Home OPINION The alleged corruption of Guatemala protected by the United States,by Casto Ocando...

The alleged corruption of Guatemala protected by the United States,by Casto Ocando | @cocando

A GROUP of former Guatemalan prosecutors and judges, also known as “corruption fighters” who requested political asylum in the United States alleging political persecution, are subjects of an extensive investigation on how they abused their positions of power to weaponize justice and prosecute political opponents selectively, without evidence and without due process. The investigation is backed by assets and funds in multimillion-dollar private accounts allegedly coming from corruption, according to testimonies and documents from the Attorney General’s Office (AGO) reviewed by Primer Informe.

The former officials, who held key positions in the Guatemalan judicial system until last year, including the position of Attorney General and the powerful Office of the Special Prosecutor against Impunity (FECI), accumulated enormous amounts of money in personal and secret accounts in several countries including the US, which would not have been amassed with the salary they earned while in office.

The prosecutor’s probe is placing emphasis on several of the accounts that have balances of millions of dollars, controlled by shell corporations in international tax havens to avoid declaring them in Guatemala, according to investigators from the Guatemalan AGO.

Among those investigated, four former prosecutors and a former judge stand out, all exiled in Washington DC and under apparent protection of the Biden Administration, and in particular of the State Department: Juan Francisco Sandoval, Thelma Aldana, Erika Aifan, Andrei González and Rudy Herrera, the sources said.

The investigation includes numerous cases of alleged mismanagement in the administration of justice in Guatemala by these former officials, several of them already publicly known. But it includes information, unknown until now, about bank accounts inside and outside the Central American country. These multimillion-dollar bank accounts, if proven true, would become an unreconcilable fact against the prior narrative of clean corruption fighters.

According to sources familiar with the probe, the ongoing cases include the acquisition of luxury properties, questionable actions in Brazil related to alleged attempts to cover up Odebrecht’s corruption in Guatemala, and the existence of an alleged money laundering network from corruption, with links to banks in Guatemala, Cayman Islands, Switzerland and the United States.

This group of officials received, and seems to continue to receive, the unrestricted support of senior US officials such as Juan González, White House National Security Adviser for Latin America; Ambassador Todd Robinson, head of the State Department’s International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INL), and Democrat congressman for New Jersey, Albio Sires, under the presumption that they were champions of the fight against corruption in Guatemala.

But the investigations in Guatemala City reveal a totally different story.

Juan Francisco Sandoval, former head of FECI and a key figure who served as a liaison between the Attorney General’s Office and the now defunct International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), was fired from his position on July 23, 2021, and charged a few weeks later for “obstruction of justice” and “breach of duty”.

Sandoval, who had been described by the State Department as an “anti-corruption champion”, left the country for the United States before a Guatemalan court issued an arrest warrant against him, accused of dozens of irregularities and corrupt dealings.

“The act of removing Juan Francisco Sandoval from #FECI is a lethal blow to the fight against corruption in #Guatemala,” Congressman Sires reacted in a tweet posted at six in the afternoon on the same day Sandoval was fired. The message was retweeted three hours later by Todd Robinson, who was ambassador to Guatemala between September 2014 and September 2017.

However, throughout his administration, Sandoval not only accumulated dozens of complaints against him, but also had the support of Ambassador Robinson, which made the powerful prosecutor an untouchable official in Guatemala.

According to the AG’s Office, Washington’s crucial support for Sandoval prevented a thorough investigation into the nature of the accusations against him, including the existence of private accounts in Guatemala and abroad, with hundreds of thousands of dollars, which far exceeded the wages he received while he served as the maximum head of FECI.

The former Attorney General of Guatemala between 2014 and 2018, Thelma Aldana, who arrived in the United States in early 2019 after her successor in office, María Consuelo Porras, accused her of various crimes and issued several arrest warrants against her, also had been praised as a great anti-corruption fighter, and even received the Right Livelihood Award, considered since 1980 as the “Alternative Nobel.”

But questions against the former Attorney General of Guatemala increased after she left office, and internal affairs prosecutors began to delve into cases where she had apparently exceeded her authority. The investigation took a different course when investigators began to collect information about her personal finances. According to the latest estimates, over the years Aldana accumulated millions of dollars in several accounts in Guatemala and other countries, “an inexplicable fortune,” according to the leading prosecutor in the case.

