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Interview with a Former Prosecutor en Route to Exile: “I can now say that everything Porras has done is shady”

Carlos Martínez Gabriel Labrador

ElFaro.net / Publicado el 27 de July de 2021

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“I need support, brother, things are going sideways in Guatemala, and I need help for prosecutor Juan Francisco Sandoval. He’s leaving Guatemala. They’re going to clobber him if he stays.”

That was the urgent message an associate of the Guatemalan former anti-corruption prosecutor sent to an El Faro reporter at 7:12 p.m. on the night of Friday, July 23. The person who sent the message is close to Sandoval, and had been a source for this newspaper for a number of years.

What he did not say in his message was that at that moment, the recently fired prosecutor himself did not know that he was going to leave Guatemala for El Salvador. Moreover, at that precise moment, Sandoval was holding a press conference in which he reacted to his dismissal by Attorney General Consuelo Porras and announced that he was not planning to leave the country. Nevertheless, his associates were looking for a way to get him out of Guatemala as soon as possible.  

For more than three years, Juan Francisco Sandoval headed the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity (FECI), a prosecutorial unit specialized in the battle against corruption, heir to some of the energy sparked by the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), which was shut down by former president Jimmy Morales. During his tenure, Sandoval was a thorn in the side of Guatemalan officials: media-friendly, caustic, and possessed of seemingly inexhaustible stamina. He confronted his boss, whom he considers part of a powerful network of corruption, and he more than insinuated that she sabotaged his efforts to prosecute the corrupt in the country. They fired him that very Friday at four o’clock in the afternoon in cold fashion: he was notified by the director of human resources. Later, Attorney General Porras issued a press release in which she justified her decision, arguing “abuses and violations of the institutionality of the Public Prosecutor’s Office” and finished by claiming “disrespect” and “harassment” against herself, without offering further details. 

After learning of his firing, hundreds of Guatemalans took to the streets in protest of what they considered one more step toward constructing a State that protects corrupt politicians, officials, and businesspeople. Promptly weighing in to condemn the act were a number of high profile politicians and international actors, including: Acting Assistant Secretary of the US State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, Julie Chung; the director of the US Agency for International Development, Samantha Power; Special Assistant to President Joe Biden and National Security Council Senior Director for the Western Hemisphere at the White House, Juan González; Democratic Representative Albio Sires of New Jersey; former CICIG director Iván Velázquez; and the Human Rights Watch’s Americas Director, José Miguel Vivanco. They all considered Sandoval’s contributions to the fight against corruption and complained of a decision described time and again as a “setback.” 

Meanwhile, former prosecutor Sandoval still did not know that he would be leaving his country that very night.

As a newspaper, El Faro does not have procedures or resources to help threatened officials leave their countries, so a few phone calls were made to local NGO representatives. One of those organizations, which preferred not to be mentioned by name, immediately set up a hotel reservation. Sandoval’s situation, in terms of support networks, seemed so precarious that his departure depended on one of his associates remembering the name of a Salvadoran journalist and that the journalist knew who to call to address the circumstances.  Despite the fact that the United States Vice President, Kamala Harris, herself had mentioned the importance of the FECI’s work during her visit to Guatemala less than two months prior, and that Sandoval had received the distinction of “anticorruption champion” from the United States government in February, it was not that diplomatic delegation that physically came to Sandoval’s aid.  Rather, the Swedish Ambassador to the Central American country, Hans Magnusson, offered to get Sandoval out of Guatemala and bring him to the Salvadoran border himself. 

The press conference ended, and while Sandoval spoke with international media, his team had already made decisions: the former prosecutor had to leave Guatemala as soon as possible, in case the Prosecutor’s Office issued an arrest warrant against him. They would not even let him go to his house to pick up his belongings: he would travel with a small gym bag with new clothing, hurriedly purchased by his associates. El Faro does not know the details of the conversation that ended up convincing the former anti-corruption prosecutor to urgently leave the country. Nevertheless, at ten o’clock at night, Juan Francisco Sandoval was on his way to El Salvador in a vehicle with diplomatic plates, accompanied by the Swedish ambassador, the Guatemalan Human Rights Ombudsperson, Jordán Rodas, some members of human rights organizations, as well as a reporter from the Associated Press.

