In a blow against corruption networks run by political elites, Guatemala's Attorney General's Office and the International Commission against Impunity (CICIG) revealed Thursday that a prison-based criminal network worked with a former president, lawyers and other government officials to embezzle public funds.
Investigators arrested 11 people linked to the network and have three other arrest warrants pending. They also issued a formal petition that former president and current Guatemala City Mayor Alvaro Arzu be stripped of his immunity, so as to charge him with embezzlement and mishandling political funds.
At the head of the network was Byron Lima, a former army captain who was jailed for conspiring to murder human rights defender Bishop Juan Gerardi. As the CICIG and the Attorney General's Office revealed in 2014, Lima ran a massive bribery ring within prison -- inmates paid him to receive special favors like conjugal visits, and Lima distributed a cut of the funds to government officials who looked the other way. Lima was killed in prison in 2016.
In addition to this bribery ring, Lima ran what was essentially a sweatshop that produced paraphernalia for various conservative political parties, with the blessing of the country's then-minister of the interior.
In continuing the investigation into Lima's criminal enterprises, the Attorney General's Office and the CICIG found that Lima produced materials to support Arzu's re-election campaign for mayor in 2012 (Lima worked in Arzu's security detail when Arzu served as president from 1996 to 2000. Arzu was elected to his fourth consecutive term as city mayor in 2016).
Documents show that associates linked to Arzu paid Lima's intermediaries -- including his partner, Alejandra Reyes Ochoa (who served as a key witness in the case) -- with city government funds to produce campaign paraphernalia for various conservative parties, and to fund political events. In some of the seized documents, Arzu is referred to as "Mr. Gold." One letter asks for 727,000 quetzales (about $99,000) to pay for lawyers' fees and other expenses.
The investigation indicates that the CICIG and the Attorney General's Office are continuing their record of building criminal cases using a wide range of evidence -- such as recorded telephone calls and seized documents -- rather than relying heavily on witness testimony. This is a problem that plagues justice systems across Latin America, particularly Mexico, where (in addition to issues like negligence and torture) the over-reliance on witness testimony to build a case was identified by experts as a major problem in the missing Guerrero students probe.
elPeriodico reports that Arzu unsuccessfully attempted to interrupt the CICIG and Attorney General's Office press conference announcing the outcome of the investigation. Arzu told the press that the investigation is "politically motivated" because he helped "prevent a coup" against President Jimmy Morales during the recent stand-off between the CICIG and the Morales administration.
In terms of challenging Guatemala's long-entrenched, corrupt networks of political power, in some ways going after Arzu may be more shocking for Guatemala's political and economic elites than going after President Morales (who ran and won on being a political outsider). As noted by Plaza Publica, Arzu has long considered himself "untouchable," and seemed shocked when he wasn't able to hijack yesterday's press conference.
In a small yet key sign of support, the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala tweeted that the U.S. government is "committed" to helping fight corruption in the country.
Under Guatemalan law, mayors cannot be prosecuted unless a judge strips them of their immunity first. It remains to be seen whether the courts will rule in Arzu's favor, as has happened in previous cases.
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