Until now, neither Robinson nor any other high official in Washington who has given unrestricted support to the former prosecutors have paid attention to the complaints against them. So far the common response has been this: it is revenge for their work against corruption. But new evidence is showing a different narrative.

Sandoval and Aldana are not the only targets of the official investigation in Guatemala. Other former officials who collaborated with both former officials are under scrutiny, and are also in exile in the United States. Such is the case of former judge Erika Aifan and former prosecutors Andrei González Arteaga and Rudy Manolo Herrera, who worked under the aegis of Sandoval and Aldana, and also have their own records of numerous complaints and accusations against them.

Aifan, who resigned from her position in March 2022 for fear of being arrested for numerous complaints against her, was considered by the State Department as an “ally” in the fight against corruption, and was awarded in March 2021 with the “International Women of Courage Award”, along with 13 other women from around the world, considered by Washington as women with extraordinary achievements.

“Despite the strong opposition she has faced during her tenure, Judge Aifan has become an icon in Guatemala in the fight against corruption, in efforts to increase transparency, and actions to improve the independence in the justice sector,” according to the statement issued by the Department of State when the distinction was awarded.

However, many of Aifán’s compromising decisions while she was in charge of High Risk Court D, which for years monopolized trials with great political impact in Guatemala, are now under the scrutiny of the authorities, as are his personal banking accounts.

To express the extent to which the Biden Administration was committed to the fight of Guatemala’s anti-corruption “champions”, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken sanctioned Attorney General María Consuelo Porras twice -in September 2021 and May 2022-, for “undermining democracy” and “obstructing investigations of acts of corruption”. Porras, successor of Thelma Aldana in the Public Ministry, changed in a short time the structure of the judiciary that until the moment of her arrival had been dominated by both Aldana and Juan Francisco Sandoval.

But this support from the US has actually prevented an in-depth investigation of the role of these and other officials, in combination with the CICIG, and their alleged creation of a parallel system of justice which was weaponized towards different ends. In other words, ironically, for creating an “illegal body and clandestine apparatus” within the state, precisely the type of entity that CICIG was meant to fight.

The other side of the coin

The five exiled officials -Sandoval, Aldana, Aifan, González and Herrera- were the protagonists of an eloquent story published last April by The New Yorker magazine, which praised them as “a group of prosecutors and judges who investigated the most powerful in the country”, and that for this reason they were “forced to flee to Washington DC”.

The story, promoted by Ambassador Robinson on his twitter account with the hashtag #Crimefighters, described the challenges faced by the Guatemalan officials during their tenure delivering justice in Guatemala. It also recounted their travails as exiles in the US capital. The carefully scripted story, with studio photography of the victimized crimefighters, generated laudatory reactions both in the United States and in Central America.

But the story, which avoided mentioning the details of the alleged corruption charges against the former officials, drew other, less apologetic, reactions.

Almost immediately after being published, a response was issued by the Guatemalan Attorney General’s Office, led by Mar\ía Consuelo Porras. Mentioning the name of each of the former officials included in the story of the New York magazine, the Public Ministry issued a harsh statement that did not spare technicalities in the abundant list of grievances against the “anti-corruption” exiles.

“The Public Ministry,” the statement said, “reiterates that, in compliance with the constitutional and legal functions that regulate its actions, it has received multiple complaints against these people where different complainants point them to serious crimes.”

The letter went on to enumerate the long list of crimes, many of them of a serious nature, for which the group of 5 were being accused:

“Abuse of authority, breach of duties, embezzlement, influence peddling, disclosure of confidential or reserved information, illicit association, material falsehood, self-concealment, money laundering, violations of the Constitution, passive bribery, abandonment of office, malfeasance, illegal detentions, failure to report, obstruction of criminal action, obstruction of justice, usurpation of functions, fraud and testaferrato.”

In reality, the prosecutor’s office led by Porras was echoing hundreds of complaints against the fugitives residing in the US. Many of those complaints were filed at the Attorney General’s Office even when these officials were active.

“In reality, they had many innocent people in jail to strengthen their power and obtain economic benefit,” said the Russian-born activist Igor Bitkov, one of the main accusers of the alleged wrongdoing by the former officials, who has documented the odyssey he suffered with his family as a result of the unprecedented judicial decisions against him that he attributes to the former prosecutors Aldana, Sandoval, González and Herrera, and to the former judge Aifán.