Juan Francisco Sandoval (right) left Guatemala and entered El Salvador at midnight on Friday, July 23, 2021, a few hours after being removed from the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity (FECI). Sandoval entered through Las Chinamas customs, in Ahuachapán, and was accompanied by the Swedish Ambassador to Guatemala, Hans Magnusson, and the Human Rights Ombudsperson, Jordán Rodas (left). Photo: Víctor Peña/El Faro
 
Juan Francisco Sandoval (right) left Guatemala and entered El Salvador at midnight on Friday, July 23, 2021, a few hours after being removed from the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity (FECI). Sandoval entered through Las Chinamas customs, in Ahuachapán, and was accompanied by the Swedish Ambassador to Guatemala, Hans Magnusson, and the Human Rights Ombudsperson, Jordán Rodas (left). Photo: Víctor Peña/El Faro

At midnight, between Friday, July 23 and Saturday, July 24, two diplomatic vehicles did not stop at the Valle Nuevo migration checkpoint in Guatemala and continued directly to the border bridge on the frontier with Las Chinamas, in El Salvador. They feared that if Sandoval passed through Guatemalan customs, he would be arrested and his departure from the country blocked.  

On the Salvadoran side, a Human Rights Ombudsperson’s Office (PDDH) vehicle, which Ombudsperson Rodas had requested, was waiting along with a rental car in which two reporters and a photojournalist from El Faro were traveling. After a brief check of documents, Sandoval got into our pickup truck and we left for San Salvador, escorted by the PDDH vehicle. “Forgive me if I am not very chatty, but I have so much on my mind,” the former prosecutor said, and he immersed himself in his phone, from which he only looked up to contribute some banter amidst the severe silence of that vehicle cabin.

After checking into the Sheraton Presidente hotel, the lobby of which was all darkness at three o’clock in the morning, we asked the employee at the reception desk to turn on a light at one of the tables so we could see each other’s faces and conduct the interview that appears below. 

A few hours later, Sandoval took a flight and traveled even further away from Guatemala. 

What was your day like today?

It started as a normal day. In the morning, I gave online classes at seven; then I began to go about my activities, in fact, I sent information to the Attorney General about some summonses against a person who was already set for trial. I had work meetings, and at around noon, I received a phone call from the Public Prosecutor’s anti-corruption secretary in which I was told that at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, the Attorney General would call me for a meeting in her office. I thought that she was going to give me some instructions. I was in the meeting room alone for a long time, although that was somewhat normal because they aren’t very punctual.  After a half an hour, the anti-corruption secretary José Estuardo López y López  approached; he didn’t have anything to talk about and told me, “Well, they are coming.” Then I began to think that they were going to notify me of my transfer or some personnel action, and when the institution’s head of human resources came in with another employee from that unit, I understood the message. They only informed me of the Attorney General's decision, which was to dismiss me. As you are interviewing me, even though I’ve been on the move, I have done several things, in fact, I have not absorbed what it means... because it’s 18 very intense years of my life.

Attorney General Porras didn’t speak to you at all today? 

No, today I didn’t have a chance, the only thing I found out about her is that she issued a communiqué that was confusing, vague, shady, like everything she has done, now I can say it freely and appropriately, because while I was at that institution, it is logical that, because of the principle of hierarchy, I couldn’t express myself in that sense, but you can see in the communiqué in which they let me know of my dismissal, I don’t find a valid reason. It speaks of due process, but I was never tried.  

We knew about your tense relationship with the attorney general. What triggered your dismissal? 

