Central America / Politics

“The only safe route to remove the attorney general is by congressional reform”

Roman Gressier
Roman Gressier

Monday, May 13, 2024
Roman Gressier

Leer en español

On Monday, May 6, President Bernardo Arévalo presented to Guatemalan Congress a proposed legal reform to remove Attorney General Consuelo Porras, who refuses to resign despite frontal criticism for shielding senior officials from corruption probes, as well as her attempts to nullify last year’s election. If the bill passes, the president will be able to dismiss the top prosecutor for failing in her duties, without needing a prior criminal conviction. She could also be sacked for “lack of capacity, suitability, or honor.”

The initiative strikes at the heart of the delicate debate over prosecutorial independence in Guatemala amid a battle to wrest the key tool of political persecution from the coalition of corrupt interests that have continued operating since Alejandro Giammattei left office in January.

Congressman Samuel Pérez, legislative head of Semilla, the party of Arévalo, at first claimed that they had the necessary votes, but the party has failed twice in the past week to wrangle enough legislators in Congress to first obtain quorum. The Constitutional Court has ordered the president to not “violate the term” of the attorney general but has yet to rule on an injunction filed by a close Porras ally, the Foundation Against Terrorism, asking that the new rule, if passed, only be applied to the next top prosecutor starting in 2026.

In this interview, Pérez responds to criticism of the leadership of Semilla, which has gone from being a small opposition fraction to carrying the yoke of setting the agenda despite holding just 23 of 160 seats and the temporary suspension of the party at Porras’ initiative, preventing them from sitting on the Executive Board or committees. On May 15 Congress will leave for recess for over two months. Only two days remain, this Tuesday and Wednesday, to hold a session and expedite the reform by a two-thirds vote.

Why did you propose such a transcendent initiative just a week and a half before recess?
Our initial hypothesis was that the attorney general would resign within a few weeks after her attempted coup d’état failed. We of Semilla have never changed our position of calling for her resignation. But she launched new attacks, and we began a process of analysis to avoid improvisation or triggering unintended consequences that could legally shield her. The only safe route to remove the attorney general is by congressional reform.

Did you really have the votes in hand, or were you punting to the rest of Congress?
A good part of Congress is committed to stopping the political persecution. Our colleagues did not tell us “We’ve been waiting for this initiative!” but they did not oppose it, either. Some said they were in agreement, while others clarified doubts after the meeting with the president. Many said “We’ll be there,” but in the end did not show up. Right now there is total impunity: the attorney general cannot be removed unless she investigates herself. Our task is to develop clear grounds for the president to decide when to remove the top prosecutor.

The bill introduces ambiguous grounds such as the lack of honor or dereliction of duty.
Other proposals have suggested that the president be able to remove an AG simply from one day to another. In ours we kept guarantees. Obviously the final goal is to remove Consuelo Porras, but the bill proposes a period for her to present a report on her conduct. In the end, the Constitution is very clear that the president has the power to dismiss her.

Before 2016, Guatemalan presidents had the discretion to remove them under the broad umbrella of “just cause”. Are you seeking a middle ground?
Before, prosecutors did not use their office for political persecution nor coups d’état. There was an escalation in our recent history, and that of Latin America, when political disputes were taken to the realm of lawfare. So the national debate has become about keeping enough autonomy so that an attorney general cannot be removed arbitrarily, but keeping escape valves so that the prosecutor’s office does not become a parallel organ completely shielded from accountability.

What would it mean if Semilla fails to secure this reform?
We would need to reformulate our strategy. We need to better understand the variables that are leading other blocs to not attend. They have told us that there is great fear of the attorney general, of being publicly exposed, and of upsetting the president. Some legislators say, “You’re going to install another prosecutor who will persecute us,” despite our explicit lobbying that our goal is to stop political persecution on all sides.

Semilla legislator Samuel Pérez walks alongside Guatemalan President-elect Bernardo Arevalo at the front of the
Semilla legislator Samuel Pérez walks alongside Guatemalan President-elect Bernardo Arevalo at the front of the 'March for Democracy' to demand the resignation of Attorney General Consuelo Porras in Guatemala City on December 7, 2023. Photo Carlos Alonzo/AFP

In recent days legislators have criticized Semilla’s leadership in Congress, even saying that what is missing is a “national development agenda.”
There are a thousand and one excuses. Everyone rationalizes the fact that they did not take a brave and forceful stand on a popular demand expressed in the polls and on the streets. The president channeled it, and now it is the legislature’s turn to step up.

If you fail to expedite this bill next week, Congress will need to discuss it in three separate sessions. Will that mean delaying it until the end of recess on August 1?
Not necessarily. We have two sessions this week and the president of Congress could convene an extraordinary plenary.

