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Concern rises over anti-corruption efforts in Guatemala

July 26, 2021 GMT
A protestors holds a sign with a portrait of Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei outside the National Palace as people attend a rally in support of anti-corruption prosecutor Juan Francisco Sandoval, in Guatemala City, Saturday, July 24, 2021. Sandoval fled Guatemala late Friday, arriving in neighboring El Salvador just hours after he was removed from his post. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)
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A protestors holds a sign with a portrait of Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei outside the National Palace as people attend a rally in support of anti-corruption prosecutor Juan Francisco Sandoval, in Guatemala City, Saturday, July 24, 2021. Sandoval fled Guatemala late Friday, arriving in neighboring El Salvador just hours after he was removed from his post. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)
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A protestors holds a sign with a portrait of Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei outside the National Palace as people attend a rally in support of anti-corruption prosecutor Juan Francisco Sandoval, in Guatemala City, Saturday, July 24, 2021. Sandoval fled Guatemala late Friday, arriving in neighboring El Salvador just hours after he was removed from his post. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — The firing of Guatemala’s top anti-corruption prosecutor and new allegations that someone close to the attorney general was soliciting bribes for protection from investigations have increased concerns that what little capacity the country still had to battle corruption is being dismantled from within.

Juan Francisco Sandoval, head of the anti-impunity special prosecutor’s office, was dismissed Friday and fled the country that same night. Attorney General Consuelo Porras accused him of ideologically biased investigations. She had reassigned another prosecutor from his office a day earlier.

Then Sunday, lawyer Marco Aurelio Alveño Hernández said he had told Sandoval’s office that one of his clients, a former Guatemalan central banker, had paid a bribe through Alveño to an adviser of Porras so his corruption case was moved from Sandoval’s office to another prosecutor.

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Alveño fled the country Sunday with his family fearing potential retribution for his cooperation with Sandoval’s office.

“The point of firing the prosecutor who led the investigations is to block what was being investigated,” said Elvyn Díaz, vice president of Guatemala’s Institute for Comparative Studies in Criminal Science. He said the move also raises the possibility the justice system could be manipulated to punish Sandoval and the judges who ruled on the cases that he brought.

Sandoval had said as much about his firing. He accused Porras of blocking his office’s investigations, including those touching President Alejandro Giammattei, who has spoken of his friendship with Porras. The administration denied any involvement, saying it respected the attorney general’s autonomy.

U.S. officials condemned Sandoval’s firing.

“We stand with the people of Guatemala and with Prosecutor Juan Francisco Sandoval, whom I recognized this year with an Anticorruption Champion Award. His dismissal undermines the rule of law and strengthens the forces of impunity. Guatemalans deserve better,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said via Twitter on Sunday.

Guatemala’s government has been criticized over the past year for driving out judges known for taking a hard line on corruption. The moves are a continuation of the effort that ended the 12-year run of the United Nations’ anti-corruption mission in Guatemala in 2019 under then President Jimmy Morales. Porras was appointed attorney general by Morales and has continued in the position during the administration of Giammattei.

Iván Velásquez, who led the U.N. mission and worked closely with Sandoval, said the “anti-corruption fight is worsening.”

“It will only reverse if the international community suspends all aid to the Attorney General’s Office and isolates the attorney general, which is allied with all of the corrupt political power in the country,” Velásquez said. “It will depend on Guatemalans and their effort to defend democracy and find a way out.”

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On Monday, rural organizations blocked three highways to protest Sandoval’s firing. Other groups are considering ways to pressure the government. Some lawmakers have already filed formal complaints against Porras, accusing her of obstruction of justice among other things.

In June, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris visited Guatemala and pledged support for anti-corruption efforts here. She has identified corruption as one of the factors pushing Guatemalans to migrate.

“The firing confirms the fear from several months ago that despite having expressed an interest in collaborating on an anti-corruption agenda, ultimately, the Guatemalan government has a different agenda,” said Tiziano Breda, Central America analyst for Crisis Group.