International Justice Monitor

A project of the Open Society Justice Initiative

What Will Upheaval in Guatemalan Politics Mean for Grave Crimes Cases?

Another week of dramatic developments in Guatemala culminated in former Vice President Roxana Baldetti’s arrest on corruption charges and a request from the attorney general and UN-backed international investigators to impeach sitting President Otto Perez Molina.  Meanwhile, a legal complaint against the lead prosecutor in the Attorney General’s Human Rights Unit stalled when the judge in the case withdrew.  The legal and political outcomes from both sets of proceedings remain to be seen, but each holds potential to significantly influence the future of grave crimes prosecutions in Guatemala.

Corruption Probe Reaches the Top

On August 23, President Perez Molina addressed the nation to say that he had no intention of resigning from office.  The address and a late-night cabinet meeting followed a new call for his impeachment and the arrest of his former vice president on Friday, August 21.

Attorney General Thelma Aldana and Ivan Velasquez, the head of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), filed a request with the Supreme Court seeking the lifting of Perez Molina’s immunity from prosecution.  The action, which would clear the way for further criminal investigation of the president, comes days after an effort to strip Perez Molina of immunity failed to gain the necessary two-thirds majority in Congress. The Supreme Court must now determine whether the evidence is sufficient to believe it probable that Perez Molina was involved in corruption, and if so, send the file to Congress. A five-member congressional investigative commission would have to be created to analyze the case and recommend whether the president’s immunity should be lifted.  Lifting immunity would then require backing from two-thirds of congressional representatives.

This development came the same day that Judge Miguel Angel Galvez, overseeing the preliminary procedures in the customs case, visited former Vice President Baldetti in a private hospital to inform her of the reasons of her detention.  After a series of medical tests, officials transferred her the same day to the all-male Matamoros military prison, where a special area was set up for her, while she awaits a Monday-morning court hearing.

In a press conference on Friday, Attorney General Aldana and Commissioner Velazquez alleged that the president was involved in the same massive customs tax fraud known as La Linea, which had led to the arrest of Baldetti and 27 others.  Baldetti’s former private secretary, Juan Carlos Monzon, was the alleged ringleader, but remains at large.

In calling for further investigation of the president, the attorney general and commissioner pointed to evidence from documents seized in raids and from over 88,000 recorded phone conversations showing Perez Molina’s and Baldetti’s involvement in the alleged scheme.  Recorded conversations made reference to “El mero mero” (“the boss” or “the man himself”), “El número 1” (“the number one”) and “El dueño de la finca” (“the owner of the ranch”), as well as “La número 2” (“the number two”), and “La Señora” (“the lady”).  Prosecutors believe these were references to Perez Molina and Baldetti.  Both have repeatedly denied their involvement.

The latest developments in the corruption case have further isolated President Perez Molina. On Friday evening and Saturday, thousands gathered in front of his office on Guatemala City’s main square to celebrate Baldetti’s arrest and demand Perez Molina’s resignation. Calls for his resignation also came from the Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial and Financial Associations (CACIF) – Guatemala’s powerful business lobby – and Guatemala’s human rights ombudsman.  Over the course of the weekend, various ministers and presidential commissioners, who had previously stood by the president, quit.  Among them were the ministers of economy and education, the last remaining members of Perez Molina’s original cabinet.

CICIG and the Attorney General’s Office initially announced the investigation into the alleged criminal network now known as La Linea on April 16.  The public outcry led Baldetti to resign the vice presidency on May 8.

Delay in Complaint against Top Human Rights Prosecutor

Meanwhile, a judge sought to withdraw from proceedings related to privately initiated complaint filed against Orlando Lopez, the current head of the human rights section of the Attorney General’s Office, who also led the prosecution in the 2013 genocide trial of former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt.  Lopez’s office is currently investigating mass graves found at a military base where the father of the complainant was commander, prior to serving as Rios Montt’s interior minister.

The withdrawal of Judge Darwin Porras from the preliminary proceedings led to cancellation of a hearing that had been scheduled for last Wednesday, August 19.  In seeking to recuse himself, Judge Porras cited an article criticizing one of his earlier rulings in the case, penned by Ricardo Mendez-Ruiz, the complainant and a civil party in the matter.  On August 7, Porras refused to order the Attorney General’s Office to investigate Lopez’ bank accounts, as Mendez-Ruiz had requested.

Ricardo Mendez-Ruiz initially filed two complaints against Lopez, in February and March, in relation to public comments Lopez made about the guilty verdict in the 2013 trial of Rios Montt, and its meaning for Guatemala.  The Constitutional Court quickly overturned that verdict, and Rios Montt and his co-accused, Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, may face retrial.

At an April hearing that neither Lopez nor the Attorney General’s Office was permitted to attend, Judge Porras imposed a travel ban on Lopez. An appeals court unanimously rejected the ban on June 26 and ordered Judge Porras to schedule a new hearing to discuss interim measures and the progress of the investigation, in compliance with due process rights.  This is the hearing from which Judge Porras withdrew on Wednesday.  An appeals court will now examine the merits of his grounds for withdrawal from the proceedings.

Mendez-Ruiz filed a third complaint against Lopez in July, in relation to remarks the prosecutor made before an appellate court in the course of challenging the travel ban. During the June 25 hearing, Lopez acknowledged that his work as a prosecutor could cause discomfort to those who possibly face charges in cases under investigation by the human rights unit. He cited as an example the unit’s ongoing investigation at the site of the former Coban military base, where it has exhumed more than 500 bodies from mass graves.

During the country’s civil conflict, and before being appointed as Rios Montt’s interior minister in March 1982, Ricardo Mendez-Ruiz Rohrmoser commanded the Coban military base.  Mendez-Ruiz Rohrmoser is the father of Ricardo Mendez-Ruiz.

In his July 3 complaint against the head of the human rights unit, the younger Mendez-Ruiz alleges that Lopez threatened to criminally prosecute his father unless he dropped his complaint against Lopez.  In July, Judge Judith Secaida Lemus transferred the new complaint to the Attorney General’s Office for investigation.

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