Where does President Nery Ramos stand on these negotiations?
The president of Congress has demonstrated his total commitment to the political project of the government and has done his part to try to move this initiative forward.

Who else supports it? How many votes do you have in pocket?
We don’t have an exact number. There are those who do not want a key piece of the former regime of corruption, impunity, and authoritarianism to disappear, because they could lose opportunities to personally benefit. Some believe we are bluffing, that we say we are fighting corruption but that under the table it will be business as usual. When they realize that is not the case, the extortion begins. We will not hand out fiefdoms, but we are willing for them to participate in the debates. There is a public perception that Congress has changed, but in reality the players have the same corrupt impulses, albeit now with withdrawal syndrome.

What do you mean by extortion?
It’s not criminal extortion, but rather pressure: “I’m not sufficiently on board with this; what’s in it for me?” They likely want things that we are not willing to give.

There must be room for political negotiation with blocs in a gray area toward Semilla.
We have already negotiated legitimate demands relating to the delegation of power. We did not win like Morena did in Mexico; we won above all in urban areas. And there are legislators from other parties with total legitimacy in their districts. But even so, that is not enough for many who want to see where they can cut corrupt business deals.

There has also been criticism that, on matters not having to do with corruption per se, Semilla has adopted a moralizing attitude.
Not at all. In reality, we have had fluid communication with practically each faction of each bloc. Perhaps not everyone is satisfied, but we are doing the work across the aisles.

Is it true that part of the Vamos bloc, the party of former president Alejandro Giammattei, is willing to negotiate with Semilla?
Yes, and a number of them were present in the session on Tuesday. They showed bravery, because they are the most exposed to retaliation. That has been the dynamic for months now.

What has become of Giammattei’s coalition that dominated the past Congress? The parties are still there.
It is not a logic of parties, but rather of a regime that subs out pieces but keeps the machine running. Giammattei bought legislators, guaranteed impunity, and delegated fiefdoms, as did Jimmy Morales [2016-2020] and Otto Pérez Molina [2012-2015]. Those there now are not his legislators; they are from the past regime and are seeking the same concessions. In this transitional process, how do we guarantee political capital to legislators who are not from the former regime? That is our great challenge and we have to be creative.

Is there proof that Giammattei bought votes?
I don’t have a document or receipt saying “This is how the president did it,” but last year there was a budget increase of around three billion quetzales [around $386 million USD] to the Ministry of Infrastructure. The new Ministry is now denouncing that there were projects that were paid out but not executed, and those public funds probably went to the electoral campaign. The day that Congress was poised to strip the immunity of the electoral magistrates, legislators stepped out to receive packages, and we think they were full of cash. The ruling legislative coalition never defended a bill based on a political position; they showed up to vote only because they were paid to do so.

On inauguration day in January, you obtained 92 votes to become president of Congress, but the Constitutional Court quickly stripped you of the title. I assume that in your strategy you factor in the Supreme and Constitutional Courts.
Without a doubt, and particularly the Constitutional Court. A good portion of the Court is designed to preserve the regime that put it there. The thing is that Semilla, a complete outlier, arrived with plans to transform the system. But most of the time the Court has served as a strong political counterweight, and that is what happened with the election of the Executive Board. The CC had never been so involved in Congress as in the last three months.

Last year, the very CC helped prevent the effort to overturn the election result.
They did the bare minimum. The CC has never made a statement on the completely illegal suspension of our party, despite knowing that it is illegal. That risk extends beyond parties to businesses, too. The CC did not actively guarantee the transition. It happened in spite of them.

Legislator Samuel Pérez of the Semilla party was chosen as president of the Guatemalan Congress on Jan. 14, 2024. But the Constitutional Court quickly intervened to annul the new Executive Board, and the party of President Bernardo Arévalo has since been temporarily suspended, stripped of its right to compete for senior leadership or committee positions. Photo Carlos Barrera
Legislator Samuel Pérez of the Semilla party was chosen as president of the Guatemalan Congress on Jan. 14, 2024. But the Constitutional Court quickly intervened to annul the new Executive Board, and the party of President Bernardo Arévalo has since been temporarily suspended, stripped of its right to compete for senior leadership or committee positions. Photo Carlos Barrera

In the coming months there will be a Supreme Court election. What will be Semilla’s strategy to prevent parallel actors from corrupting the process?
Our goal is to create the conditions to change the traditional dynamic of court elections to get different results and a much more independent justice system. Our role in Congress is simply to receive the list of candidates and choose the best among them.

