Top anticorruption prosecutor from Guatemala receives asylum in the US

The decision came two years after Juan Francisco Sandoval fled Guatemala in the dead of night, fearing arrest.

In this April 3, 2019 file photo, Juan Francisco Sandoval, Guatemala's lead prosecutor against impunity, poses for a photo during an interview in Guatemala City.
Former top prosecutor Juan Francisco Sandoval credited his exile to pressures he faced after investigating government corruption [File: Moises Castillo/AP Photo]

The former head of Guatemala’s anticorruption office has been granted asylum in the United States, more than two years after he was forced to flee his country.

Juan Francisco Sandoval acknowledged the decision with a social media post on Thursday, saying it was confirmation of the threats he had endured.

“Granting me political asylum is further evidence of the political persecution of which I am a victim,” Sandoval wrote.

He explained he was targeted “for having participated in the investigation of illicit political-economic networks embedded in the state” across six separate administrations.

Sandoval has been in exile since July 24, 2021, when he fled in the early hours of the morning, crossing the border from Guatemala to El Salvador.

Worried for his safety, Swedish Ambassador Hans Magnusson accompanied him, as did journalists and human rights advocates.

They feared he would otherwise be arrested on trumped-up charges. Just one day earlier, in an abrupt turn of events, Sandoval had been fired as head of the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity (FECI).

A woman holds a picture of Juan Francisco Sandoval, who was removed by Guatemala's Attorney General as head of the Special Prosecutor's Office Against Impunity (FECI) during a protest in Guatemala City, Guatemala July 24, 2021. The picture is a large black-and-white print-out.
A woman displays a picture of removed anticorruption prosecutor Juan Francisco Sandoval at a protest in Guatemala City on July 24, 2021 [File: Sandra Sebastian/Reuters]

The official who sought his removal, Attorney General Maria Consuelo Porras, indicated she would pursue Sandoval on charges that he made “constant” and “frequent abuses” of his authority.

But Porras herself has been accused of using her position to undermine political rivals and promote her own interests.

In 2022, the US sanctioned the controversial attorney general, alleging she had told prosecutors to “ignore cases based on political considerations” and pursue anticorruption workers.

One federal prosecutor, Rudy Herrera, later told The New Yorker magazine that a colleague had pressured him to produce damning information about Sandoval and a judge, Erika Aifan, who likewise dealt with corruption cases.

“Either you give up something on them, or you’re going to be in trouble,” Herrera was told.

In 2022, Aifan — like Sandoval — fled Guatemala out of concern that she would be subject to unlawful arrest.

A protester, dressed in the colors of Guatemala's flag, holds up twin portraits of the president and the attorney general that have been digitally aged. Across each one is written the word "fuera" or "out".
Protesters rally in support of Juan Francisco Sandoval, calling for the removal of President Alejandro Giammattei and Attorney General Maria Porras on July 31, 2021 [File: Sandra Sebastian/Reuters]

Sandoval’s sudden removal from his high-ranking post and his subsequent exile helped trigger anticorruption protests in Guatemala City. Some demonstrators demanded the resignation of both Porras and President Alejandro Giammattei.

At the time of his departure, Sandoval had been investigating Giammattei over allegations that he accepted bribes from construction and mining companies, some of which were reportedly delivered in rolled-up carpets.

Giammattei has denied the accusations, but with Sandoval’s exit and Aifan’s shortly after, the probe effectively went away.

Guatemala has seen a crackdown on anticorruption figures like Sandoval and Aifan since the dissolution of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a United Nations-backed body designed to root out criminal networks.

But in 2019, under then-President Jimmy Morales, CICIG members were reportedly given 24 hours to leave the country. Morales had been under investigation himself for allegedly accepting illegal donations.

In the years since, more than 40 lawyers, judges and other legal figures — many of whom participated in the anticorruption efforts — have gone into exile, according to the Associated Press, as the Guatemalan legal system turned against them.

Others have been arrested, like the former CICIG employee Claudia Gonzalez in August.

Meanwhile, as Giammattei’s term as president comes to an end, Guatemalan voters have elected an anticorruption candidate, Bernardo Arevalo, to succeed him. He is set to take office in January.

But his election victory has been marred by what critics call politically motivated attacks. The attorney general, Porras, has repeatedly sought to suspend Arevalo’s political party, and her prosecutors have used court orders to raid the party’s headquarters, as well as the offices of Guatemala’s election authority.

Those actions have spurred fears about election integrity — and the ongoing influence of corruption in the country.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies