Guatemala is Attacking its Independent Judges: The United States Must Do More to Ensure an Independent Judiciary

Statement by AJWS Senior Director of Civil and Political Rights and Advocacy, Tracey Gurd, on the attempts to dismantle an independent judicial system in Guatemala

As U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris plans her visit to Guatemala in June, we encourage her to focus on the attacks on the country’s democracy, especially those aimed at Guatemala’s Constitutional Court. We urge the vice president to meet as soon as possible with Judge Gloria Porras—Constitutional Court magistrate—who was unable to be sworn in to her third term due to improper influence from Guatemala’s legislature. It is crucial for Vice President Harris to hear from Judge Porras personally on the direct threats being made against her, and the grave risks that these continued attacks on an independent judiciary could mean for the future of Guatemala’s democracy.

Since Guatemala’s transition to democracy, the Constitutional Court has played a pivotal role in adjudicating high stakes controversies in a democratic, institutional manner. We are extremely concerned by the recent actions of the Guatemalan Congress to bypass legally established processes for Constitutional Court appointments by refusing to allow Judge Porras to be sworn in to her third term. This is yet another signal of a concerning trend away from rule of law and democratic values in Guatemala. For Guatemala to be a safe nation for all its citizens, it must uphold democratic norms, including ensuring adherence to separation of powers, rule of law, and protecting an independent judiciary.

If the Constitutional Court is unable to act unhindered, Guatemala will suffer substantive regress in the areas of transitional justice, accountability and human rights. This is of concern to all who advocate for human rights in Latin America, including those that are concerned about the continued crisis of people leaving their homes out of fear for their safety and future, including access to livelihoods. Unless Guatemala is safe and prosperous for all its citizens, many will continue to flee their own nation.

AJWS welcomes the announcement this week of U.S. sanctions against one former and one current Guatemalan government official—Gustavo Adolfo Alejos Cambara and Felipe Alejos Lorenzana—but believes more can be done to combat corruption and impunity, and restore the rule of law in Guatemala.

As the Biden administration and Congress consider what further actions to take to address root causes of migration in the region, and the continued attacks on Guatemala’s independent judiciary, we urge new thinking and a renewed approach to combatting the drivers of migration. We urge deepened support for social change organizations and civil society organizations working to improve rule of law in Guatemala, particularly those led by historically marginalized groups including Indigenous Peoples, women and youth.

We call on all governments and funders who have supported Guatemala in its return to democracy and its implementation of the Peace Accords to elevate the voices of those most impacted by these actions, and to call on the government of Guatemala to ensure the rule of law is respected, elected judges are allowed to be sworn in and an independent judiciary is allowed to operate without political interference.

Background:

Yesterday, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris met virtually with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, reportedly to discuss ways to strengthen cooperation between the two countries in order to address the root causes of migration from Guatemala—including corruption. The top-level meeting came immediately after the State Department issued sanctions against two Guatemalans—a current and former Guatemalan government official—for bribing lawmakers and judges, both to influence judicial selection and to protect themselves from any current and future corruption prosecutions.

The U.S. meetings and sanctions come on the heels of a crisis in Guatemala earlier this month, when lawmakers refused to swear in Constitutional Court magistrate Gloria Porras after her re-election to serve a third five-year term. Citing election irregularities to justify the move, the government has been heavily criticized by both Guatemalan activists and the Biden administration. The refusal to seat Porras is part of an ongoing effort to oust individuals from judicial positions who seek to combat corruption by holding high level military and government officials responsible for graft and human rights abuses. Over her decade on the bench, Porras voted against the expulsion of a U.N.-backed anti-corruption body; against the decision to vacate ex-dictator Efraín Rios Montt’s genocide conviction; and in favor of the rights of Indigenous Peoples to be consulted about extractive projects built in their territory.

Since 2019, the Guatemalan Congress has continually ignored the recommendations of the Constitutional Court. Additionally, the elimination of Latin America’s most successful and popular anti-corruption commission, the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (known as CICIG), allowed for elected officials and their families under investigation to once again act with impunity.

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