I only made a request, expressing my disagreement with a decision that she had made. I asked her to reconsider a command she issued for a controversial prosecutor, who is not trustworthy, to lead the investigation of some cases that could involve some authorities from the previous government or the current one. 

You mentioned at the press conference a few hours ago that the tension had increased over the past few weeks.

Over the three years and two months that I experienced Consuelo Porras’s management as Attorney General, she harassed me to the point that she had practically taken over the Prosecutor’s Office for two or three weeks. Because when she speaks disdainfully of the FECI’s results, she is referring to what represents only zero-point-multiple-zeros-one percent of the Public Prosecutor’s work. But if the FECI were not important, why would it be completely taken over by her? If an Attorney General has prosecutors’ offices in 340 municipalities (Porras has sold that statistic as an accomplishment of her administration) and focuses all the work on remaining within the FECI, it is because it is very important, or something concerns her about the work being done there. It caught my attention that in one of the previous meetings, she alluded a lot to the law against femicide and today, in the press release, she says something about “harassment,” but I don’t know if she is referring to me having incited harassment against her. I have a good memory, and I don’t remember provoking any harassment against her at any time. I do remember many times some of her unjust decisions bothered me, but I never disrespected her. I don’t know what she’s referring to. The press release is vague, like everything she has done during her tenure. 

Juan Francisco Sandoval gives an interview to El Faro, hours after having entered El Salvador, after being removed from his post as chief of the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity (FECI). Photo: Víctor Peña/El Faro 
 
Juan Francisco Sandoval gives an interview to El Faro, hours after having entered El Salvador, after being removed from his post as chief of the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity (FECI). Photo: Víctor Peña/El Faro 

You had openly expressed your disagreements with the attorney general. The tension between you was public knowledge. 

Indeed, but we have not taken any action outside of any directive or done anything that she was unaware of. I believe that the majority of disagreements that we could express at that time were related to the treatment we received, the dynamics adopted, in the sense of paralyzing investigations or accelerating them, according to convenience. I remember the times when the Public Prosecutor was a technical institution: we were accustomed to presenting cases at the stage of the proceedings in which we had the investigation material. But not with Porras; it was based on the premise that  “the investigations were going to be analyzed” and “they were doing a rigorous analysis”…Most recently, on May 25, we submitted petitions to lift the immunity of 10 magistrates, 8 from the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, one from the Constitutional Court, for their involvement in the process of manipulating the election of high courts; however, the case files were kept dormant during the analysis, and until they guaranteed the immunity of magistrate Néster Vásquez, who ascended to the Constitutional Court, I had a free hand to present the preliminary proceedings. This was a constant dynamic, and the purpose was to defend or attack according to their interests and those of their circle of friends.

Why did you decide to leave the country so abruptly?

Because the accusations, no matter how spurious or stupid they may be, have become a tool for controlling officials. Then, when the personnel are uncomfortable, as I have been, it has been the way they use to neutralize…because you tell me if a criminal trial against a justice official isn’t a tool for neutralizing the work. Proof of that is the persecution that former prosecutor Thelma Aldana has gone through, the fears that there are about Claudia Paz, the complaints filed against Andréi González…a couple of months ago the talk of this country was the situation of former Public Prosecutor employee Juan Francisco Solórzano Foppa and the arrest of a former CICIG analyst, which respond to this dynamic that has been constant under Porras’s leadership. So why not take advantage of the opportunity to hurl some of the charges against me to move forward with an arrest warrant? For someone like her, it is easy to say that one who hasn’t done anything wrong fears nothing. She says that because she is the Attorney General, she has immunity, she has the ability to drive and manipulate justice, as she has done, and that is obstruction of justice in El Salvador, in Guatemala, and everywhere else: it is called obstructing legal action. It is manipulating the justice system.

Have you pursued seeking asylum or refuge in any country?

Events have happened very rapidly, so I think I am going to rest for a couple of hours to begin thinking about what my future will be, what I am going to do, what I will do with my family…

It can be confusing that you have advanced so many cases in the prosecutor’s office and now you have to escape from it. 

