Guatemala begins reshaping court; corruption concerns grow

FILE - In this Aug. 27, 2017 file photo, Constitutional Court President Jose Francisco de Mata Vela leads a press conference in Guatemala City. Guatemala's Congress began reshaping the country's highest court Tuesday, March 2, 2021, selecting a new magistrate and an alternate in decisions that could have grave consequences for the battle against corruption and impunity. (AP Photo/Luis Soto, File) (Luis Soto)

GUATEMALA CITY – Guatemala’s Congress began reshaping the country’s highest court Tuesday, selecting a new magistrate and an alternate in decisions that could have grave consequences for the battle against corruption and impunity.

In an initial vote Tuesday, current magistrate Dina Ochoa received a majority of votes (101 of 160 lawmakers), putting her on a path to a likely second consecutive term. She was originally former President Jimmy Morales’ pick to the current court. Ochoa has been criticized for decisions to protect a fugitive judge accused of corruption and to eject the United Nations anti-corruption mission, known as CICIG.

Selecting the new members of the Constitutional Court has roiled Guatemalan politics since last year. The congressional selections Tuesday were the first of a series of sectors charged with picking the new court.

The court decides almost all of the most contentious political, judicial and criminal issues that arise in Guatemala and the outgoing court was seen as an important bulwark against some of the most ill-intentioned legal maneuvers. The members will hold their seats for five years and the selection process has been filled with accusations of collusion and corruption.

The stakes are so high because the next court will likely decide the fate of politicians accused of corruption like former President Otto Pérez Molina, military officers convicted of crimes against humanity and the potential candidacy of Zury Ríos, daughter of ex-dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, constitutionally banned from running.

The Constitutional Court is the last step in Guatemala’s justice system, so the selection process has drawn the attention of not only Guatemalans, but outsiders concerned with the rule of law in the country. Tuesday’s votes were preceded by a handful of arrest orders last week against people directly involved in the process, though for meddling in the selection of judges on other courts.

The court is made up of five magistrates and five alternates. The congress picks a magistrate and alternate Tuesday and then Guatemala’s bar association, public university council, president and Supreme Court pick the remaining members.

Activists, lawyers and other observers have widely criticized the process already for attempts to manipulate the results, influence peddling and other alleged crimes.

Last week, Guatemalan authorities requested arrest orders for several people involved in the selection of magistrates or candidates to the court.

One was for the rector of University of San Carlos de Guatemala, Murphy Paíz, one of those who would help choose new Constitutional Court members, for allegedly colluding on votes. He said he would present himself to authorities to resolve the matter, but instead checked himself into a hospital where he was under guard.

Authorities did arrest Luis Fernando Ruiz, former president of the bar association, and himself a candidate as an alternate to the court. They did not find the former rector of Paiz’s university, Estuardo Galvez, who is a candidate to be a magistrate on the court. He released a video on social media arguing that he was the victim of political persecution.

Elvyn Díaz, a lawyer at the Institute for Penal Studies, said the court is an attractive target for co-opting for a number of reasons. With the demise of the United Nations-backed anti-corruption mission in Guatemala that helped bring a number of important corruption prosecutions, there is great interest in maintaining impunity among those at risk. In Guatemala’s justice system, everything can eventually arrive at the Constitutional Court, he said.

Also, the outgoing court laid out important criteria in areas including human rights and the extraction of natural resources that affected deals that large investors had made with the political class, he said.

Finally, and perhaps the most important, according to Díaz, is that the outgoing court played a critical role as a check on political power. “They don’t want to have a court that limits arbitrary acts and questions their exercise of power,” he said.

That factor appears to be driving public statements from the U.S. State Department in recent weeks.

On Tuesday, Julie Chung, U.S. Acting Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, said via Twitter: “The fight against corruption in Guatemala requires candidates to the Constitutional Court that demonstrate integrity and impartiality and are free from outside influence or unresolved criminal charges.”