Bitkov said that there were even defendants who “died in jail before the trial because they could not stand the torture of having been imprisoned, without ever proving that they were really guilty.”

The reach of the “justicieros”

Former prosecutor Thelma Aldana has her own investigative file, long as her career in the Guatemalan judicial system, which began in 1981.

The first serious setback in her judicial career occurred in October 2009, when Aldana’s name appeared on a list of “unsuitable” candidates for Magistrate of the country’s Supreme Court. Aldana was second on the list of 20 candidates vetoed by CICIG, then chaired by Carlos Castresana, which had investigated and produced a file on each candidate. A file which included detailed alleged acts of corruption and ties to alleged criminal groups.

In a letter to then-Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom, Castresana said that the Commission had received “information that clearly qualifies them as unsuitable for election” in reference to this group of 20 candidates, including Aldana. In the letter, a copy of which was obtained by Primer Informe, Castresana said he had “folders with information regarding bad actions” of the candidates, noting that such information “corroborates the lack of suitability.”

The details of what these files contained remain confidential. But according to sources familiar with the files, it included cases in which the candidates had agreed to modify decisions in exchange for favors.

Despite having been vetoed by CICIG for her lack of suitability, Thelma Aldana was designated as magistrate of the Supreme Court that same October of 2009. Towards the end of her term, then-president Otto Pérez Molina, at the behest of his vice president Roxana Baldetti, appointed Aldana as Attorney General, over a list of four other candidates, despite her questionable past. The Pérez-Baldetti administration’s term would end in January 2016. The designation of Aldana was an apparent move, designed by Baldetti, to protect both herself and Pérez Molina from potential future prosecution by the Attorney General.

Civil society actors were quick to issue harsh criticism for this selection for Attorney General. Many voiced their opinions that it essentially protected corrupt politicians and organized crime. A subsequent investigation ordered by President Jimmy Morales, who succeeded Perez Molina, revealed the close ties and friendships between Aldana and Baldetti, which helped explain her designation.

But the deal did not pan out, particularly for the Pérez-Baldetti duo, and others who influenced Aldana’s appointment in the hope that they would be protected. Both Pérez and Baldetti were charged and later imprisoned by the very person who they were expecting to protect them.

Another factor had come into play: the arrival in Guatemala of US Ambassador Todd Robinson.

Aldana: From Wicked Witch to Good Witch?

Something happened in late 2014. It was so quick that it seemed like the flick of a switch. Somehow, from one moment to the next, Aldana was being cast in a white light, a stalwart champion against corruption. Aldana begun to display a frenetic activity aimed at prosecuting notable cases of corruption and did so on a grand-stage, full of theatrics and flare.

Robinson’s intervention was decisive, judging by the testimony of Blanca Stalling Dávila, former magistrate of the Supreme Court of Justice, presented before the National Congress in October 2019 within the hearings held by the Congressional “Truth Commission”, meant to uncover the actions of the CICIG in Guatemala.

This commission, which served as the stage to air innumerable complaints against the CICIG and judicial officials who acted in its support, established in a nearly 400-page report that the UN body not only “usurped powers of the National Civil Police and the Public Ministry,” but rather “carried out political and selective persecution of specific sectors.”

Stalling testified that on one occasion she attended a secret meeting at the invitation of prosecutor Aldana, with whom she said she had “a very good relationship.” The meeting was also attended by Ambassador Robinson, “another person from the DEA” and a person who she identified only with the surname Rivas Lara, presumably Francisco Rivas Lara, former prosecutor and former secretary of the Public Ministry who in 2016 was Minister of the Interior in the administration of Jimmy Morales.

At the time of the meeting Judge Stalling led the Criminal Chamber of the Supreme Court. The Criminal Chamber oversaw assigning the appropriate tribunal and judge for each case that was filed, applying randomization and other legal techniques to assure each case is heard by an impartial judge. The former magistrate testified that Aldana and Robinson asked her to work “jointly” and leverage her position in the Criminal Chamber “to speed up some processes and to try to guide or direct the resolutions of some judges, in order to resolve situations that were of interest to them.” In addition, unduly influencing the designation process for judges would be a human rights violation as it would preclude a fair and impartial judge.

Stalling said that at that time, she refused such a proposal as blatantly illegal. Later on, in February 2017, she was arrested on charges of influence peddling by order of CICIG.

