Guatemala targets Colombia’s defense minister in crackdown on anti-corruption forces
Rafael Curruchiche, the head of Guatemala’s Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity, on Aug. 19, 2022.
By MARIA ABI HABIB and JODY GARCÍA
As Guatemalan authorities intensify a methodical, yearslong crackdown on officials who were tasked with rooting out government corruption in the country, the government announced last week that it was investigating Colombia’s defense minister, who had led a United Nations-backed anti-corruption body that was active in Guatemala until 2019.
The announcement, which is straining bilateral relations between Guatemala and Colombia, came alongside several arrest warrants and criminal charges brought against former prosecutors and judges who had worked with the anti-corruption task force.
The developments have renewed concerns about the withering of Guatemala’s democracy and the rule of law, leading to a flurry of condemnations from the United States, the European Union and the United Nations. Rights groups have criticized Guatemala’s government for intimidating various officials involved in the anti-corruption task force; more than 30 prosecutors and judges have fled the country over the past two years to evade arrest.
Colombian President Gustavo Petro defended the defense minister, Iván Velásquez, Tuesday and said “sanity in politics” meant fighting corruption.
“Those who allow the mafia to take over the state only lead society to genocide,” Petro said on Twitter, clearly intended as a barb against Guatemala’s president.
The current diplomatic discord began Monday when the head of Guatemala’s Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity, Rafael Curruchiche, said that his team would take “legal actions” against Velásquez, for “illegal, arbitrary and abusive acts” when he led the anti-corruption body.
The allegations revolve around deals that former Guatemalan officials tried to broker with Velásquez to share information about corruption cases in exchange for reduced sentences — a fairly standard process that prosecutors employ in legal cases around the world.
Velásquez dismissed the investigation into his work as retaliation from those his task force had targeted.
“We know the monster, we have seen it up close and, from different trenches, we have fought it. We know how it transforms and the methods it uses, but it does not frighten us,” Velásquez said Monday on Twitter about the charges issued by Curruchiche and the Guatemalan government.
From 2013 until 2019, Velásquez led the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, which worked with Guatemala’s attorney general to counter corruption. The U.N.-backed force drew global attention in 2015 for investigations into top Guatemalan officials, including the country’s president at the time, Otto Pérez, who resigned and was subsequently arrested.
But in 2018, Guatemala’s then-president, Jimmy Morales, expelled Velásquez from Guatemala. He shut the anti-corruption body down the following year.
On Monday, Curruchiche also announced several arrest warrants against former investigators who had worked with the anti-corruption body, including Thelma Aldana, Guatemala’s former attorney general.
Brian A. Nichols, the U.S. assistant secretary for the Western Hemisphere, denounced the latest moves by Guatemala’s government, tweeting Tuesday that he was “disturbed” by the arrest warrants.
“Such actions weaken the rule of law and confidence in Guatemala’s judicial system,” Nichols said.
Last year Curruchiche was sanctioned by the U.S. government and accused of having “knowingly engaged in acts that threaten democratic processes or institutions, engaged in significant corruption, or obstructed investigations.”
Curruchiche is barred from entering the United States.
President Alejandro Giammattei of Guatemala told a Colombian radio station Friday that “differences between countries must be resolved through diplomatic channels.” The president suggested that his government would investigate Velasquez but would not prosecute him because of the diplomatic immunity that protects him.
Giammattei abruptly ended the interview when he was asked about the sanctions the U.S. government had slapped on Curruchiche last year.
“I told him that I was not going to touch that topic anymore,” Giammattei said about the journalist, before hanging up the phone.
Widening their campaign against dissent, Guatemalan officials on Thursday brought charges against the lawyers representing José Ruben Zamora, a journalist who has extensively covered allegations of corruption involving Giammattei. At the time of his arrest, Zamora was also the president of one of the country’s leading newspapers, elPeriódico.
When government authorities arrested Zamora last year, they also raided the newspaper’s offices. Zamora was charged with money laundering, blackmail and influence peddling. His lawyers have disputed those accusations.