International Justice Monitor to Follow the Selection Process for Guatemala’s Next Attorney General

Yesterday in Guatemala, a Nominating Commission (Comisión de Postulación) met for the first time to select the shortlist of candidates from which President Jimmy Morales will choose the country’s next attorney general. The selection process strongly affects how or whether domestic trials of grave crimes continue in Guatemala. For this reason, from today until the culmination of the process in mid-May, the International Justice Monitor will be providing regular situation reports on a complex process that in the past has been prone to political manipulation.

What’s at Stake

Over nearly eight years, the Attorney General’s Office has been the main engine for rule of law reform, collaborating closely with the UN-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). Attorneys General Claudia Paz y Paz (2010-2014) and Thelma Aldana (2014-present) reformed the office and restructured and supported specialized units. These include a Human Rights Violations Unit dealing with crimes related to Guatemala’s 36-year civil war as well as violations against human rights defenders, journalists, and union members; an Analysis Unit that has enabled the office to conduct complex investigations; and a police force that specialized in criminal investigation. Through a Special Anti-Impunity Prosecutor’s Bureau (FECI), the office has been able to develop high-profile criminal cases together with CICIG.

Corruption cases brought by the Attorney General’s Office and CICIG have rocked the country, including charges against then-sitting President Otto Pérez Molina in 2015. Subsequent investigations have led to charges against family members of current President Jimmy Morales and members of his political party.

Under the leadership of the past two attorneys general, Guatemala has also become a world leader in domestic accountability for grave crimes. With the trial of Efraín Ríos Montt (currently being retried), Guatemala became the first country to domestically try a former head of state on charges of genocide.  In the case of the Spanish Embassy massacre and the landmark Sepur Zarco sexual violence case, the Attorney General’s Office secured convictions of former police and military officials for crimes against humanity.

Other key cases remain in the pipeline, including the Molina Theissen case (scheduled for trial on March 1) involving charges of enforced disappearance and sexual violence, and the CREOMPAZ case, which is the largest enforced disappearance case in Latin American history.  Both of the latter cases involve some of the country’s highest-ranking wartime generals, some of whom are allegedly heavily involved in contemporary organized crime.

Why Transparency is Important

These high profile cases have earned the Attorney General’s Office and CICIG the enmity of powerful individuals and organizations. Last year, President Morales unsuccessfully tried to expel CICIG Commissioner Iván Velásquez by declaring him persona non grata but was stopped by the Constitutional Court. Attorney General Thelma Aldana has received threats in relation to high-profile corruption cases. The office’s assertion of independence and zeal in grave crimes and corruption cases over the past eight years has also prompted other forms of resistance. Opponents have filed dubious legal complaints against members of the office and human rights defenders involved in the cases. Some opponents, including family members of the accused, have sought to harass and intimidate civil parties to the cases and journalists covering them in the courtroom. Select members of Guatemala’s congress have proposed a blanket amnesty for grave crimes in Guatemala.

Some of the same forces currently resisting the rise of an independent, empowered Attorney General’s Office have attempted to manipulate the selection process for attorney general in the past. In 2010, the Nominating Commission recommended six candidates to then-President Álvaro Colom, four of whom had been deemed unqualified by CICIG and a coalition of civil society organizations promoting a merit-based process. When President Colom appointed one of these four as attorney general, CICIG’s first commissioner, Carlos Castresana, resigned in protest and publicly presented evidence of the appointee’s alleged links to organized crime. Under pressure from the international community, President Colom withdrew the appointment and named Claudia Paz y Paz as attorney general.

In 2014, the Pérez Molina administration won a controversial case before Guatemala’s Constitutional Court that cut short the four-year term of Paz y Paz. The Nominating Commission to recommend a new attorney general was marked by arbitrariness and politicization [pdf]. President Pérez Molina eventually picked the person considered to be his preferred candidate all along: Thelma Aldana. While now on trial for corruption and watching as Aldana continues to pursue other cases dealing with grand corruption and grave crimes, he presumably regrets his choice.

Those who fear strong and independent prosecutors may now have even greater incentive to rig the process this time around. That places a premium on transparency. Numerous civil society actors inside and outside Guatemala have mobilized to monitor the process, offer technical support to the Nominating Commission, and draw attention to any attempted manipulation. In the months ahead, International Justice Monitor will provide regular updates on the process in English, linking to and drawing on these other efforts. In the next post, we will begin by explaining the process.