First, I am the victim of a criminalization campaign that has accelerated since 2016 and grew stronger with the CICIG’s departure. Ultimately, then, if there were a serious and responsible Public Prosecutor, it would have been able to conduct a pattern analysis of this behavior, but to the contrary, under that same premise of “deeply analyzing the legality,” it is always the same story. In fact, at the press conference today, I was saying that the Public Prosecutor’s communiqué was going to appear saying that the institution “is a guarantee of legality…”  It appears to pursue justice, but really what it is doing is manipulating justice. It neutralized the anti-corruption prosecutor’s office, it neutralized the administrative law prosecutor’s office, and now it was the FECI’s turn, which I believe is the last one that remained. 

I was not going to let myself become part of the show. I had to leave the country no matter what. I believe that I have the elements to defend myself: when the entire justice system has been the object of our investigations, we know that justice is not going to respond to the interest in guaranteeing that value; rather, it is going to respond to guaranteeing impunity for the corrupt.

Is there a case in particular to which you attribute your sudden firing?

I think that there are several investigations that, to a greater or lesser degree, link the authorities to acts of corruption. 

Including President Giammattei?

The president could be included because, if I were to say that he is included, we would have necessarily had to submit a petition to lift immunity, but the President of the Republic’s Office began to spread the word, questioning my actions “colored by ideology,” which is the ultimate tool for those who try to attack, they say that certain behaviors upset them. There were issues that I didn’t mention in the press conference, for example, last year, we received information that in some areas of healthcare, right in the midst of the pandemic, they were engaging in acts of corruption manifested in the payment of phantom jobs. That’s to say, they paid money to workers who never performed any function. This was very troubling, so they started an administrative procedure against us, and the file was transferred to another Prosecutor’s office. 

Who benefited from those phantom jobs? 

According to what we had investigated at the time, they were mid-level employees, but what was most troubling was that we were going to investigate an act of corruption in the current government administration. Months later, we seized some income logbooks at the Ministry of Health that relate to an already old case from the 2015 Government administration, but once again the President of the Republic called the Attorney General to complain: “What was the FECI doing raiding the Ministry of Health’s facilities?” What is happening is that the Public Prosecutor has become the Executive’s doormat, the Giammattei government’s best employee is Consuelo Porras and the Public Prosecutor. According to article 251 of the Constitution, the Public Prosecutor is an autonomous institution. There has been a regression. There was independence, at least I can speak to you about the administrations of Claudia Paz and Thelma Aldana, but now, what we are seeing is complete submission. None of the State ministers is as efficient in their protection work as the Attorney General is. So, that seems paradoxical and pathetic to me because it is a complete regression in the justice system. 

Are there other cases that you didn’t mention in your press conference to which you attribute the Attorney General and President’s concern? 

For example, in October of last year, I received information about a place in which they kept a large amount of cash, which was the product of earlier illicit kickbacks from builders to Ministry of Communications authorities. And we found 123 million quetzals in cash. Imagine finding that amount. I have seen that, in other parts of the world, with a finding of that magnitude, the Attorney General takes the lead. But I was isolated. The information that I received is that the president was upset. Why would he be upset about that? Subsequently, certain information emerged that could link the president or his partner or someone in his administration with that money. It is not something we could confirm because the money was in cash, but we were looking for it. If there is that fear, or if that caused more tension, they would know if they’re linked to the matter or not.

In the case of the 123 million quetzals, did the evidence to which you had access point solidly to President Giammattei? 

Based on the progress of the investigation and the information that we had, it could point to him. I can’t speak definitively because, if it were definitive, I would be telling you that next week they would have to file something. But a line of investigation does point to him.

Related in what way?

