Guatemala City – Guatemalan former first lady and presidential runner-up Sandra Torres was arrested on Monday in connection with alleged campaign financing crimes.
The arrest comes on the eve of the closure of a UN-backed anti-corruption commission, which initiated the investigation.
Torres, 63, faces charges of unregistered campaign financing and unlawful association in connection with the 2015 elections, when she lost in the runoff to current President Jimmy Morales. A judge later on Monday ordered Torres to be held in pretrial detention pending a hearing on Friday.
The National Unity of Hope (UNE) party’s candidate, Torres also made it to this year’s presidential runoff, but lost to Alejandro Giammattei of the Vamos party.
Torres and three other individuals affiliated with UNE are accused of failing to report approximately $3.6m in campaign financing in 2015. They have claimed the allegations are spurious and politically motivated.
“We feel the action taken today by the Public Prosecutor’s Office is disproportionate, as is the action taken by the judge who issued the warrant,” said Carlos Barreda, deputy head of the UNE party caucus in congress.
Illicit and unreported campaign financing is a widespread practice with damaging effects on the country, according to Jose Carlos Sanabria, sociopolitical unit director at the Association for Research and Social Studies.
“Political parties are in no way transparent institutions. This [unreported] financing is in the millions and can end up compromising the parties’ interests, with a mechanism of control held by financiers who do not wish to be known,” Sanabria told Al Jazeera.
“Seen from a systemic perspective, it is one of the greatest weaknesses of our system of political parties,” he said.
‘Sends a message’
Candidates benefit from immunity from prosecution in Guatemala. Prosecutors brought the case against Torres shortly after she had been registered as a candidate, so the case could not proceed until the country’s election tribunal made the runoff results official.
Five days after losing the runoff election last month, Torres’s lawyer voluntarily presented her passport and documentation to the judge and requested an initial hearing be scheduled.
A judge issued the arrest warrant on Friday, according to the Public Prosecutor’s Office. Prosecutors and police executed the warrant on Monday morning at Torres’s home in Guatemala City.
“We think justice is once again being abused with the intention of putting on a political show,” Barreda told Al Jazeera.
Sanabria said politicians in Guatemala and throughout Latin America often claim their arrests are a politically motivated show.
“What they sometimes achieve is to divert attention from the crimes for which they are being prosecuted,” he said. “What is important are the crimes.”
The allegations against UNE and Torres are in some ways an exemplary case, but other political parties, including the ruling party, have and do face similar cases, said Sanabria.
Torres’s arrest sends a message to all actors involved, he said. It should encourage the election tribunal and prosecutors to strengthen their audits and investigations, said Sanabria.
It also serves as a warning to all political parties and their financiers, he added. In some cases, financing has been tied to organised crime and drug trafficking. But in most cases, the issue is the failure to report donations from the private sector.
“Parties end up responding to the interests of financiers instead of the interests of the country,” said Sanabria. “It weakens the democratic system.”
The investigation into Torres and UNE was led by the Office of the Special Prosecutor Against Impunity, FECI, and the United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG).
FECI and CICIG also investigated President Morales and the ruling FCN party for unregistered campaign financing during their successful 2015 campaign – allegations he has denied.
As president, Morales has immunity from prosecution. Shortly after news of the investigation surfaced, however, he began taking action against CICIG, and last year, announced he would not renew the commission.
CICIG’s mandate ends on Tuesday. It has signed off as a joint plaintiff on all ongoing cases, including the prosecution of Torres.
The commission garnered international attention due to the arrests of high-level government officials, but it has also worked on analysis and reform proposals regarding the electoral and political party system.
A coalition of civil society groups also pushed for significant electoral reforms in the wake of the elections and political scandals in 2015.
A series of reforms passed in 2016 included new regulations for campaign finance transparency and accountability. The reforms were implemented before this year’s general and runoff elections.
“There have been important advances, but there is still much to do to achieve a system of transparent, accountable party financing,” said Sanabria.