Some potentially apt candidates are in exile, and there will likely be great pressure on the process. How will that better list of candidates come to fruition?
I can only comment on what I can do from within Congress. In fact, criminal cases have been launched against actors who get mixed up in processes that are not in their purview.

How would you describe the Semilla bloc’s relationship with the U.S. Embassy?
Our legislative bloc has always had a fluid and positive relationship with the U.S. Embassy. We meet with them fairly regularly, as they are an important commercial partner as well as a relevant political actor. We have never had problems or run-ins. Since 2015, U.S. interests have been fairly aligned with those of Guatemala in terms of defending democracy, fighting corruption, and creating a favorable business climate and development strategies.

How has the Embassy influenced the reform of the Public Prosecutor’s Office?
It’s not that we coordinate with the Embassy anything related to Congress, but they have reminded us, as well as other blocs, that they sanctioned Consuelo Porras. I imagine that, if there is a path to remove her, it is in the security interests of the United States or in keeping with their vision of democracy. Keep in mind that Porras has intervened in matters of organized crime, protecting drug traffickers. She has also been involved in the investigation of Save the Children, a case with impact even in the U.S. elections this year. She seems to be a pawn of some radical groups here and in the United States. Surely the Embassy is interested in putting the discussion of the issue of the attorney general on the table.

Have they told you in private that they support the bill?
They have not told us “We approve of your bill” but they are clearly in agreement.

According to the Washington Post, in December, amid the attacks on the transfer of power, the U.S. strategy toward the Guatemalan Congress consisted of sanctions, low-profile diplomacy and arm-twisting. Is that strategy still in use?
I don’t know what the Embassy’s strategy is. I think they used the tools they have to send the clearest message possible.

Congresswoman Sandra Jovel, now of the opposition, alleged that the Embassy was calling members of Congress one by one, threatening sanctions if they supported Porras’ initiative. Are you aware of that?
No, I never received a call from anybody.

They would have had no reason to call you, as you belong to Arévalo’s party.
What likely took place were meetings with people from the Embassy where legislators expressed their position. But that is not to say there was a coordinated operation. There are simply aligned interests. The United States uses its own tools on its own end of things.

Does Semilla see the U.S. Embassy as a de facto ally?
In our strategy we don’t think “The Embassy will get those votes” nor do we ask them to make calls and pull visas, but we are aware that they stay abreast of what happens in Congress.

But Semilla was aware that Secretary of State Antony Blinken was arriving on Tuesday, March 7, and it was that day that they tried to put the reform on the legislative agenda.
No, that was a total coincidence. I wasn’t aware, in fact, that Secretary Blinken was coming. Someone from the Executive Branch told me that he was coming to discuss migration and was in Guatemala until noon.

Former Congressman José Ubico just declared himself guilty in Texas of international drug trafficking conspiracy. What repercussions has this had in the Guatemalan Congress?
I don’t know what effect it has had, but he did business with various current legislators. We’ll have to see what he testifies as part of his confession.

He was president of the National Security Commission for seven years, no small fish.
Some blocs in Congress respond directly to cartels, with explicit stances by people with relatives directly tied to drug trafficking. There is no ideological dispute between Left and Right, as some suggest. In reality, in Congress there are criminals seeking privileges and impunity. 

Semilla legislative chief Samuel Pérez in an interview with El Faro English in Guatemala City on May 9, 2024. Photo Roman Gressier
Semilla legislative chief Samuel Pérez in an interview with El Faro English in Guatemala City on May 9, 2024. Photo Roman Gressier

It would seem the attorney general is going nowhere anytime soon.
We do not discard passing the reform this week. We are paying attention to what legislators of other blocs have said, regardless of whether we believe them. If we cannot get a broad consensus in Congress, we will need to reinvent our strategy, but we’re not kicking the can down the road. This is a scenario that we totally foresaw.

Do you plan to convene demonstrations in the streets?
We are not convening any mobilizations. Our main task is to reach consensus. The rest are completely exogenous variables. Nobody, except some Indigenous authorities and historically organized groups, can mobilize overnight. We are in conversation with many organized groups, but that has not been on our roadmap right now.

One day they may put Semilla under the same microscope.
No doubt. Guatemalan society made history by protecting democracy. And it is possible that indignation could bubble over into protests in the next few days against the legislators who are not showing up to vote. But we are present, and it was the president who sent the solution to Congress. Legislators sometimes say people on the street think we are all exactly the same, but people can distinguish between those committed to the people and those who are not.

Correction on May 13 at 4:40 p.m. ET: A previous version of this article stated that Congress would hold sessions on Tuesday, May 14, and Thursday, May 16, but the Guatemalan legislature will take recess starting after Wednesday, May 15.

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