Central America / Politics

Arévalo's Reform Bill to Sack Consuelo Porras Stalls in Gridlocked Congress

Four months into office, Arévalo has presented a reform bill proposing performance-based grounds to sack election-interfering Attorney General Consuelo Porras. But Congress has posed a frontal challenge to Semilla, refusing to either hold a session or condemn the bill while accusing the governing party of not meeting them halfway in constructing a broader legislative agenda.

Edwin Bercián
Edwin Bercián

Tuesday, May 14, 2024
Roman Gressier


El Faro English translates Central America. Subscribe to our newsletter.

Time was indeed of the essence on Monday, May 6, when Guatemalan President Bernardo Arévalo presented a bill that would expand the legal pathways to dismiss the Attorney General. If passed, sitting AG Consuelo Porras, who despite broad international outcry and months of national protests tried to declare the elections “null” last year, could be removed for failure in her duties or for “lack of capacity, suitability, or honor.”

Eight days later, the initiative appears to be falling flat. Congress has repeatedly failed to even hold a plenary session. On Wednesday, legislators will take recess until August 1. Extraordinary sessions during break are uncommon, though negotiations could continue and on Monday President of Congress Nery Ramos did not rule out sessions in June or July.

“The only safe route to remove the attorney general is by congressional reform,” argues lead Semilla Congressman Samuel Pérez in an interview with El Faro English, describing the endangered proposal as seeking “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.”

Arévalo has for months searched for a route to can Porras, who has the backing of corrupt networks tied to the past government, as voters and social movements have called for quicker and more decisive presidential action. Expectedly, national political actors including 13 Indigenous authorities and the progressive-leaning National Business Council (CNE) have come out in support of the proposed reform.

The conservative business association CACIF —which has a tense relationship with Semilla and whose new leadership invited Porras to a May 8 Labor Conference, where images of pleasantries with the AG projected closeness— told El Faro English on Thursday, May 9, that “at the moment we do not have a position.”

By policy, CACIF finds consensus among chambers before taking a public stand, like when it condemned Porras’ election interference in December. Asked on Monday whether deliberations were ongoing, spokeswoman Rocío López said: “It’s possible.”

Guatemalan Attorney General Consuelo Porras (center) and Ángel Pineda, secretary-general of the Public Prosecutor
Guatemalan Attorney General Consuelo Porras (center) and Ángel Pineda, secretary-general of the Public Prosecutor's Office, attend a Labor Conference held by the conservative business association CACIF on May 8, 2024, in Guatemala City. Photo Public Prosecutor's Office

“I think this [proposal] is constitutional. Before 2016, the law simply stated that the attorney general could be removed for ‘just cause’ but didn’t explain what that meant, and presidents removed them without much explanation,” says constitutional lawyer Édgar Ortiz. Since then, removal of an attorney general has required a criminal conviction, which, paradoxically, the very prosecutor’s office would need to seek.

“There was an overcorrection [in 2016],” says Ortiz, referring to when Congress voted for a sweeping reform that created a barrier to removing then-top prosecutor Thelma Aldana amid joint investigations with the CICIG into potential presidential corruption. “We went from a model where removal was easy to one in which it is virtually impossible.”

“A basic principle of any national system is accountability,” he adds, but “the reform could be better thought-out, more complete, and more concerned with institutional change. Rather, I think this reform is very motivated by the problem today with Consuelo Porras.”

An upcoming minefield is the high court: On May 5, on the eve of presenting the reform, the Constitutional Court (CC) ordered the president to not “violate the term” of Consuelo Porras, who will otherwise keep her post through May 2026, but the court did not step in the way of legislative reform, per se.

That ruling caught neither the Executive Branch nor Semilla by surprise: “A good portion of the Court is designed to preserve the regime that put it there,” says Pérez. “The CC had never been so involved in Congress as in the last three months.”

“I think [the Court] thought Arévalo would [unilaterally] remove the attorney general,” argues Ortiz. “Perhaps she [Porras] is looking for an excuse to attack the legislative process and to use that order, even if the law is changed, to argue that she cannot be removed, hoping that the CC takes her side.”

The Embassy factor

With the reform on the table, Arévalo and Porras are playing international poker in the fog of which side local power-brokers will ultimately take, like in the run-up to inauguration.

The president presented the prosecutorial reform the day before a visit from U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and dozens of international diplomats for a summit on migration in Guatemala City. With the summit ongoing, three-quarters of Congress refused to show up for a scheduled session — but neither did they come out against Arévalo’s bill.

“I definitely think the [Semilla legislative bloc] views the United States as a de facto ally to generate necessary pressure on some actors,” congressional analyst Ángel Ramírez told El Faro English the day before Blinken’s visit. “Semilla is keeping the stove as hot as possible in Congress, appealing to large mobilizations and political processes to pressure legislators, keeping in mind that Congress has always been one of the public institutions with less public trust and prestige” in Guatemala.

