Guatemalan former prosecutors and human rights advocates say this week’s decision to reappoint controversial Attorney General, Consuelo Porras, for a second four-year term, is a disaster for democracy and signals a free reign for rampant political corruption.
President Alejandro Giammattei reappointed Porras last week Monday, ignoring widespread concerns about her suitability for the office.
The U.S. State Department had already placed Porras and her husband on a list of "corrupt and undemocratic actors" in September, as well as suspending cooperation with his office and took away his visa.
At her swearing in Giammattei defended Porras and also struck a nationalist tone, saying that the attorney general's office "will not be used ever again by [Guatemalan] nationals or foreigners to impose an ideological or political agenda".
Giammattei also announced that he will not attend the Summit of the Americas in response to U.S. criticism of the appointment of the attorney general.
Ever since first being elevated to one of the most powerful offices in the country, Porras has become a lightning rod for criticism, turning her into one of the nation’s most unpopular public figures.
“She's a monster,” former Attorney General Thelma Aldana told Univision. Aldana preceded Porras and went into exile the day after she left the job in 2018 fearing for her life.
Praised for her independence and honesty, Aldana worked closely with the international anti-impunity commission (CICIG) to secure the incarceration in 2015 of former Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina and his vice president, Roxana Baldetti, several ministers and other high-ranking public officials.
A religious "fanatic"
Aged 68, Porras, a woman of short stature with her hair tied back, is a fervent Catholic and wears a rosary on her wrist. She is a lawyer by profession and before becoming attorney general was an appellate court magistrate and constitutional affairs prosecutor, with no experience in high-level criminal investigation matters.
Members of Porras’ staff felt obliged to go to Mass with her for fear of losing their jobs, said the former head of the Special Prosecutor’s Office against Impunity (FECI), Juan Francisco Sandoval. She also installed a statue of the Virgin Mary in the hallway outside her office.
"In one of the last meetings we had, for some reason it came up that something had happened at a soccer game...and I said that's the problem with being a fanatic. And then she told me, 'I am a religious fanatic,'" Sandoval recalled.
At another meeting Porras suggested that she go on vacation or on leave abroad to take a course, Sandoval added.
During her swearing in speech, Porras insisted that under her leadership the attorney general's office has acted "without any bias or political ideology, strictly focusing on its constitutional and legal role".
The first time in Guatemala's recent history that an Attorney General has been re-elected
She was reappointed after a beating out a field of 15 candidates reviewed by a commission led by all the deans of the law schools of the universities and the Supreme Court. It was the first time in recent Guatemalan history that an Attorney General was reappointed for a second four-year term.
But critics, including U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken have accused her of systematically undermining democracy by obstructing anti-corruption investigations to protect government allies. In a statement, Human Rights Watch said Porras has "undermined investigations into corruption and human rights abuses, and brought arbitrary criminal prosecutions against journalists, judges, and prosecutors."
The National Business Council of Guatemala stated that her reelection "is not good news for the country's investment climate. Nor for the necessary stability and rule of law".
Porras was the candidate of former President Jimmy Morales, who ousted UN anti-corruption unit
Porras was elevated to one of the country's most powerful posts in 2018 by former President Jimmy Morales, who was also accused of corrupt actions. A years after she took office, the Guatemalan government terminated the CICIG, a United Nations-backed mission that operated for 12 years dismantling criminal networks.
At the time, the CICIG had opened an investigating over allegations of funding irregularities linked to Morales’ 2015 election campaign. The government gave the U.N. body 24 hours to leave the country.
When Morales' successor, Giammattei, also came under investigation by the anti-corruption unit (FECI), prosecutors became the target of persecution by Porras' office.
24 Guatemalan justice officials in exile
During Porras' first term as attorney general, 24 judicial officials - prosecutors, judges and magistrates - have gone into exile claiming to have been victims of retaliation by Porras for their work on corruption cases.
The accusations against Porras intensified last July after she sacked Sandoval, the head of Guatemala's anti-corruption unit.
Hundreds took to the streets in protest at his removal from office. Sandoval fled the country hours after he was sacked out of fear that Porras would go after him on fabricated charges.
"She is impunity," said Sandoval, who is now applying for political asylum in the United States while learning English. "My life was in danger. In the prosecutor's office we dismantled violent power structures, extrajudicial executions, former presidents, people with a lot of political power, with a lot of economic power," Sandoval said.
"Besides, I foresaw that Porras was going to look for a way to arrest me," he added.
Aldana accuses the government of being a "pact of the corrupt," referring to a group of politicians allegedly implicated in corruption cases with ties to the Giammattei government.
When she tried to launch a campaign for the presidency she came under investigation for alleged illegal hiring while she was head of the Public Ministry.
One of the last to go into exile last year was renowned judge Erika Aifán Dávila, who said after leaving the country that she was conducting an investigation against the current president.
Corruption case implicates Giammattei
Giammattei was under investigation for an alleged contribution of $2.6 million to his 2019 election campaign, according to a report by El Faro published in February.
It was part of an ongoing investigation opened by the Special Prosecutor’s Office against Impunity (FECI) after finding the equivalent of nearly $16 million in cash hidden in suitcases in a house in Antigua Guatemala rented by a former minister. The campaign contribution was linked to government contracts for 12 highway construction projects worth more than $191 million.
Giammattei's office has rejected the allegations, but many critics interpret his support of Porras as an effort to block the investigation.
Porras also denies having interfered in any case. "All cases have assigned prosecutors, in no case does the attorney general investigate", she answered when questioned about her role in investigations of possible corruption cases that have not advanced. Among the achievements of her administration, she cites more than 60 people accused of drug trafficking extradited to the United States.
"Guatemala was seen as a beacon, a beacon of hope for justice"
Sandoval and Aldana fear the window of hope that existed during the era of the CICIG is now over.
"All that effort of 12 years of work of the international community, of the United States, of us, of judges, independent prosecutors, civil society, independent press. This woman has ruined it all. It's unbelievable," said Aldana, who now works as a lawyer in Washington DC where he investigates violence against women in Latin America.
Now 66, she laments, "mine is not the age to start the American Dream. I had planned to go teach and look after grandchildren, not be exile, going around on the train, on buses, like I was 20 years old," she added.
Sandoval is younger, although at 40 he already had 15 years of experience as a prosecutor under his belt.
"There was a very short period in which with the advances in the case of transitional justice, Guatemala was seen as a beacon, a beacon of hope for justice in Central America," Sandoval said.
"But, in the rearticulation of the structures of power, they took advantage of that power to now act against us. Because the issue is not only preventing the efforts made to investigate illicit networks of great power move forward, but also the taking of revenge and neutralization of all the people who at the time pushed those efforts. It sets an example for those who stayed behind in the sense that it is impossible to get justice in Guatemala," he added.