In that they were payments from builders in order to benefit from some project or to finance some political campaign, because let’s remember that money was collected at the end of 2019, when we were between the first and second rounds of elections (which Giammattei won). For example, I also alluded to the fact that I received information…but I would need to have documented it and done more inquiries related to some cash that the president of the republic might have received from Russian businesspeople. We see that there are Russian mining interests in Guatemala; there’s the matter of a negotiation for 614 million quetzals (some 81 million dollars) worth of vaccines, and out of 16 million doses, only 800,000 have arrived. I think that there were many situations that were starting to cause too much grief for the Government authorities.

In the press conference you gave in Guatemala before leaving for El Salvador, you spoke of the visit some Russians made to president Giammattei’s home. Is it related to the matter of the vaccines?

It could be; the information that we have is that cash arrived at a house in Guatemala City’s zone 15. Why was the President going to receive cash from these people?  

Who are those people? 

That is what we were investigating or trying to investigate.

What other investigation might have made the president’s office uncomfortable? 

Another important situation is that number one on Engel’s List is political entrepreneur Gustavo Adolfo Alejos Cámbara, [who is] implicated in at least five of the Prosecutor’s investigations. But pushed by publication on that list, Alejos began to offer the Prosecutor’s Office information about the process of shaping the Courts, about the negotiations that took place to form Congress’s directive to give the ruling party a majority; he talked about businesses… Then that statement began to rankle. In fact, because he had knowledge of other prisoners who could be involved, Alejos was attacked and reported direct threats from the Minister of the Interior. And in one of the cases, we had some information pending, which was the only one where Alejos was in pretrial detention, we urged the provisional closure of the proceedings. What does that imply? That we requested an extension of the investigation period, but he remained under house arrest because of an element of criminal policy. That is to say, it is better for us to speak with him outside the prison, to not have to expose the prosecutors or have to enter the jail where he is detained. Nevertheless, imagine, it has not been publicized much in Guatemala: we urged the provisional closure, as the Attorney General’s Office and Public Prosecutor, encroaching on our functions in the FECI, asked another prosecutor’s office to challenge a Public Prosecutor request. That is to say, the Public Prosecutor contested a resolution that came from a request from the Public Prosecutor itself!

Can we say that the sabotage of the FECI was generalized or was it only in specific cases?

The work was sabotaged in such a way that, according to the instructions, the Attorney General was going to have units for catching investigations on illicit political-economic networks, and they were going to decide which ones to transfer to the FECI. But not a single one was transferred. The investigations that we were able to perform in the FECI were because people trusted me and the FECI’s work, and they came and filed complaints, and I had to ask the Attorney General whether we continued investigating them or not. Some were transferred to other prosecutors’ offices, others we did not have any further information about; for example, a conspiracy was discovered between the commission that nominated magistrates for the Supreme Electoral Tribunal and the magistrate who today serves as that body’s president. In order to be nominated, that magistrate sent information about a fake doctorate he had pursued. The person who participated on the nominating committee in representation of the private universities was the one who issued the fake diploma. I told the Attorney General that we had that information and to date there has been no response. Ultimately, on the one hand she said: “Noooo, we need additional statistical results,” but what the Attorney General was doing was taking power away from the FECI, “draining water away from the fish,” just like the military doctrine during the armed conflict. I can’t say that the FECI’s work is already concluded, but you’ll see in a few months. I believe that July 23 must mark a point of inflection for the Public Prosecutor. For three years and two months it could tolerate the FECI and the results it achieved: if the outcome was positive, it was like the Attorney General’s accomplishment, but in reality, they were achieved in spite of her. There was no support.

None?

Look, I have an official letter, for example, dated October 19, imagine how stupid…I have never heard of any Prosecutor’s Office in the world that has to ask the Attorney General to authorize backup from a police patrol car in an interior department. That is like a prosecutor from Ahuachapán needing to have an official letter with the Attorney General’s approval to ask for the assistance of a police patrol car. That is stupid. That was what we had to do. It was an instrument of control.

It's clear to me that you're convinced that the attorney general is part of a network of corruption in Guatemala. 

