Guatemala’s much-criticized top prosecutor seeks 2nd term

Apr 19, 2022, 3:47 PM | Updated: 4:19 pm
Guatemalan Attorney General Consuelo Porras, who is seeking re-election, speaks to the press after ...

Guatemalan Attorney General Consuelo Porras, who is seeking re-election, speaks to the press after an interview with an election commission in Guatemala City, Wednesday, April 6, 2022. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

(AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — Once the envy of Central America for anticorruption efforts that took down a sitting president, Guatemala’s attorney general’s office in recent years has been accused of blocking corruption investigations, protecting powerful interests and even persecuting those who pursue the corrupt.

Consuelo Porras, who has led the office for the past four years, dismisses the accusations and dodges questions with legal jargon and recitations of the law. President Alejandro Giammattei defends her before Guatemalans, international organizations and the U.S. government, which suspended cooperation with her office last year and yanked her visa.

In the coming days, Giammattei must choose Guatemala’s next attorney general, a closely watched decision that observers say gives him an opportunity to reanimate the country’s stalled fight against corruption. But Porras, 68, is seeking a second term, one of 15 candidates for the post.

Her path to a second term is not completely clear despite her friendship with Giammattei. Among the other candidates is Guatemala’s solicitor general Luis Donado, who is also close to Giammattei.

Porras’ appointment in 2018 by then-President Jimmy Morales proved to be an inflection point in her country’s battle against corruption.

She had large shoes to fill. She followed Thelma Aldana, who had pressed a number of high-profile corruption investigations including ones against Morales while he was president and some of his relatives and associates.

Aldana had already made a name for herself by jailing former President Otto Pérez Molina, his vice president and Cabinet members, after perhaps the most high-profile of dozens of probes. Aldana received asylum in the United States in 2020.

Aldana’s success against Guatemala’s systemic corruption had come in conjunction with the United Nations-backed anticorruption mission, known by its Spanish initials CICIG. Over 12 years, the mission supported the Special Prosecutors Office Against Impunity in dismantling dozens of criminal networks while at the same time building their capacity to handle complex corruption cases.

In August 2019, a bit more than a year after Porras’ appointment, Morales ended the CICIG’s mission while he was under investigation. Porras, at least publicly, did not push back in defense of the mission.

Porras, who came to the office with a background in constitutional law and as an appellate judge, initially spoke glowingly of the accomplishment’s of her office’s anticorruption work, but the people leading those efforts saw little interest on her part.

When she took office, Porras delayed meeting with Iván Velásquez, a Colombian lawyer and the CICIG’s last chief. She did anything to avoid a conversation, he said. “That was already a very bad sign.”

Her lack of experience in prosecuting corruption cases and apparent disinterest made her seem an odd fit, Velásquez said.

“Not only for her personality, but rather for her inability, including to directly confront someone,” he said. “I believe that with Morales it was total submission.”

As investigations began to near Giammattei and his associates, Porras moved from disinterest to obstruction. Prosecutors and others who had worked closely with the CICIG became targets themselves.

During her term, nearly 20 prosecutors, judges and magistrates have gone into exile, fearful they will be prosecuted in retaliation for their work on corruption cases.

Asked by a reporter this month if she is protecting the president from investigation, Porras said, “we are all subjected to the knowledge of the law; I can’t protect anyone.”

Last year, she fired Juan Francisco Sandoval, who led the Special Prosecutors Office Against Impunity and who had been applauded for his work.

Sandoval fled Guatemala under cover of darkness to neighboring El Salvador just hours after his removal. Porras had vaguely accused him of “abuses” without giving details.

Sandoval said he was fired because of his investigations into top officials in Giammattei’s administration.

The U.S. government protested publicly, labelled Porras an undemocratic actor undermining efforts against corruption and pulled her visa. A State Department official said at the time that Sandoval’s removal “contributes to the perception that there is a systematic effort in Guatemala to weaken those who fight against corruption.”

Giammattei defended Porras, saying the U.S. reaction showed a “lack of respect.”

Sandoval said she wanted him out of his office. When he used to meet with Porras in her office, she would take his cellphone to ensure that he didn’t record whatever she asked him, he said.

Velásquez, the former CICIG chief, said, “She distrusted prosecutor Sandoval, but even more she was jealous of (his office’s) work because it stood out.”

The U.S. has repeatedly made Giammattei’s selection of her replacement an issue.

Mario Búcaro, Guatemala’s foreign affairs minister, declined to speak about specific U.S. petitions, but confirmed that the issue of the new top prosecutor has come up in meetings with U.S. officials.

In February, during a meeting with evangelical pastors, Giammattei alluded to pressure coming from abroad ahead of his pick. “While I’m president this country’s sovereignty will be respected,” Giammattei said.

Human Rights Watch said in a statement last week that Porras had “undermined investigations into corruption and human rights abuses, and brought arbitrary criminal proceedings against journalists, judges, and prosecutors.”

“Consuelo Porras’ tenure as an attorney general has been a disgrace for the rule of law in Guatemala,” said Tamara Taraciuk Broner, the organization’s acting Americas director. “Her successor could play a pivotal role in defending democratic institutions – or deliver the final blow that spells their demise.”

Poor farmers, lawyers, Indigenous activists, pastors, human rights defenders and university students have marched demanding Porras’ departure.

Last year, while Porras was teaching a virtual class in the economics department of a public university, a student questioned her office’s performance. Then more students chime in and by the end there are shouts of “corrupt!” A video of it went viral and Porras stopped teaching.

A fervent Roman Catholic, Porras has a tiny crucifix dangling from a rosary around her wrist.

People who have worked with her say she is a technophobe. She had staff print out memes about her so she could see what was being said. Public criticism of her work bothers her immensely, especially when it comes from the Catholic Church, which has criticized her office’s pursuit of prosecutors and judges involved in anticorruption efforts.

Porras touts the more than 60 accused drug traffickers extradited to the United States under her watch. She also cites the nearly 2 million cases resolved during her term, though most were simply closed.

Porras is very proud of her doctorate in law, so she was compelled to respond when academic Marco Fonseca said his analysis of her doctoral thesis showed that she had plagiarized part of it. Fonseca looked into it when he heard that she had completed her doctorate in only one year.

“She had literally copied entire chapters from the thesis of Ramiro Choc, including part of the title,” Fonseca said. Choc is deceased.

Porras has not denied plagiarizing Choc’s work but has said the university reviewed her thesis and determined it “met all of the requirements.”

While Porras interviewed with the committee that will give Giammattei a list of six recommended candidates to be Guatemala’s next top prosecutor, the plagiarism issue resurfaced.

Porras sent a letter to the committee warning them that if they took up the accusation against her they would be stepping into an issue that corresponds to the university and if they do so they could face “administrative and penal sanctions.”

On Tuesday, the committee concluded its evaluations with Porras receiving the highest score of any of the 15 finalists.

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Guatemala’s much-criticized top prosecutor seeks 2nd term