The news on January 16 that former CICIG commissioner Iván Velásquez would be investigated as part of the ongoing Odebrecht bribery case, whose prosecution in Guatemala he oversaw starting in 2018, could be just another day in a co-opted Guatemalan judiciary — except that it unleashed a diplomatic ruckus with Colombia, where he’s now defense minister.
First came the announcement on Monday by Rafael Curruchiche, a top prosecutor sanctioned by the U.S. for obstructing major corruption investigations, of arrest warrants for four state’s attorneys who worked Odebrecht, including exiled former AG Thelma Aldana, for alleged “dark and corrupt negotiations with the company.” He also separately named Velásquez, leaving ambiguity as to whether he, too, faced a warrant.
Colombian President Gustavo Petro responded that night over Twitter: “I will never accept the arrest warrant for Minister Velásquez. He was committed to the fight against corruption and we will not allow the corrupt to persecute him. We will immediately call our ambassador for consultation.”
The next morning, Petro added: “If Guatemala insists on jailing good men, we want nothing to do with that country.” Transparency International, Human Rights Watch, and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Brian Nichols were among those to also condemn the accusations.
Guatemala immediately responded with its own consultation in Colombia. 'I’ll let President Petro keep committing the mistakes of a guerrilla fighter,” Giammattei told EFE, in reference to Petro’s former M-19 membership in the 1970s and 1980s.
On Tuesday morning, amid a flurry of confusion and calls from Uribista legislators for Velásquez’s resignation, Curruchiche clarified on multiple Colombian radio stations that the minister is not yet subject to arrest, but rather under investigation.
“Through email evidence we have established that Mr. Velásquez Gómez may have committed the crimes of obstruction of justice, conspiracy, and abuse of authority,” Curruchiche told Caracol Radio on Tuesday, referring to plea bargain negotiations in the prosecution of the Odebrecht case launched in 2018.
Velásquez, an ex-prosecutor of Colombian narcos and paramilitaries appointed by the U.N. to head the CICIG from 2013 to 2019, caustically investigated the two previous presidents, refused to make concessions to business élites involved in illicit campaign finance, and uncovered criminal networks encrusted in the public and private sectors. That work made him one of the figures demonized by pro-impunity actors in Guatemala, including Giammattei.
Curruchiche offered confused reasons for the Velásquez probe: “He knew everything about the negotiations taking place with the company Odebrecht. He knew the benefits that would be given to the Brazilians. He knew the total amount of money that would be reimbursed to the state of Guatemala. For the time being we have no proof that Mr. Velásquez accepted any money, but [...] we know that he directly intervened in the negotiations.”
He is referring to the cooperation agreements that led to the indictment of dozens of members of Congress and other leading Guatemalan politicians and officials for accepting bribes from the Brazil-based construction firm Odebrecht.
It’s one of the most sweeping corruption prosecutions launched by CICIG, mirroring judicial processes in countries across the hemisphere. Top prosecutors in the case, like exiled former anti-corruption attorney Juan Francisco Sandoval, have also been spuriously accused of wrongdoing in the megacase.
On the other hand, among those who stand to gain from the possible nullification of the agreements is 2015 presidential candidate Manuel Baldizón, who just returned to Guatemala after spending 28 months in U.S. federal prison for money laundering and bribery. Baldizón's son, Jorge, has been publicly identified as the witness who last year backpedaled on his sworn testimony that in 2019 Giammattei negotiated $2.6 million in campaign bribes.
The nullifications in the Odebrecht case would also benefit Alejandro Sinibaldi, former communications minister from 2012 to 2014 who confessed, after spending four years fleeing the police, to taking bribes from construction firms.
Baldizón stands accused of taking $1.3 million USD from Odebrecht to finance his campaign. A witness from the company accused Sinibaldi, who is facing multiple other investigations, of demanding bribes in 2013 to speed up the concession of a highway project. Both men have just been released on house arrest and may end up counter-suing the prosecutors who put them on trial.
That’s partly why Juan Francisco Sandoval tweeted a week ago: “They are hiding that we discovered a transnational operation of more than 18 million dollars in bribes that favored politicians that today they defend. And that there were advances in the probe related to more than 100 members of Congress who received bribes. But the Public Prosecutor’s Office has other intentions.”
When questioned on Caracol about whether his U.S. visa situation and corruption accusations against the judge who signed Monday's warrants undermine its credibility, Curruchiche retorted: “When you mention that I’ve been included in some list, it would be good to consider its ideological aspects.”
The mention of “ideology” was no happenstance. A Democratic congressional staffer told El Faro English that “the Republican party sees Petro through the Cold War framework” and asserted that the same goes for GOP support for the government of Guatemala.
Despite major corruption probes, Giammattei has gained solid backing from Republicans, who have stated that the U.S. Embassy’s diplomatic efforts to avoid the reelection of the current attorney general —who has also been sanctioned by the State Department— showed “inappropriate influence.”
The ideology card has also been used in Colombia: When Petro named Velásquez defense minister in July, Colombia’s far-right wing claimed the future minister —who helped reveal former President Álvaro Uribe’s ties to paramilitary groups— would unleash a witch hunt against conservatives, drawing directly from the anti-CICIG smear campaign.
After enjoying years of bipartisan U.S. support, Republicans’ abandonment of CICIG —and, in particular, the Trump administration’s slashing of funds— permitted the expulsion of Velásquez and the commission.
'Most of the Republicans who are giving a free pass to Guatemala,” added the staffer, “never knew Iván Velásquez.”
This article first appeared in the January 18 edition of the El Faro English newsletter. Subscribe here to tune into Central America.