I have no doubt. Not necessarily corrupt in the sense of receiving money, but corruption doesn’t only mean receiving money but power as well. 

Her role in this network, you believe, is to protect the interests of other people, particularly the president.

Of the president of the Republic, who was someone who had to be treated with deference. One of the disciplinary procedures taken against us was because of an issue, possibly driven by the president, that related to the possible removal of the chairperson of the Guatemalan Social Security Institute’s board of directors: in that case, the person who occupied that position was inconvenient to the president, and so they invented an instrument for abusing his authority with the purpose of submitting Carlos Contreras’s removal to the entire board of directors.  However, what we saw was an abuse of authority caused by a direct command from the president of the Republic, and what we requested was that the general secretary of the President's Office explain who gave the instructions to transfer information to the Attorney General’s Office. That led to a disciplinary procedure because we did not ask with the deference with which we had to address the president of the Republic and, because it was the president, the note had to have the Attorney General’s approval. It reached those levels of stupidity. 

Your dismissal seems to be the last step in a process that began with the destruction of the CICIG and the prosecution of Claudia Paz y Paz and Thelma Aldana. After your departure and with what is going to happen to your team and unit, the dismantling of the institutional units that were fighting corruption will be complete.

This was the last agency that had that role. I remember last year, on December 9, on international anti-corruption day, there was an event at the Palacio Nacional [National Palace] in which the president didn’t even mention the Prosecutor’s Office. There is a presidential anti-corruption committee that was smoke and mirrors. Then there was an event at the Public Prosecutor, where because I was there, the president of the Republic was not, and I encouraged all those who gave their speeches to better live the fight against corruption, because we are tired of blowing hot air. Then, apart from that, there is a…the president of the Republic has something personal against me because at some point I was part of the team that investigated the extrajudicial executions at the Pavon detention center and at Infiernito, where he was involved in some way. The fact that he has managed to solve his situation does not mean that I am of the conviction that he benefited from some legal body, but that I carried out a function at that moment that was the product of my role as a public servant.  

That leads me to believe that you are convinced that the person who is going to succeed you in the position is subservient to the interests that Attorney General Porras protects. 

At least she has been a trusted prosecutor for her. I was her classmate, she is very professional, a very good colleague, and I hope she manages to put the interest of justice above complying with whatever intention or whim the Attorney General might have.

Guatemalan citizens embraced their institutions and defended them, they filled the streets in anger at the attacks on the CICIG and they took up the anti-corruption fight. They took to the streets to topple a corrupt president and vice president. What happened? What happened to that energy? 

The actors involved in large-scale corruption are people who have a lot of political and economic power, and they took advantage of all the tools at their disposal to move the discourse backward. They also used society’s polarization a great deal: in Guatemala, from 1954 to 2021, except for one government that prided itself on being social democratic, the governments have all been right wing: it was said that we only attacked right-wing rulers, and  they began to shift the discourse, that those of us participating in the fight against corruption are leftists, communists, lefties…then they used polarization as a tool, the people began to get involved less because people thought that they were going to be labeled as guerrillas. Our war was mostly in the rural areas, which destroyed entire populations. Remembering that causes a lot of fear among citizens, so that extinguished the impetus the population had at some point. 

You mentioned in an earlier interview that the mistake was that Guatemala’s state institutions did not support the fight against corruption by making the necessary reforms. The CICIG investigated but the rest of the institutions did not go along with the reforms.

They only show up for photos. If an investigation of a corruption case determined that there was a loophole in a law, Congress did not reform it, if the investigation determined that the Comptroller of Accounts failed, no reforms were made to the Comptroller of Accounts. I believe that today we are reaping what we have sown.  

They’ll say that you lost, right? That Claudia Paz y Paz, Thelma Aldana, the CICIG, and now you lost. Do you see it that way?

Perhaps, yes. But more than us, the people of Guatemala lose. 

*Translated by Jessica Kirstein