“I am involved in this process because I refused to take actions contrary to the law for Thelma Aldana, Ambassador Todd Robinson and Francisco Rivas, in order to manipulate procedures when I was presiding over the Criminal Chamber and I did not. That puts me at risk right now, but I have documents,” Stalling said in a subsequent interview.

According to testimonies and documents reviewed for this report, since 2014, when she was appointed Guatemala’s Attorney General, Adana developed a controversial style of prosecution. She seemed to investigate and charge certain established criminal mafias in the country. However, at the same time, she seemed to engage in unorthodox activities, according to investigators from the Attorney General’s Office.

As revealed to Primer Informe by one of the prosecutors aware of the investigations, who asked that his identity not be revealed for fear of retaliation, there are a series of cases that are sealed or “under legal reserve”, due to the sensitive nature of the irregularities and which have not been previously reported. But there are at least four cases that focus on issues of abuse of authority, fraud and money laundering, among other crimes.

The first of these cases, which generated the first arrest warrant against Aldana, is the case of the so-called “ghost employment”, the irregular hiring of academic Gustavo Bonilla, former dean of the Faculty of Legal Sciences of the San Carlos University (USC), who was employed by Aldana at the Attorney General’s office to work on tasks he never actually performed. According to AG’s estimates, between January and December 2015, Bonilla received salaries in the amount of Q.236,000 (about $30,000) for a job he never showed up for. On March 19, 2019, a Guatemalan court under Judge Víctor Cruz issued an arrest warrant for this crime.

The second case concerns Aldana’s role and approval in the acquisition of a building for the Attorney General’s Office by allegedly illegal means, characterized in the indictment as “abuse of authority” and “fraud.” According to the accusation, Aldana authorized in 2017 the irregular purchase of the five-story building located on La Asunción Boulevard, about 20 minutes from the current headquarters of the Attorney General’s Office, in zone 5, at a cost of Q.35 million (about $4.5 million).

At least half a dozen irregularities were committed in this transaction, according to Internal Affairs Prosecutor Marlon Pacheco, who led the investigation: The acquisition of the property was not budgeted in the Annual Purchasing Operational Plan of the Public Ministry (MP), as established by law. When the head of the Legal Department objected to the purchase and refused to authorize it, Pacheco explained, she was simply fired. The negotiation was conducted between the head of Administration of the AG, who did not have legal authority to do so, and intermediaries from the entity Invermo Corp., “who were not owners or legal representatives” of the property that was being acquired, owned by the firm Bertram S.A. The entire process was carried out without bidding or contracting, an open “transgression” of legal norms, the investigation found. After an appraisal, the new AG determined that there was an overpricing of at least Q.3.5 million (about $454,000), approximately 10 percent of the value of the property.

Notably, among the negotiators allegedly authorized by Aldana was contractor William Baiz Gallardo, a representative of Invermo Corp. who was under criminal investigation by the Special Prosecutor against Impunity (FECI) and the CICIG, in the case better known as “Network of power, corruption and money laundering.”

In statements to the press, Aldana decided not to respond to the allegations but rather to describe them as revenge “for the work we did with CICIG to free Guatemala from the mafia!!” in a message posted on her Twitter account.

The third case against Aldana is for “falsity in the sworn statement of assets” and “tax fraud,” and is related to a house owned by Aldana for which she declared having paid Q.500,000 (about $78,000).

The property had been acquired by Aldana from accountant Juan Benjamín Lemus Sagastume, in an operation that, according to the purchase-sale document, was carried out on July 7, 2014, just weeks after she had been appointed as Attorney General of Guatemala.

The house, located in one of the most luxurious neighborhoods in the Guatemalan capital, had an actual cost almost five times higher: Q2.3 million (around $295,000), according to the testimony of the seller Lemus Sagastume himself, who testified for the investigation of the Prosecutor’s Office on that transaction.

According to a source familiar with the investigation, Lemus Sagastume stated that although the contract declared the purchase transaction to be for Q.500,000, in reality Aldana had paid him Q.2.5 million through his bank account.

According to the prosecution, by declaring a lower value of the property, Aldana allegedly paid a lower amount in taxes, for which he incurred the crime of tax fraud.

But it is the fourth case that could generate more serious inconveniences not only for Aldana but also for her protectors in Washington.