Pérez describes Semilla’s ties to the Biden administration as “fluid and positive” but dismisses the suggestive timing of the bill as “a total coincidence”: “It’s not that we coordinate with the Embassy anything related to Congress.” He chalked up the lack of quorum to “great fear of the attorney general, of being publicly exposed, and of upsetting the president.”

In her own presser during the summit, Porras called the reform an attack on her autonomy and on women, reading a letter signed by 11 hardline House Republicans calling for a report from Blinken and for “non-intervention of the State Department and USAID in legislative affairs,” a clear message of support for Porras and her allies in the Guatemalan Right. “I don’t take orders in Spanish or English, nor any individual interests,” she said. “I am only accountable to the Guatemalan people and to God.”

Porras’ number-two, Ángel Pineda, added that Arévalo’s bill “is already under investigation.”

Guatemalan President Bernardo Arévalo (left) and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken look at each other during the Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection ministerial meeting in Guatemala City on May 7, 2024. Photo Johan Ordóñez/AFP
Guatemalan President Bernardo Arévalo (left) and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken look at each other during the Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection ministerial meeting in Guatemala City on May 7, 2024. Photo Johan Ordóñez/AFP

Daily paper La Hora asked why her office continues to investigate Arévalo rather than his predecessor Alejandro Giammattei. Similar to when Porras’ office announced in February 2022 that it would investigate the source of a leak to El Faro and CNN of alleged 2019 electoral bribes to Giammattei, rather than look into the possible $2.6 million USD in bribes from major construction firms, she warned: “If you are privy to a criminal act… you could be guilty of omission of reporting.”

In a May 7 press call, Deputy Assistant Secretary Eric Jacobstein dismissed the allegations of undue interference: “We [the Biden administration] respect the legislative processes in Guatemala and Guatemalans' efforts to work within Guatemalan institutions.”

As for the U.S. congressional inquiry into whether the Embassy threatened sanctions or otherwise lobbied Congress to support the prosecutorial reform, a State Department official responded to a formal request for comment that the Biden administration “aligns with democratic governments and allies to advance shared goals… [S]anctions and visa restriction decisions follow all appropriate laws and procedures.”

Majority rules

But there is a more immediate obstacle: Since the term started in January Semilla has failed to solidify a legislative coalition. Its own fence-sitting colleagues have bluntly criticized the party for what they describe as a lack of a clear agenda and, from a moral perch, unwillingness to deal in realpolitik.

But neither have they publicly come out against the bill, implying either that they trust that they can still gain leverage  from the government in exchange for their votes or that they are concerned by the public consequences of voting no against the initiative.

Meanwhile, opposition legislators are getting on the same page, issuing summons to multiple ministers in recent days, including to Foreign Minister Carlos Ramiro Martínez to explain Guatemala’s May 10 U.N. vote calling on the Security Council to reconsider recognition of Palestinian statehood. (All of Central America voted in favor, while the United States was one of nine nations to vote against it.)

Pérez concedes that his party has not struck a balance: “How do we guarantee political capital to legislators who are not from the former regime?” he asks — referring to the governing coalition of recent administrations that was soiled by accusations of vote-buying, insider dealing of contracts and government jobs, and narco-ties.

Guatemalan President Bernardo Arévalo (center) holds a press conference presenting legal reforms to Congress that would allow new grounds for removal of the country
Guatemalan President Bernardo Arévalo (center) holds a press conference presenting legal reforms to Congress that would allow new grounds for removal of the country's top prosecutor, in Guatemala City on May 6, 2024. Photo Edwin Bercián/AFP

In a surprise announcement on May 1, well-connected former Congressman José Ubico, seven-year head of the National Defense Committee, pleaded guilty in the Eastern District of Texas —for the second time in the U.S.— to international cocaine trafficking charges after months of disappearance to evade a local arrest warrant. It is unclear how Ubico, decorated by the Guatemalan Defense Ministry in 2022, ended up in U.S. custody.

Against this backdrop, good-faith coalition-building seems a maze. “The alliance of Semilla in Congress is not in its best moment,” says Ramírez. “There are many legislators asking, how do we build a joint agenda based on substance, and not only a struggle between two actors, the president and the attorney general?”

“Simply reducing the interests of legislators not voting for this bill to support for corruption, as if they had no other legitimate political interest, is very risky,” he concludes. “That fragmentation leads to extreme polarization, which makes it very difficult to build legislative majorities capable of propelling a governing agenda.”

This article first appeared in the May 14 edition of the El Faro English newsletter. Subscribe here.

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