Guatemala defies Washington, pushing anti-graft judge from top court

Hondurans taking part in a new caravan of migrants set to head to the United States, walk along a road in Chiquimula, Guatemala

Guatemala has set a collision course with Washington over the removal of the most prominent graft-fighting judge from the Central American nation’s highest court, despite her having the outspoken support of the Biden administration.

Lawmakers invited Constitutional Court President Gloria Porras to an investiture ceremony in Congress last week after she was re-elected to another five-year term on the bench – only to refuse to swear her in.

They cited a lawsuit related to her past decisions on the court, and alleged irregularities in her election.

The rejection, following displays of U.S. support for Porras and other judges Washington views as untainted by corruption, met with sharp criticism from the State Department.

Such disregard of U.S. priorities underscores challenges President Joe Biden’s government faces in combating Central American graft, seen as a driver of migration to the United States.

The importance the United States places on fighting corruption was drilled into Guatemalan authorities directly by Biden, on a call with counterpart Alejandro Giammattei in March, and repeated by officials since.

Giammattei has not publicly commented on the situation, but the decision to keep Porras off the court was celebrated as historic by Congress leader Allan Rodriguez, a member of Giammattei’s party Vamos.

Ricardo Zuniga, the first U.S. special envoy for the region since the Cold War, said Washington saw supporting an independent judiciary as a core responsibility for Guatemala’s leaders, and had told them so.

“This is not about any one individual, but about the appearance of a systematic effort to isolate those known to be fighting against corruption,” Zuniga told Reuters.

In contrast, Zuniga said, “certain institutions” had taken steps to allow judges credibly accused of criminal activity to remain on the bench.

“It reinforces the perception that the situation isn’t moving in a direction that advances America’s national interests or those of the Guatemalan people,” he said.

The Guatemalan president’s office, Congress leadership and the foreign ministry did not respond to requests for comment. Giammattei has said he is fully committed to the fight against corruption.

Former U.S. ambassador to Guatemala Stephen McFarland said the move against Porras looked like “a direct challenge” to the United States by the Guatemalan government.

Dan Restrepo, a former senior adviser to the Obama White House on Latin America who is close to the new administration, said Washington should step up pressure on Guatemala.

“The people responsible for this latest corrupt act should jump to the top of the list of U.S. sanctions,” he said.

The White House and the State Department did not respond to questions about possible reprisals.

Restrepo, who last week participated in a meeting with Harris on the administration’s efforts to slow migration to the U.S.-Mexican border from Central America, said he saw the move to neutralize the court as a sign that people in Guatemala who are nervous about increased scrutiny from the United States were seeking pliant judges.

Under Biden, Washington has stepped up threats of action against corrupt officials in Central America, including sanctions usually reserved for autocratic regimes. A new “corruption list” draws attention to bad actors.

COORDINATED ATTACK

The outgoing bench of the Constitutional Court was an ally for the United Nations anti-graft body the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG, that left Guatemala after a campaign against it in 2019.

Thelma Aldana, a former attorney general who uncovered high level corruption and worked closely with CICIG, fled the country after what appeared to be a politically motivated legal case against her. She was granted U.S. asylum last year.

Groups that organized opposition to CICIG and Aldana, some on the far right of the political spectrum, also targeted Porras because she pursued what they see as a foreign-driven agenda against politicians and business interests.

At the Constitutional Court, Porras voted against a decision to vacate a conviction against ex-dictator Rios Montt for genocide of Mayan people during the country’s 36-year civil war. And on her watch, the court stopped a mining project due to indigenous objections.

Under Porras, the Constitutional Court was also key in obstructing what Guatemalan prosecutors last year said was a conspiracy to pack lower tribunals with corrupt officials. Six people are on trial related to the investigation.

Over the past four years, Porras has faced dozens of lawsuits including ongoing attempts to remove her immunity. She told Reuters she was targeted for her fight against corruption “and for trying to protect vulnerable groups.”

The 2021-2026 bench is set to switch course, incoming court president Roberto Molina made clear in his inaugural speech on Wednesday, accusing the outgoing court of political interference and criticizing International Labor Organization rules on indigenous consultations.

The court should “not cede or succumb to internal, external, national or foreign pressures,” said Molina, a veteran judge who has served on the court before. He vowed to fight corruption.

Guatemala’s Congress, bar association, university, executive branch and Supreme Court each elect one magistrate and one alternate, a system intended to keep a balance of powers on the court’s bench.

However, critics say Molina and the court’s two other seated magistrates have political ties to the country’s military past, a history of voting against anti-corruption efforts, or close links to the executive.

A fifth magistrate, Nester Vasquez, was not sworn in, over allegations related to a court-rigging scandal.

Molina was to be the 2018 running mate for Zury Rios, Rios Montt’s daughter. Her campaign ended when the Constitutional Court ruled the law prohibited coup leaders’ close relatives from presidential office.

Another magistrate, Dina Ochoa, was dubbed a “judge of impunity” by CICIG for rulings in favor of officials accused of corruption.

Just a week after the March 4 Biden call, Giammattei’s cabinet elected his chief of staff Leyla Lemus to the court, a decision his vice-president criticized.

Molina, Ochoa, Lemus and Vasquez did not respond to requests for comment. Ochoa and Molina both said they were committed to judicial independence in comments published in Guatemalan media this week. Lemus and Vasquez have not made public comments.

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