Alleged fortune under investigation

The potentially most scandalous case involving Thelma Aldana, according to the investigation by the Attorney General’s Office, is the bank accounts she allegedly keeps in banks in Guatemala, the Cayman Islands, the United States and Switzerland.

According to details of the investigation, to which Primer Informe had access, Aldana has at least 6 accounts in the same number of Guatemalan financial entities, with more than $1.5 million in funds combined.

The financial entities include the banks of Antigua, G&T Continental, CHN, Promerica, Bantrab and Interbanco. All accounts, ranging from checking, savings, CDs, and IRAs maintain balances in dollars.

The prosecution’s investigation found that Aldana allegedly maintains four accounts in the three banks in Cayman Islands: Scotia Bank, Cayman National Bank and Butterfield Bank. Another account is held in the name of Capital Conservator Group LLC, a corporation registered in the Marshall Islands. According to this arbitration and as indicated in this corporate registry, its final beneficiaries are Aldana and her husband Joaquín López Gutiérrez, who is a judge.

The accounts in the Cayman Islands, according to the investigation, control more than $2.5 million in funds.

The same shell corporation, Capital Conservator Group LLC, maintains a second account in the Swiss bank UBS of New York. Between cash, commodities and bonds, the account maintains assets close to $1.4 million. Both Aldana and López Gutiérrez appear as authorized signatories in that account.

The juiciest account controlled by Aldana, however, is the one held by Swiss firm UBS Global Asset Management, which has combined balances of $4.7 million.

The investigation also seeks to establish where these funds came from, and if Aldana used this last account in the Swiss bank to deposit the $250,000 that she allegedly received from a Qatari foundation, according to a complaint revealed in August 2020.

In total, according to the accounts and records consolidated by the Attorney General’s Office, Aldana’s fortune allegedly exceeds $10 million.

By way of comparison, the current prosecutor Porras has an annual salary of approximately $94,000, according to this report. If Aldana had received an equivalent salary during her entire four years, the former prosecutor’s combined salary would have amounted to no more than $370,000. The figure of $10 million, if proven to belong to Aldana, amounts to over 100 years of compensation, prior to any deductions or expenses.

According to the source, the Guatemalan government sent communications to these banking entities to obtain more information and initiate a procedure to freeze funds, if necessary.

“The investigation is focused on establishing the origin of these funds, which were never declared and have no justification for a person who held a high level in the administration of justice in Guatemala.”

Prosecutor Sandoval’s skills

The case of former prosecutor Juan Francisco Sandoval is a little more complex than that of Thelma Aldana due to the impact not only inside but outside of Guatemala. The former prosecutor not only appears involved in alleged irregularities, but also in financial operations through bank accounts kept secret until now, according to ongoing investigations by the Guatemalan Public Ministry.

Appointed by Thelma Aldana as head of the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity (FECI), Sandoval worked between 2015 and 2021 on high-profile cases that earned him international notoriety, such as the renowned case of “La Línea Consolidadores” (corruption in Guatemala’s customs), in which former President Otto Pérez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti were charged.

In July 2021, he was removed by the current prosecutor María Consuelo Porras, which generated a wave of international condemnations, mainly from high-ranking State Department officials.

In a letter sent to US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken on July 28, explaining the decision, Porras had argued that Sandoval’s dismissal was fundamentally since Sandoval “openly, repeatedly and in writing refused to comply with the instructions that the employer clearly indicated to obtain the greatest efficiency and performance in their work.”

The day after being fired, Sandoval made the decision to flee Guatemala, alleging that he feared for his life. His departure received wide international coverage. He settled in El Salvador until, less than a week later, the former FECI prosecutor arrived in Washington DC, where he has avoided prosecution ever since.

Even before being dismissed, the famous prosecutor already had a long list of accusations against him in the Public Ministry. A report published by the website Plaza Pública in July 2020, a year before being dismissed, revealed that Sandoval already had 47 “criminal” and “administrative” accusations.

But the lesser-known facets of Sandoval dealings began to emerge after he left his office in the Guatemalan capital. As explained by a source at the Public Ministry, he refused to use the official computer systems leading to breach of due process, he had a list of “high-profile” targets who he selectively fingered as guilty and subsequently looked for a crime to accuse them of. And, as exposed in audio recordings during the trial of José Ruben Zamora this week, Sandoval leaked confidential case information to media outlets. This information was allegedly used to extort victims who would pay to avoid public shame and prosecution.

