Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Guatemalan judge resigns, flees country (March 22, 2022)

One of Guatemala's most important judges, and a key figure in combating corruption in the country, submitted her resignation yesterday. Judge Erika Aifán had learned from colleagues that Guatemala's Supreme Court was planning to strip her of her judicial immunity and could send her to prison, reports the Washington Post

Though she had initially decided to face potential prison time in Guatemala, Aifán told El Faro that she feared for her personal safety in Guatemala. "It’s obvious that I would not receive due process and the guarantees of a democratic justice system. My life was in danger in Guatemala."

Last month El Faro revealed that a witness in Aifán's court accused President Alejandro Giammattei of financing his electoral campaign with $2.6 million in bribes from construction firms. Attorney General Consuelo Porras then filed seven motions to repeal Aifán’s judicial immunity from prosecution, seeking to jail the judge who could put Guatemala's president in prison. (See Feb. 17's post.)

Giammattei requested a copy of the recording of the witness testimony implicating him, Aifán told El Faro, clarifying that she rejected the request because the president is neither plaintiff nor defendant and that the trial is sealed from the public.

Aifán secretly fled to Washington earlier this month, joining a growing group of high-level Guatemalan judges and prosecutors who have left the country, in response to threats and detentions of judicial officials who were overseeing cases involving institutional corruption. Fourteen judges and prosecutors have fled to the U.S. in response to the persecution at home, reports El País. Many have pointed to Porras' role in blocking their work and protecting criminal networks. 

Aifán posted a video on Twitter describing her reasons for resigning: “Criminal and political networks that have been affected by judicial advances decided to co-opt institutions and persecute those who have tried to combat impunity,” she said. Aifán played a vital role in the anti-graft push led by a U.N.-backed anti-corruption body, kicked out of the country in 2019. Human Rights Watch said Aifán’s departure would hurt Guatemala’s judicial system, reports Reuters.

The relationship between Giammattei's government and the U.S. Biden administration, has become increasingly strained as Guatemala cracks down on members of the judiciary who investigate the country's deeply entrenched government corruption. 

Last month the U.S. State Department voiced concern over the "Guatemalan Public Ministry’s unacceptable mistreatment and persistent abuse of current and former independent prosecutors.  Under the leadership of Attorney General Consuelo Porras, the Public Ministry used searches and arrests based on sealed indictments and selectively leaked case information with the apparent intent to single out and punish Guatemalans who are combating impunity and promoting transparency and accountability."

News Briefs

  • The international Covax initiative -- intended to equitably distribute scarce Covid-19 vaccines last year -- failed due to a variety of reasons that included wealthier countries' push to claim doses for their own populations and funding shortages. More than a third of the world still hasn't had a single vaccine dose, exposing the world to a greater likelihood that more-virulent variants will emerge, reports the Washington Post.

  • The rise in fuel prices is a top story in nearly every country in the region, with specific challenges that range from conflict with powerful unions to spotlighting corruption in energy firms, writes James Bosworth at the Latin America Risk Report.

  • Perceptions of NAFTA as a political loser paint too dark a scenario for North American cooperation. Polls show that "even when support for trade integration and other big-picture institutional initiatives has been weak, interest in some forms of cooperation has been relatively strong" in Mexico, the U.S. and Canada, write Malcolm Fairbrother, Tom Long, and Clarisa Pérez-Armendáriz at the Aula Blog.
  • Honduran human rights defenders face an increasingly hostile environment, despite hopes that the new government led by President Xiomara Castro could institute relevant changes. In 2021, the OHCHR recorded 302 attacks against human rights defenders, ten of whom were murdered. So far this year, three activists were assassinated, reports the Guardian.
Regional Relations
  • The recent visit of U.S. officials to Caracas represents an important opportunity to break with the policy of ‘maximum pressure’ and promote a democratic and negotiated transition in Venezuela, argue Geoff Ramsey and David Smilde in an El País op-ed. But, in order to be successful, this change of U.S. strategy must prioritize multilateral coordination with international actors, and that countries concerned about democracy in Venezuela should send a coordinated and coherent message regarding the reactivation of negotiations in Mexico.

  • The changing geopolitical map -- particularly as the U.S. seeks to dispute Russian influence in Venezuela -- puts Cuba in a complicated diplomatic position, reports the Miami Herald. While Cuba abstained from voting on the U.N. resolution criticizing Russia's aggression against Ukraine, it cannot afford to fully abandon Russia, according to experts. And unlike Venezuela, Cuba has little to offer the U.S. in negotiations. (See March 11's briefs, among others.)

  • If U.S. talks resume with Maduro, Cuba could benefit from the increased oil production in Venezuela, which would run counter to the Biden administration’s policies that try to reduce the money flowing to Cuban government coffers, Council of the Americas vice president  Eric Farnsworth told the Miami Herald.

  • A U.S.federal judge said four major cruise lines engaged in “prohibited tourism” and “trafficking activities” by carrying passengers to Cuba and profiting from the use of Havana port facilities confiscated by Castro government. It's the first decision of its kind, and could affect similar lawsuits, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Venezuela has seen an alarming increase in people taking their own lives, as the country stagnates in an ongoing humanitarian crisis. While government control makes trustworthy statistics difficult to come by, the Venezuelan Violence Observatory estimates that the numbers of suicides jumped by more than 150% from the beginning of the crisis in 2015 to 2018, increasing the country’s rate from 3.8 per 100,000 inhabitants to 9.7 per 100,000 inhabitants. (Miami Herald)
  • Brazilian presidential frontrunner Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is widely expected to name a former adversary, Geraldo Alckmin, to join his ticket for October's election. If he does so, it would be most conspicuous indication yet of Lula’s campaign strategy of reaching out to centrist voters and projecting himself as a moderate, “big-tent” alternative to current President Jair Bolsonaro, writes Oliver Stuenkel in Americas Quarterly.
  • Colombia's award-winning Kankuaka library is reconnecting Indigenous youth with their past through oral histories, gatherings with elders and workshops, reports the Guardian.
  • The overlooked stone carvers of Escolásticas in Mexico -- New York Times "World through a Lens"
Did I miss something, get something wrong, or do you have a different take? Let me know ...

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