Guatemala Targets Colombia’s Defense Minister in Crackdown on Anticorruption Forces

As the Guatemalan authorities intensify a methodical, yearslong crackdown on officials who were tasked with rooting out government corruption in the country, the government announced this week that it was investigating Colombia’s defense minister, who had led a United Nations-backed anticorruption body that was active in Guatemala until 2019.

The announcement, which is straining bilateral relations between Guatemala and Colombia, came alongside several arrest warrants and criminal charges brought against former prosecutors and judges who had worked with the same anticorruption task force.

The developments have renewed concerns about the withering of Guatemala’s democracy and the rule of law, leading to a flurry of condemnations from the United States, the European Union and the United Nations. Rights groups have criticized Guatemala’s government for intimidating various officials involved in the anticorruption task force; more than 30 prosecutors and judges have fled the country over the past two years to evade arrest.

Colombia’s president, Petro Gustavo, defended Mr. Velásquez on Tuesday and said “sanity in politics” meant fighting corruption.

“Those who allow the mafia to take over the state only lead society to genocide,” Mr. Gustavo said on Twitter, clearly intended as a barb against Guatemala’s president.

The current diplomatic discord was sparked on Monday when the head of Guatemala’s Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity, Rafael Curruchiche, said that his team would take “legal actions” against the Colombian defense minister, Iván Velásquez, for “illegal, arbitrary and abusive acts” when he led the anticorruption body.

Rafael Curruchiche, the head of Guatemala’s Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity, in Guatemala City in August.Credit…Daniele Volpe for The New York Times

The allegations revolve around deals that former Guatemalan officials tried to broker with Mr. Velásquez, to share information about corruption cases in exchange for reduced sentences — a fairly standard process that prosecutors employ in legal cases around the world.

Mr. Velásquez dismissed the investigation into his work as retaliation from those his task force had targeted.

“We know the monster, we have seen it up close and, from different trenches, we have fought it. We know how it transforms and the methods it uses, but it does not frighten us,” Mr. Velásquez said Monday on Twitter about the charges issued from Mr. Curruchiche and the Guatemalan government.

From 2013 until 2019, Mr. Velásquez led the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, which worked with Guatemala’s attorney general to counter corruption. The U.N.-backed force drew global attention in 2015 for investigations into top Guatemalan officials, including the country’s president at the time, Otto Pérez, who resigned and was subsequently arrested.

But in 2018, Guatemala’s then-president, Jimmy Morales, expelled Mr. Velásquez from Guatemala. He shut the anticorruption body down the following year.

On Monday, Mr. Curruchiche also announced several arrest warrants against former investigators who had worked with the anticorruption body, including Thelma Aldana, Guatemala’s former attorney general.

Brian A. Nichols, the United States assistant secretary for the Western Hemisphere, denounced the latest moves by Guatemala’s government, tweeting on Tuesday that he was “disturbed” by the arrest warrants.

“Such actions weaken the rule of law and confidence in Guatemala’s judicial system,” Mr. Nichols said.

Last year Mr. Curruchiche was sanctioned by the U.S. government and accused of having “knowingly engaged in acts that threaten democratic processes or institutions, engaged in significant corruption, or obstructed investigations.”

Mr. Curruchiche is barred from entering the United States.

President Alejandro Giammattei of Guatemala told a Colombian radio station on Friday that “differences between countries must be resolved through diplomatic channels.” The president suggested that his government would investigate Mr. Velasquez but would not prosecute him because of the diplomatic immunity that protects him.

President Alejandro Giammattei of Guatemala before his annual address to the nation at the National Palace in Guatemala City, this month.Credit…Moises Castillo/Associated Press

Mr. Giammattei abruptly ended the interview when he was asked about the sanctions the United States government had slapped on Mr. Curruchiche last year.

“I told him that I was not going to touch that topic anymore,” Mr. Giammattei said about the journalist, before hanging up the phone.

Widening their campaign against dissent, Guatemalan officials on Thursday brought charges against the lawyers representing José Ruben Zamora, a journalist who has extensively covered allegations of corruption involving Mr. Giammattei. At the time of his arrest, Mr. Zamora was also the president of one of the country’s leading newspapers, elPeriódico.

When government authorities arrested Mr. Zamora last year, they also raided the newspaper’s offices. Mr. Zamora was charged with money laundering, blackmail and influence peddling. His lawyers have disputed those accusations.

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