers. You have 183 stories there, and I think it’s been sufficiently demonstrated in the various human rights cases, as it was in the genocide trial, what the [military’s] plans were. So I think that the evidence is strong enough to lead to a conviction. As for whether that will happen, the problem is cleansing a justice system which no longer respects prosecutorial autonomy. Members of the intelligence system of that time period are the same people who founded the political parties associated with the Foundation Against Terrorism, which lived and lives on corruption.

What’s the current influence of the military in Guatemalan politics?

The intelligence system is a tool for decision-making. In the case of Guatemala, those formerly and currently part of the intelligence system, because of the volume of information and control they possess, are a much stronger power than any of the Army’s weapons.

You had a hand in the proposal to create the CICIG in 2006. How does that moment contrast with the present, in terms of the fight against corruption and impunity?

Back then, you had honest career judges. What you needed to find was a courageous judge. It’s hard to find an honest judge now, because the courageous are being persecuted. During the armed conflict, there was a military dictatorship. They killed judges. Today, the problem is that many judges are involved in corruption. You see it, for example, in the case of Mynor Motto, where it’s obvious that he rules in return for nomination to the Constitutional Court. This co-optation of allied institutions is becoming more complex because you’re mixing legal with illegal, public with private, and the grey area makes the phenomenon multi-layered. Organized crime and drug trafficking have permeated the entire political system.

There’s a lot of talk about creating a regional anti-corruption commission. How might that come about, and do you think it’s the right move?

Regionally, I don’t think any of the three countries in northern Central America have the political conditions right now to approve an international commission. But I do think that, globally, we’re seeing a game of geopolitical positioning of China, Russia, the United States, and Europe, in which the notions of kleptocracy and corruption will be a through-line. The fact that, in the case of Guatemala, we have become a threat to the United States means that in Europe and other parts of the world kleptocracy will be a topic of discussion, because these are the weapons used by those who want to become world powers.

You met recently with Vice President Harris and USAID Administrator Power. Do you believe that the United States can be a reliable partner to civil society in the region?

Everyone has their own agenda and interests. Their priority is immigration, and if that means conceding on other topics where Guatemalan civil society won’t, then they will concede. Look how we are now. Look how many of us — those of us with the means to do so — are leaving to get the vaccine in other countries. How will people not migrate if there’s no solution for them? It’s not enough for you to tell them, ‘Don’t come,’ like the vice president did. They understand that, but they have to weigh it with other considerations. Our challenge is coming to a win-win agenda.

In the medium and long term, is there a political alternative to those in power in Guatemala?

I don’t know how the people will take power back. Part of the reasoning for maintaining these asymmetries of poverty and fear is precisely so that they can stay in power. We’ll never manage to rise to power. That’s why, even though it makes no sense for them to speak of communists and socialists, they continue to do so because they’re harking back to the era of the genocide when you are either with or against me, to instill fear and control the population.

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