Guatemala is in the process of selecting its next attorney general to serve a four-year term: May 2018-May 2022. Because the process and result could have tremendous implications for grave crimes trials and the rule of law in Guatemala, the International Justice Monitor is providing regular situation reports.
The Attorney General’s Office and International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) announced on February 27 that it had issued arrest warrants in relation to an alleged scheme to rig the 2014 Nominating Commission for the selection of judges to the Supreme Court of Justice and civil and criminal appellate courts. Although he is not among the individuals charged, Supreme Court of Justice (SCJ) President José Antonio Pineda Barales met the accused mastermind of the scheme at a critical point in the selection process, according to seized documents. As SCJ president, Pineda Barales currently chairs the Nominating Commission that will choose the finalists for appointment as attorney general.
The alleged architect of a bribery scheme to create “parallel” nominating commissions was Sergio Roberto López Villatoro, a.k.a. the “Tennis Shoe King.” According to the charges, López Villatoro conceived a three-part strategy to corrupt the Nominating Commission. First, he allegedly convened and financed meetings on key dates in the nomination process with members of the Commission but outside the transparent procedures for its operation prescribed by law. Second, he allegedly held numerous meetings with candidates and members of the Commission, and arranged meetings with legislators, to encourage votes for his favored candidates. (In the 2014 process, Guatemala’s Congress made the final selection of judges put forward by the Nominating Commission.) Finally, prosecutors claim that López Villatoro spent around one million quetzals (US $136,000) on campaign events and lavish hotel parties to influence the representatives of the Guatemalan Bar Association (CANG) chosen to serve on the Nominating Commission.
López Villatoro is charged with three counts of active bribery. He was arrested on February 23 along with Eddy Giovanni Orellana Donis, the presiding magistrate of the Second Chamber of the Civil and Commercial Court of Appeals. CICIG and the Attorney General’s Office are seeking to have the immunity of two additional judges lifted so that they can be prosecuted for passive bribery, and arrest warrants have been issued for three associates of López Villatoro charged with active bribery.
The charges suggest that López Villatoro undertook these actions in order to gain control over the judiciary. Part of the allegations relate to his company’s providing of an apartment free of charge to Judge Orellana Donis. The company allegedly reneged on payment for the apartment and when the sellers threatened to sue, associates of López Villatoro reportedly told them that the judge was untouchable and that the courts followed their orders.
According to documents seized in the course of the investigation, José Antonio Pineda Barales, then a candidate for the Supreme Court of Justice, visited the offices of López Villatoro on the day that representatives of the judges of the Court of Appeals were elected to serve on the Nominating Commission to choose Supreme Court judges. Others visiting that day were another candidate later successfully elected to the Supreme Court, and a member of Guatemala’s Congress. Altogether, Congress elected as judges four of seven candidates who allegedly met with López Villatoro.
Civil society organizations (including the Open Society Justice Initiative) have criticized Guatemala’s current Nominating Commission for attorney general in part due to the intense political jockeying for membership, including within the Guatemalan Bar Association. López Villatoro was reportedly involved in establishing law schools for the purpose of placing their deans on Nominating Commissions in 2014, and those law schools (which show little record of educational activity) are still represented on the 2018 Nominating Commission. The new information that current Commission Chair Pineda Barales allegedly met with López Villatoro at a key moment in his own selection as a judge will likely heighten activists’ fears that politics rather than merit could ultimately decide who is nominated to serve as the next attorney general.