According to documents from the Prosecutor’s Office on former prosecutor Sandoval reviewed by Primer Informe, the investigation found half a dozen irregularities within the Special Prosecutor’s Office against Impunity (FECI). Among the most notable are:

Sandoval’s personal accounts. As in the case of former prosecutor Aldana, the Attorney General’s Office expanded the investigations to establish the state of Juan Francisco Sandoval’s finances. According to documents reviewed by Primer Informe, Sandoval has at least eight undeclared accounts in Guatemala:

At Banco Inmobiliario he maintains two checking accounts, with a combined balance of about $80,000. At the Banrural, Sandoval maintains a checking account and a savings account, with a combined balance of about $76,000. Finally, at GYT Continental S.A. the prosecution found information on four accounts with a combined balance of almost $110,000, in addition to two Certificates of Deposit (CDs) in the amount of $50,000 each. In total, Sandoval’s funds in Guatemalan banks amount to about $363,000, a figure that the Prosecutor’s Office believes exceeds a reasonable amount of savings of the former FECI prosecutor given his compensation between 2015 and 2021.

According to the source familiar with the investigation, the Prosecutor’s Office is still trying to establish whether Sandoval has accounts outside the country or potentially through shell companies or figureheads.

Multi-Cause Cases. This is potentially one of the most telling cases and most damaging practices towards rule of law. As explained in this article from República, the artificial connection of unrelated cases does not exist in Guatemalan law. It is a practice which would allow the prosecution to essentially choose the most favorable judge. According to experts, this is a gross human rights violation as it negates the right to a fair and independent trial. Reportedly he resorted to use this mechanism given Magistrate Stalling’s unwillingness to collaborate, as stated previously.

Sandoval used this mechanism to concentrate practically all of his FECI cases under a single docket number C. 01073–2016–00359. This led to all of these cases to be tried in the “High Risk Court ‘D’”, meaning that they would be tried on the bench of Judge Erika Aifán and irrespective of whether the cases actually qualified as “high risk” to the physical integrity of the participants or judicial actors.

“Imagine being accused of a crime but not being able to access your entire case file to prepare your defense. Imagine the prosecutor choosing a ‘friendly’ judge and having a 1:1 relationship between the prosecution office and a special bench. Imagine having over 30 cases being considered as a single case. Well, that’s the ‘Multi-Causa’”, explained one of the victims who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.

Odebrecht case and illegal collaboration agreements. The investigation found that former prosecutor Sandoval signed a plea bargain agreement in Brazil with officials from the construction giant Odebrecht, who committed acts of corruption in Guatemala. He did so without allegedly having the authority to sign those agreements and in a way that did not reflect the damages suffered as a consequence of said corruption in Guatemala.

“The Odebrecht case revealed that the former section prosecutor of the Special Prosecutor against Impunity abused his position and usurped functions of the Attorney General’s Office, and set an adequate compensation to the state of Guatemala in the amount of 17.9 million dollars, figure well below what was defrauded to the state of Guatemala”, indicated the document of the prosecutors’ investigations against Sandoval.

Plea Bargain agreements without corroborating the information. According to the file, “it has been established that agreements were signed with the collaborators, however, the information was never corroborated. The illegality was of such magnitude that in a case that is in the Constitutional Court, the collaborator witnessed the entire debate, heard what all the witnesses and experts narrated, and as new evidence he became a collaborator and was awarded by a sentencing court, which grants him procedural benefits and exempts him from paying more than one hundred million Quetzals”.

Threats and pressure on witnesses in the 2020 Parallel Commissions case. “It was established that in one of the phases covered by criminal case 01073–2016–02, witnesses and defendants were threatened and pressured to change their testimonial statements and to point out and involve other people according to their interests and preferences, so that other people who had no participation were prosecuted”.

Late extradition requests and alerts to Interpol about inconsistent facts. “It has been established that for some of the accused persons in which the place where they are residing is known, extradition requests have been made belatedly and on notoriously false facts, since in the red alert requirements made before Interpol, it has been determined that they do not correspond to facts reflected in the investigations and judicial resolutions.”

The secrets of Erika Aifán

Erika Aifán is a controversial judge who between 2016 and 2022 exercised the highest authority of the so-called High Risk Court D, which has processed the highest profile cases in Guatemala and acted as the almost exclusive judge for cases brought forth by Sandoval while at the head of FECI.

