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Guatemala Targets Colombian Defense Minister in Crackdown on Anti-Corruption Force


As Guatemalan authorities intensify a year-long methodical crackdown on officials tasked with rooting out government corruption in the country, the government announced this week that it is investigating the Colombian defense minister, who led an active UN-backed anti-corruption agency. in Guatemala until 2019.

The announcement, which has strained bilateral relations between Guatemala and Colombia, comes alongside a number of arrest warrants and criminal charges against former prosecutors and judges who worked with the same force. anti-corruption task force.

The developments have raised concerns about the decline of democracy and the rule of law in Guatemala, leading to a flurry of condemnation from the United States, the European Union and the United Nations. Rights groups have criticized the Guatemalan government for threatening many officials involved in the anti-corruption task force; More than 30 prosecutors and judges have fled the country in the past two years to avoid arrest.

The President of Colombia, Gustavo Petro, defends Iván Velásquez, Colombia’s defense minister, on Tuesday, and said “political sanity” means fighting corruption.

“Those who let the mafia take over the state lead society to genocide,” said Mr. Petro Twitterwas clearly aimed against the president of Guatemala.

The current diplomatic rift began on Monday when the head of Guatemala’s Special Prosecutor’s Office, Rafael Curruchiche, said his team would take “legal actions” against Mr. illegal, arbitrary and abusive behavior” as he headed the anti-corruption agency. .

The allegations revolved around deals that former Guatemalan officials tried to broker with Mr. Velásquez to share information on corruption cases in exchange for a reduced sentence — a fairly standard process that prosecutors applied in legal cases around the world.

Mr. Velásquez dismissed the investigation into his work as retaliation from those his task force had targeted.

“We know the monster, we have seen it at close range and from different trenches we have fought it. We know how it transforms and the methods it uses, but it doesn’t frighten us,” said Velásquez. said Monday on Twitter about the allegations from Mr. Curruchiche and the Guatemalan government.

From 2013 to 2019, Mr. Velásquez led the International Commission Against Immunity in Guatemala, which worked with the Guatemalan attorney general to fight corruption. The UN-backed force gained global attention in 2015 because of its investigations into top Guatemalan officials, including the country’s president at the time, Otto Pérez, who resigned and was later arrested.

But in 2018, then Guatemalan president Jimmy Morales expelled Mr. Velásquez from Guatemala. He shut down the anti-corruption agency the following year.

On Monday, Mr. Curruchiche also announced several arrest warrants for former investigators who worked with the anti-corruption agency, including Thelma Aldana, the former attorney general of Guatemala.

Brian A. Nichols, US assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, condemned the latest moves by the Guatemalan government, tweet on Tuesday that he was “disturbed” by the arrest warrant.

“Such actions undermine the rule of law and confidence in the Guatemalan judicial system,” Mr. Nichols said.

Last year, Mr. Curruchiche was sanctioned by the US government and charged with “intentionally engaging in conduct that threatens democratic processes or institutions, engages in serious corrupt activity, or obstructs investigate.”

Mr. Curruchiche was barred from entering the United States.

President Alejandro Giammattei of Guatemala told a Colombian radio station on Friday that “differences between countries must be resolved through diplomatic channels.” The president suggested that his government would investigate Mr. Velásquez but would not prosecute him because of his diplomatic immunity.

Mr. Giammattei abruptly ended the interview when asked about the sanctions the US government imposed on Mr. Curruchiche last year.

“I told him I wouldn’t touch that topic again,” Mr. Giammattei said of the journalist before hanging up the phone.

Extending their campaign against dissidents, Guatemalan officials on Thursday filed charges against lawyers representing José Ruben Zamora, a journalist who has covered allegations of corruption widely. related to Mr. Giaammattei. At the time of his arrest, Mr. Zamora was also the president of one of the country’s leading newspapers, elPeriódico.

When authorities arrested Mr. Zamora last year, they also raided the newspaper’s offices. Mr. Zamora was charged with money laundering, extortion and influence. His lawyers have denied those accusations.

Genevieve Glatsky contribution report.

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