Guatemala: former president sentenced to 16 years for corruption

<span>Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

A Guatemalan court has found a former president and his vice-president guilty on two charges of corruption, in one of the most high-profile corruption cases in the Central American country.

The ruling against former president Otto Pérez Molina and his vice-president, Roxana Baldetti, on charges of illicit association and customs fraud come as a relief amid what is seen as the rollback of anti-corruption efforts. But the two were absolved of charges of illicit enrichment, due to lack of evidence.

The decision comes over seven years after the two were forced to resign from office, but for many analysts, the ruling does not come as a clear case of justice for their acts of corruption.

“In some ways justice has been done – but not completely,” said Edie Cux, a lawyer with the Guatemalan anti-corruption organization Acción Ciudadana.

“It sends a message of institutional weakness regarding cases dealing with corruption,” he said. “And to some extent, a message of impunity for cases of illicit enrichment.”

Pérez Molina and Baldetti were sentenced to 16 years in prison each for their part in a tax fraud scheme and a fine of just over $1m. Guatemala’s special prosecutor’s office against impunity, or FECI, had requested 30 years.

Both were accused of corruption after the April 2015 announcement of an investigation by the public prosecutor’s office in conjunction with the UN-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, commonly known as Cicig, which uncovered extensive corruption in the country’s tax system that had enabled the theft of more than $120m.

The case led to massive protests that brought together diverse sectors of the country, including the middle class, small farmers and the business class, to demand the resignation of Pérez Molina and Baldetti.

“It was a historic moment for Guatemala,” said Ana María Méndez, Central America analyst with the Washington Office on Latin America. “Seeing different sectors of the population come together. This type of unity had never been seen before in the country.”

Baldetti and Pérez Molina resigned in 2015 after months of huge protests and after losing the support of the country’s economic elite.

The resignations brought hopes for change. But they occurred just ahead of the 2015 presidential election, won by the far-right candidate Jimmy Morales, a former comedian who campaigned off of the scandal promising voters he was “neither corrupt nor a thief”.

Morales later undermined the anti-corruptions efforts, forcing Cicig to officially close after he refused to extend the body’s mandate. The closure came after a coordinated campaign undermining the efforts of the anti-corruption body, which was echoed by Judge Jeannette Valdés during Wednesday’s sentencing.

Anti-corruption efforts in Guatemala have faced systematic backlash in the years since the closure of Cicig, with judges, prosecutors, attorneys and others facing criminal prosecution. The backlash has led to nearly 30 anti-corruption actors being forced into exile, including Juan Francisco Sandoval, the former head of FECI – which inherited the cases investigated by Cicig – who was forced to flee in July 2021.

Most recently the internationally renowned judge Miguel Ángel Gálvez, who had initially sent the case against Pérez Molina and Baldetti to trial, was forced to resign following months of attacks.

Related: Top corruption prosecutor held in jail as Guatemalan elite bids to purge foes

As the anti-corruption judges and investigators have been forced into exile, other high-profile cases against politicians accused of corruption have been dismissed.

“There is a consolidation of a system of impunity,” said Méndez. “The consolidation of an authoritarian system and the most serious and highest expression of the lack of judicial independence that occurs today in Guatemala.”

But Wednesday’s decision was a powerful endorsement of the work done by investigators who collaborated with the Cicig at a time when there have been attempts to discredit their work.

“It is a vindication of the work carried out by [those who worked with] Cicig and the public prosecutor’s office,” said Juan Francisco Sandoval. “[It is] an emblem for the people of Guatemala.”