Reviews | Guatemala’s corrupt officials target the press

MEXICO CITY — When I last saw José Rubén Zamora, owner and editor of Guatemala’s leading investigative newspaper, elPeriódico, in early June, he told me he suspected the government was plotting a case against him. His fears were not unfounded.

Seven weeks later, the government came for him. On the night of July 29, the Guatemalan authorities searched his home and the newspaper’s headquarters. Some staff members have been detained by the authorities for more than 4 p.m.. Mr. Zamora was placed under arrest and taken to the Mariscal Zavala military prison. Then, over the weekend, the newspaper’s bank accounts were frozen, meaning it can’t even pay its staff.

Mr Zamora’s fate appears to be part of a crackdown led by President Alejandro Giammattei of Guatemala against anti-corruption institutions and voices in the justice system. Journalists or media who investigate or criticize the government are increasingly targeted for their reporting.

Guatemalans warn that his arrest marks a significant escalation in the government’s attack on democratic values. The United States is the country’s strongest ally, economic supporter and trading partner outside of Central America. Many Guatemalans say they are frustrated that the Biden administration has not responded more forcefully to the country’s slide toward authoritarianism.

The situation has not always been so serious. Until recently, the Guatemalan justice system was a beacon of hope in a region overwhelmed by authoritarian rule and state corruption. Starting in 2006, the United Nations-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, known as CICIG, which includes international and national prosecutors and works with the country’s public prosecutor, exposed integrated criminal groups to the government and brought charges against nearly 700 people, including former President Otto Pérez Molina.

The CICIG received most of its funding from the United States and enjoyed full bipartisan support. But in 2018, Guatemalan politicians and business interests hired American lobbyists to influence Republican lawmakers. The strategy paid off. That year, Senator Marco Rubio blocked funding for the commission, citing unsubstantiated allegations that the Russian government had penetrated the commission.

Mr. Rubio said he was defending Guatemalan sovereignty against foreign interference. Yet a 2017 poll found that 70% of Guatemalans approved of the commission. As U.S. support and funding evaporated, then-Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, who himself had fallen under CICIG’s control, shut down and expelled the anti-corruption body from the country. The Trump administration had a muted response.

The Biden administration has vowed to recommit to the fight against corruption in Guatemala and expressed support for those leading the effort. But the judges and prosecutors the United States has tried to protect are usually those who have fled the country. Under the Morales and Giammattei governments, some 24 Guatemalan anti-corruption judges and prosecutors have been forced into exile and about half of them have been imprisoned in Guatemala or are awaiting trial.

Guatemala’s narco-kleptocracy has developed a closed electoral system that rewards and empowers corrupt candidates and parties. Under Presidents Giammattei and Morales, Attorney General María Consuelo Porras, considered a “corrupt and undemocratic actor” by the United States, blocked corruption investigations and weaponized the judiciary against magistrates.

Guatemalan media, with at least a dozen independent outlets in print, radio and digital, have defiantly defended democratic values. So it seemed inevitable that after gutting the Guatemalan justice system, Mr. Giammattei and Ms. Porras would set their sights on the country’s pugnacious free press.

Rafael Curruchiche, the head of the Public Prosecutor’s Office of the Special Prosecutor Against Impunity – who is also on the US State Department’s list of corrupt officials and is specifically cited for bringing “false” charges against prosecutors and lawyers – told news outlets that Mr. Zamora’s arrest “is not related to his activity as a journalist” and that he is accused of money laundering and extortion.

Mr. Zamora calls himself a “political prisoner” and the victim of an “affair orchestrated by the president and the attorney general”.

It is clear that Mr. Zamora’s arrest is part of a broader government strategy of targeting and attacking journalists for their work. Last October, the home of journalist Juan Bautista Xol was raided by soldiers and police. In March, another prominent journalist, Juan Luis Font, fled the country amid money laundering charges.

A survey by the Guatemalan Press Association published this year found that since Mr Giammattei took office in 2020, the government has carried out 350 attacks on the press. In July, at least five Guatemalan journalists went into exile following criminal charges similar to those against Mr. Zamora, while others face similar charges.

Ever since a CIA-backed coup in 1954 ended Guatemala’s only decade of democratic rule, the United States has stepped in and meddled in the country’s politics and supported the military dictatorships that have plunged the country into a three-decade internal war that devastated Guatemalan society. The country is among the most unequal in the world, despite having the largest economy in the region. The Trump administration’s complicity in the expulsion of the CICIG led to the dismantling of Guatemala’s anti-corruption judicial institutions and its slide towards authoritarianism.

In May, Mr Giammattei reappointed Ms Porras for a new term as attorney general, prompting US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to condemn the appointment. in a tweet.

But the Biden administration owes Guatemalan democracy advocates more than tweets and lists of corrupt officials. He can and must speak forcefully and act forcefully to defend the country’s democracy. The United States could suspend economic and military aid unless the Guatemalan government shows that it is not using the justice system as a tool for political persecution. and does not interfere in free and competitive elections.

From here in Latin America, it can be hard to tell what, if anything, the United States believes enough to speak out in defense of those who are silenced. No one should hold their breath that the military and economic powers behind Mr. Giammattei will be swayed. But as the Guatemalan opposition and civil society prepare to protest and resist this week, they should know that the United States will actively support them.

On Monday, Mr. Zamora’s arraignment hearing dragged on late into the night. Riot police, some of them in black balaclavas, surrounded him in the courtroom, in a show of force more appropriate for a hearing in the trial of a prominent narco capo. Human rights monitors were barred from entering the courtroom. However, the press was allowed in, as well as far-right Internet trolls from the Counterterrorism Foundation, who support the Giammattei government. Mr Zamora insists the money the government accuses him of laundering was a loan to keep his newspaper afloat. If only we could be sure that the truth would be enough to set him free.

Francisco Goldman, novelist and journalist, is the author, most recently, of the book “Monkey Boy”, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

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