Guatemala City – Guatemala’s controversial attorney general has started a second term, but Maria Consuelo Porras‘ last-minute reappointment this week has sparked widespread condemnation and new sanctions amid alarm over backsliding on the rule of law.
President Alejandro Giammattei swore in Porras for another four-year period on Monday, despite critics who accuse her of playing a role in dismantling anti-corruption efforts and judicial independence, including through the “persecution” of key anti-impunity prosecutors and judges.
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“We are entering an authoritarian period in Guatemala,” said Edie Cux, legal director of Accion Ciudadana, the Guatemalan chapter of Transparency International, a global anti-corruption NGO.
“It generates not only a crisis of the justice system but also a crisis in general in the country,” he told Al Jazeera.
The United States announced new repercussions just hours after the swearing-in ceremony, barring both Porras and her husband from entering the US. Washington suspended aid to her office last year, as well.
“During her tenure, Porras repeatedly obstructed and undermined anticorruption investigations in Guatemala to protect her political allies and gain undue political favor,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement explaining the move.
The Department of State had already placed Porras on a separate list of Corrupt and Undemocratic Actors last year after she summarily fired Juan Francisco Sandoval, the renowned Special Anti-Impunity Prosecutor at the helm of high-profile investigations into high-level corruption.
Sandoval held a news conference immediately after he was removed in July 2021, accusing Porras of obstructing investigations into corruption among governing party officials and their allies. He fled the country that same night and remains in exile in the US.
“Investigations that implicated the president were advancing,” Sandoval told Al Jazeera in an interview late last year, adding that he believed he was targeted as part of a much larger scheme to shield people in power.
Government denies corruption
Giammattei and Porras have repeatedly denied involvement in corruption. They say Sandoval, Porras’ two predecessors and other exiled prosecutors, and judges were engaged in ideologically motivated manipulation of justice and selective prosecution.
A spokesperson for the presidency did not provide comment and, after the deadline for publication, directed Al Jazeera to the foreign affairs ministry. However, Giammattei has, directly and indirectly, rejected US and other international concerns during the past year as foreign interference.
“The Office of the Public Prosecutor is an autonomous institution that is not subordinate to any international entity,” a spokesperson for the office told Al Jazeera in a written statement, adding that the attorney general does not accept any kind of pressure and will continue to work impartially.
The US statements and designations are “accusations with no basis that infringe upon not only the presumption of innocence of people but also the principle of non-intervention”, said the spokesperson.
Porras presented her fourth annual report on Monday and highlighted, among other things, significant progress in reducing the backlog of cases.
But critics pointed out that a factor behind that improvement is that cases are simply being closed much more quickly when investigations do not advance. “It is a serious problem,” said Claudia Samayoa, a human rights activist. “It is directly affecting, for example, women victims of violence.”
Indigenous authorities, NGOs and activists in Guatemala have condemned the re-appointment of Porras, which they say has much broader implications than the prosecution of corruption cases alone.
“It is terrible news, not only because there has been open persecution against judges, prosecutors and human rights defenders by her office, but also because there have been acts of impunity in the face of killings of human rights defenders,” Samayoa told Al Jazeera.
UDEFEGUA, a national human rights organisation, documented more than 1,800 incidents of threats and violence against rights defenders between 2020 and 2021. Indigenous community leaders as well as anti-impunity prosecutors, investigators and independent judges have been particularly targeted with criminal charges.
A string of current and former prosecutors were arrested earlier this year for alleged abuse of authority in the course of their investigations into high-level corruption. Judges presiding over cases of grand corruption and civil war-era crimes against humanity also have faced threats and prosecution.
Civil society groups held a news conference on Tuesday in Guatemala City to express support for judge Miguel Angel Galvez, the latest target of threats of violence and criminalisation in the wake of his ruling this month to send nine former military and police officers to trial for enforced disappearances of dissidents in the 1980s.
The legal action taken under Porras’s supervision against independent judges, lawyers and prosecutors “forms part of a wider pattern of intimidation and harassment that has led over 20 justice operators to leave the country”, the European Union spokesperson for foreign affairs said on Tuesday in a statement expressing concern over Porras’ re-appointment.
Guatemalan authorities have shown they have no problem with continuing to persecute judges, prosecutors and other judicial figures and that could expand to include more critics and opponents, according to Cux, who foresees further institutional decline with regard to human rights.
“It depends on what happens now with the reaction of the population and also the international community,” he said. “If they do not have any sort of threshold, I think we will be entering a much darker era than the one we have had for the past two years.”