Labeled by some as an ‘iron judge’, Aifán presided over several of the most notable corruption cases, including Odebrecht, “construction and corruption”, parallel commissions (2013 and 2020), “Assault on the Ministry of Health”, “Legal Advice: Laundering of Assets”, “Pandora’s Box”, and “Money Laundering and Politics”, among others.

For six years, she developed a career that earned her a great international image. However, there is another side to the story as she has many critics in Guatemala and more than 70 complaints have been filed against her.

Her first case when she arrived at Court D was the “Migrations” case, which involved the Bitkovs, a family of Russian origin that arrived in Guatemala fleeing Vladimir Putin’s persecution.

The history of the Bitkov family has been a true saga. Their successful business life in Russia was disrupted by government-led persecution, which forced them to escape. They have since faced relentless criminalization and dispossession by Vladimir Putin, which pursued the aggrieved family to Turkey and from there to Guatemala, where the persecution did not cease but increased.

When Putin stripped them of their assets in 2007, valued at that time at around $400 millions, the Bitkov family fled to Turkey. From there they responded to an Internet advertisement and hired a Guatemalan law firm called Cutino International. Cutino was to provide them with applications for citizenship in Guatemala under new names, to avoid the international persecution that Putin had mounted against the family group.

The Bitkovs settled in Guatemala with their new identification documents, under the assumption that they were completely legal. But in 2015, the CICIG accused Igor Bitkov and his family of immigration fraud, prompted by the Russian bank VTB, which became the accuser.

The accusation, according to Bitkov, was driven by Putin. Despite the fact that they should have been treated as refugees as per the Vienna Convention, of which Guatemala is a signatory, and despite the fact that Guatemalan law establishes this type of violation is punishable with an administrative sanction, the Bitkovs were sent to prison.

“That’s when the ordeal began,” Bitkov said in an interview with Primer Informe.

Judge Aifán’s role in this case, according to Bitkov, was extensive and largely irregular. Bitkov said Aifan acted “maliciously” on instructions from CICIG, in apparent collusion with the Russian government. Aifán even sent information to Moscow about the trial, despite the fact that the family had already applied for refugee status due to political persecution.

The convictions against the Bitkovs were reversed on appeal and later ratified by the Supreme Court of Justice. The case was so scandalous that the US Congress suspended a $6 million financing package for the CICIG after hearings under the Helsinski commission that uncovered the illegal handling of the case by Judge Aifán, prosecutor Thelma Aldana, the head of FECI Juan Francisco Sandoval and the CICIG chaired by Iván Velásquez, now the new Minister of Defense of Colombia appointed by president Gustavo Petro.

The other notable scandal involving Aifán is the acquittal of the so-called “leader of the corrupt pact” Gustavo Alejos, accused of being the architect of a network that influenced the election of magistrates, among a long list of elites.

According to Aifan’s acquittal, issued in mid-2021, the Special Prosecutor against Impunity (FECI), which had filed the accusation, “did not provide the evidence requested by Alejos’ defense.”

The acquittal of Alejos provoked condemnatory reactions, due to the status of the accused, who heads the Engel list of those sanctioned by the State Department for favoring or participating in acts of corruption.

“The main actor (Alejos) of the aforementioned events is released, while people accused of collaborating with him remain in preventive detention,” said criminal lawyer Rolando Alvarado, in an interview with the Perspectiva website.

Currently, the former judge Aifán has been accused by the prosecution for her mishandling of several corruption files. Given her status as a judge, a preliminary hearing must pierce the veil of immunity prior to being prosecuted. Three such requests for a preliminary hearing were filed while she held the office. But Aifán resigned from her position in the High Risk Court D, and left Guatemala last March, alleging threats “from political and criminal networks” against her.

But the Attorney General maintains a file with multiple cases and allegations, several of which are still in reserve, including the investigation of her bank accounts in Guatemala.

According to the investigation, Erika Aifán maintains three undeclared bank accounts in Guatemalan, which together maintain or have maintained until recent months total funds close to $300,000.

The first account is in the Compartamos Bank and has combined balances -checks and a certificate of deposit- of around $175,000. The second account, at Banco Azteca, has two checking accounts, with a combined value of about $60,000. The third account is held at the entity Coosanjer R.L. of San Miguel Chicaj, where she maintains a checking account in the amount of around $60,000.

