The Struggle for Freedom: The Guatemalan anti-corruption lawyer targeted for revenge

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Ellen Bork
George W. Bush Institute

The first round of Guatemala’s general elections on June 25 has focused attention on the fate of dozens of prosecutors and judges who have been targeted by their own government for trying to end pervasive corruption.  

After unexpectedly advancing to the decisive second-round poll on August 20, Bernardo Arévalo of the Seed Movement promised to implement an anti-corruption agenda and to rely on the expertise of jailed and exiled anti-corruption lawyers.

That would include Virginia Laparra, 43, who was sentenced to four years in prison in December 2022. She was convicted of “abuse of authority” for filing a complaint against a judge who leaked confidential information in a bribery case. On June 13, the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention determined that Laparra’s imprisonment is contrary to international law and called for her release.

Laparra’s fate hangs in the balance as the drama over the elections plays out. Guatemala’s top court has ordered a ballot review, despite findings by international and domestic observers that voting and counting on Election Day went smoothly. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken has expressed deep concern that interference with election results would pose a “grave threat to democracy with far reaching implications.”

The backlash against anti-corruption efforts

Until her arrest, Laparra ran the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity in Quetzaltenango, often called Guatemala’s “second city” because of its commercial importance and its location between the landlocked capital, Guatemala City, and the coast. Among those she prosecuted were corrupt officials of Quetzaltenango’s municipal government – for embezzlement – and a major drug trafficking cartel.

Known by its Spanish acronym FECI, the office was established in 2008 to handle high level corruption cases in coordination with the United Nations’ International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG, which Guatemala’s government invited into the country in 2006. Laparra and other FECI lawyers came under attack after CICIG was expelled in 2019.

Juan Francisco Sandoval, the former head of FECI, was Laparra’s boss. He told me he holds Laparra in high regard and that he hired her because she was already an experienced prosecutor. Nevertheless, he looks back at the decision to open the Quetzaltenango office with some regret.

“She was more vulnerable there,” at a distance from colleagues in the capital, Guatemala City, he told me. Quetzaltenango is relatively small, and its legal community parochial and suffused with corruption, he said. “She would encounter hostility from lawyers and see those arrayed against her everywhere, even walking with her children in the park,” he said.

Sandoval was forced to flee Guatemala with just a few hours’ notice in July 2021 and now lives near Washington, D.C.

That hybrid effort by FECI and CICIG enjoyed backing from President George W. Bush’s administration and the next two American administrations, from European democracies, and, crucially, from Guatemalans. Alberto J. Mora, former Executive Director of the American Bar Association’s Rule of Law Initiative told me that Guatemalans welcomed CICIG because they correctly recognized that “they did not have the resources to combat internal and transnational corruption single-handedly.”

Although its supporters acknowledge CICIG’s learning curve in its early years, the collaboration achieved successful prosecutions of the most senior political figures and judges and extradited narco-traffickers to the United States.

Not surprisingly, this success triggered a backlash among those it was trying to hold accountable. “Guatemalan business elites acting in conjunction with political elites with potential funding from narco-traffickers mobilized to defeat the effort,” Mora said.

To discredit CICIG, its opponents tapped into American conservative attitudes toward the UN, particularly on Capitol Hill, portraying the commission as part of a leftist agenda intended to erode Guatemalan sovereignty. This accusation, Mora told me, is false.

CICIG “was integrated into Guatemalan government structures and under its formal control. It did function independently, but with approval – and by design to insulate it from corrupt elements,” he said. “CICIG never posed a threat to Guatemala’s sovereignty; rather, the reverse was true,” Mora explained. “With CICIG gone and the rule of law now virtually obliterated, one must question what remains of the Guatemalan people’s democratic sovereignty.”

The government also won favor by presenting itself as partner to the United States, particularly by promoting its longstanding positions on Taiwan and Israel which date to the late 1940s, and by offering cooperation on migration. Claudia Escobar, a former Guatemalan judge dismissed this “as a distraction from the government’s main partner, which is organized crime.”

Escobar left Guatemala in 2015 after refusing to issue an unconstitutional ruling in favor of Guatemala’s vice president. She described jaw-dropping examples of corruption at every level of the court system, including corrupt court clerks and lawyers who produced fake documents to steal property and brokered introductions to corrupt judges for clients. Even Guatemala’s bar association and law schools, which play a formal role in the selection of the attorney general and judges, are compromised, she has written.

According to Escobar, “the argument portraying Guatemala’s partnership with the U.S. on various issues – such as Taiwan, Israel, and migration – as a reason to diminish support for anti-corruption efforts stems from a narrative rooted in the Cold War era. Guatemala’s political landscape does not revolve around right-wing or left-wing ideologies. Rather, it is plagued by systemic corruption that undermines all institutions.” The country, she says, has become, “a dictatorship of corruption.”

As for Laparra, the charge against her is bogus, Escobar told me. “She is in prison for something that is not even a crime,” Escobar said.

The New York Bar Association, active in supporting the rule of law abroad, agrees. Its detailed analysis of Laparra’s case noted, among other things, her obligation to report official corruption and the lack of “basis for any sort of sanction, much less a criminal prosecution” for making such a complaint in the course of her professional duties.

`Dictatorship of Corruption’

It’s not clear where relief for Laparra and other anti-corruption advocates might come from. Narco-traffickers and corrupt politicians are one thing, but when it comes to the judicial system and prosecuting offenders, foxes are guarding the hen house.

The United States has sanctioned Guatemala’s attorney general, Maria Consuela Porras, for obstructing anti-corruption investigations and firing prosecutors “to protect her political allies and gain undue political favor.”

Along with the assault on the rule of law, there is a parallel attack on media outlets and journalists who report on corruption.

José Rubén Zamora, Editor-in-Chief of the pioneering independent media outlet elPeriódico, was sentenced to jail for six years on June 14 in retaliation for the paper’s reports on corruption. According to Joel Simon, writing in The New Yorker, Zamora believes the government was ultimately prompted to move against him after elPeriodico published stories about Russian-related corruption in Guatemala, including kickbacks connected to the acquisition of the Sputnik vaccine and a mining company. Pessimistic about the low level of U.S. pressure on the Guatemalan government, he told Simon, “A tweet is not going to get me out of here.”

“Laparra’s case is an example of a much broader pattern in which the justice system is both ensuring impunity and taking revenge on those who resist,” according to Juan Pappier, Americas Deputy Director at Human Rights Watch, “She has paid a higher price than most. Many others have been forced into exile, but she is behind bars.”

Despite her ordeal, Laparra has not sunk to the level of her tormentors.

“Being in prison, being locked up here, is a constant torture,” she told the journalist Melisa Rabanales in May 2022. “It’s a situation that I would never wish on anyone.”

Those who criticized the hybrid international-Guatemalan effort to combat corruption may not have anticipated the campaign of revenge that would follow its defeat. But those who support the rule of law and democracy in Guatemala should now urgently seek Laparra’s release.