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Guatemala: Tensions Escalate as Attorney General Remains Defiant and National Strike Continues

Tensions Escalate as Guatemalan Attorney General Remains Defiant and National Strike Continues

Article from Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA 

In response to Attorney General Consuelo Porras’ dismissal of top anti-corruption prosecutor Juan Francisco Sandoval, the Biden administration has taken steps intended as a rebuke. On July 27 the administration announced it had “temporarily paused programmatic cooperation” with the Guatemalan Public Ministry. “Guatemalan Attorney General Consuelo Porras’ July 23rd decision to remove Special Prosecutor Against Impunity, or FECI, Chief Juan Francisco Sandoval fits a pattern of behavior that indicates a lack of commitment to the rule of law and independent judicial and prosecutorial processes,” according to the State Department’s spokesperson. “As a result, we have lost confidence in the attorney general and their decision and intention to cooperate with the US government and fight corruption in good faith.” 

Attorney General Porras, rather than backing down in the face of the aid cut, argued in a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken that Juan Francisco Sandoval’s dismissal was legal, a claim former Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz and other experts point out is false; Sandoval’s firing, in fact, was arbitrary and illegal. The Guatemala Human Rights Commission, along with eleven other international organizations, denounced the dismissal of Juan Fransisco Sandoval and called for his immediate reinstatement.

The embassies of Sweden, Switzerland, France, Germany, Great Britain, Canada, and the United States in a joint statement as members of the G-13 Donor Group lamented the attorney general’s firing of Sandoval. “This incident is seen as part of a pattern of instability and institutional weakening that affects the rule of law in Guatemala,” the statement said.

Sandoval, who has said his firing was related to his efforts to investigate corruption cases linked to Giammattei, was driven to the Salvadoran border in the diplomatic vehicle of the Swedish Ambassador, fearing for his safety after his dismissal. He later visited Washington, DC and met with high-level State Department officials, Justice Department officials, and members of Congress.

In the face of international pressure, Porras remained unmoved. In fact, she upped the ante, on August 3 replacing Sandoval’s immediate replacement, Carla Isidra Valenzuela, with Rafael Curruchiche, a move which has received wide criticism. Curruchiche, during his time as prosecutor in the Electoral Crimes Unit, failed to issue an arrest warrant for former president Jimmy Morales, in spite of clear evidence against him. More recently, in June, he issued warrants for two top anti-corruption figures, Juan Solorzano and Anibal Arguello. As USAID administrator Samantha Power noted in a tweet, Curruchiche is a “lawyer known for retaliating against anti-corruption advocates.”  

Following the appointment of Curruchiche, on August 4 the US State Department announced  new visa restrictions that target government officials or other individuals from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador “believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, undermining democracy or the rule of law.”

Indigenous-Led National Strike Continues

In response to Sandoval’s ouster, indigenous authorities on a national level convoked a national strike on July 29. Thousands protested Sandoval’s dismissal, demanding his reinstatement and calling for President Alejandro Giamatttei and Attorney General Porras to resign. According to Maya K’iche’ leader, journalist, and human rights defender Andrea Ixchíu, the indigenous-led movement for the national strike stemmed from frustration with a government administered by economic elites, the military, and drug traffickers who have blocked the possibility of a life with dignity for the indigenous peoples. “In the midst of the pandemic, the Guatemalan government is stealing the money from the vaccines and militarizing the country,” she told Democracy Now.

GHRC’s team in Guatemala observed and accompanied the protests outside of the National Palace on July 29 and has continued accompanying demonstrations as protests have continued in recent days. The national strike is continuing, as well.

NGO Law Moves Ahead

On August 2, the articles of the highly contentious NGO law were published by the Ministry of the Interior. The articles—outlining regulations such as monitoring processes, prohibitions, and registration requirements for NGOs—went into effect on August 3. Although a few modifications were made to the original law upon appeal to the Constitutional Court, the provisions of this law continue to be unconstitutional. As Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights experts in a joint statement made clear, the law’s provisions “risk choking the vital work of civil society.” These provisions, the experts said, can be used to criminalize human rights defenders and civil society in general. NGOs now have six months to register under the new law or risk being dissolved.

The enactment of the NGO law is only the latest step back in the struggle for rights. More challenges await; the National Reconciliation law, which would grant amnesty to perpetrators of grave human rights abuses, is expected to be debated in coming weeks. Guatemalan defenders of human rights need our support now more than ever. Our team in Guatemala continues providing physical accompaniment and support to defenders at risk. Please be a part of our efforts and support defenders as they press for the full enjoyment of their rights.