Two other accomplices: Andrei González and Rudy Manolo Herrera

To enable the actions of Aldana, Sandoval and Aifán, two other officials in key positions also acted: Andrei González and Rudy Manolo Herrera.

Former prosecutor González worked closely with the head of the FECI, Juan Francisco Sandoval, and was responsible for cases such as the irregular electoral financing of the National Unity of Hope (UNE) party, whose presidential candidate was Sandra Torres; and the so-called Impunity and Defraudation case, a network of influence peddling and corruption in the Superintendence of Tax Administration (SAT) whose objective was to dismiss complaints and clear the record of the company Aceros de Guatemala.

In August 2019, former prosecutor González unexpectedly resigned, citing personal reasons. Two months later he left the country for the United States, from where he denounced the prosecutor María Consuelo Porras for abuse of authority, denial of justice and obstruction of justice for alleged interference in his work as a prosecutor, in reference to the case of the illegal financing of UNE.

AG Porras responded to González’s complaints through an official statement. She indicated that before resigning, González had demanded “to be promoted to the position of Deputy Section Prosecutor of FECI”, a request that was not granted. In addition, he demanded that she maintain his security package, including vehicle, fuel and bodyguards, even after having resigned, which would have been illegal.

In her statement, AG Porras noted that the public ministry requested that the complaint filed by González be known by the FECI itself, where the former prosecutor worked, but the request was considered inadmissible due to a potential conflict of interest.

Shortly thereafter, Porras publicly denounced González for allegedly committing three crimes: disclosure of confidential information, disclosure of secrets, and material falsehood.

A fourth case is related to González’s alleged undeclared personal bank accounts, according to the investigation by the Guatemalan Attorney General’s Office.

Two of the accounts are in Banco Ixil. A checking account maintains a balance of $14,553, while the savings account maintains $66,115. González has two other accounts at Banco Azteca: a checking account with $8,749, and a savings account with about $30,000. In total, González controls allegedly undeclared funds of around $130,000, according to investigation papers reviewed by Primer Informe.

The second accomplice of the Aldana, Sandoval and Aifán posse is Rudy Manolo Herrera, a prosecutor who joined the FECI in 2013 and was in charge of several noteworthy criminal investigations included in the aforementioned “Multicausa” under Aifán’s control.

Herrera also participated in the Bitkov’s “Migrations” case, in which he acted based on false testimonies, concealed evidence and acted to cover-up the misdeads, among others, according to the complaints filed by Igor Bitkov.

In February 2022, Herrera was implicated along with three other prosecutors, in a case of illegal arbitrariness, as denounced by an accused person in the 2020 Parallel Commissions case.

The 2020 Parallel Commissions case, presented by the FECI in July 2020, uncovered a network of influence peddling in the selection of magistrates for the Supreme Court of Justice and the Appeals Chambers, in which judges, magistrates, lawyers and individuals participated.

“By means of threats, violence or intimidating procedures they tried to force the complainant to sign a plea bargain agreement. On that occasion they told him that if he did not sign the agreement, it would be requested that the conditional freedom measure that he enjoyed be revoked and consequently he would be sent to preventive detention,” according to a statement from the Public Ministry.

But these are not the only investigations into Herrera. According to the announcement made by MP on May 5, 2022 against him, the former FECI prosecutor has more than half a dozen criminal complaints under investigation, and an arrest warrant for the case described above.

One of the cases currently being investigated against Herrera, just like Aldana, Sandoval, Aifán and González, pertains to allegedly undeclared private bank accounts.

According to the Public Ministry investigation, Herrera maintains nine accounts in four Guatemalan banks. At the Agromercantil Bank, the former prosecutor has a checking account with $38,700, and a CD (Certificate of Deposit) of about $108,000. In another entity, Banco INV S.A., a checking account with almost $28,000 and another savings account with about $175,000. In a third entity, Banco Azteca, Herrera has a checking account with almost $70,000, and a CD for $150,000. In a fourth entity, Banrural, there are three accounts controlled by the former FECI prosecutor: a checking account with about $28,000; a savings account with almost $90,000, and finally a CD with another $150,000.

In total, the funds controlled by Herrera and allegedly unreported exceed $830,000. This figure, if proven to belong to Herrera, would be hard to justify through legal means.

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