Why is the Guatemala attorney general going after the new president?

 Despite having the support of millions of Guatemalans, newly installed President Bernardo Arévalo has a clear obstacle — the attorney general’s office and its leader, Consuelo Porras.

Arévalo has made a bold promise to clean up corruption in a Central American nation that for years has kept swaths of the countryside marginalized and impoverished. But he already has faced waves of court challenges that sought to stop him from taking office Sunday, and is widely expected to be hit with further legal attacks. Experts and critics say Porras has led the charge.

The president has said he will propose a meeting this week with Porras and will ask for her resignation. She likely will refuse, and Guatemalan law blocks the president from removing the top prosecutor.

Here are some key points as Porras tries to hinder Arévalo in carrying out his progressive agenda, which has widespread public support, particularly among Indigenous communities.

WHO IS GUATEMALA’S ATTORNEY GENERAL?

Consuelo Porras, 70, runs the Public Prosecutor’s Office and wields all the investigative and prosecutorial power in the country.

Porras is widely viewed as a protector of Guatemala’s political and business elite, having shut down a once robust effort to investigate and prosecute corruption.

She has been sanctioned twice by the United States government, which accuses her of undermining democracy and torpedoing the anti-corruption fight, and she has been openly criticized by the international community.

“The Public Prosecutor’s Office is still bent on bringing cases from the past to affect the transition,” the secretary general of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro, said in early December.

She first became attorney general in 2018 with the support of then-President Jimmy Morales, replacing Thelma Aldana. The reputation of the prosecutor’s office soon began to decline as corruption cases weren’t followed through on and personnel changes were made.

With a doctorate in law, Porras’ reputation was hit by a plagiarism scandal during her first term as attorney general. And she accumulated a list of accusations against her, including blocking investigations into corruption, protecting the interests of Guatemala’s elite, and criminalizing judges and prosecutors.

But two years ago, then President Alejandro Giammattei ratified her appointment to another term, which run untils 2026.

WHAT HAPPENED TO THE ANTI-CORRUPTION FIGHT?

Years ago, the Public Prosecutor’s Office was an example to follow in Latin America for its anti-corruption efforts. It even managed to get a president to resign.

With the arrival of Porras, that fight withered. Under her leadership, the government pushed to expel a United Nations-supported anti-corruption commission investigating possible state crimes. The commission, which brought several hundred people to court, eventually left the country after its mandate wasn’t renewed.

During Giammattei’s time as president, Porras left many accusations against him uninvestigated, including a corruption scandal involving COVID-19 vaccines.

Many of Arévalo’s supporters hold Porras responsible for Guatemala’s current political crisis.

HOW DID PORRAS TRY TO OBSTRUCT THE TRANSITION OF POWER?

Problems for Arévalo began as soon as the progressive politician won a spot on the presidential runoff ballot. On the same day results from the first round of voting were made official, a judge — who also has been sanctioned by the U.S. — announced an investigation int’so Arévalo Seed Party and suspended its legal status as requested by Porras’ office.

Despite Arévalo’s candidacy being approved by electoral authorities and the election results being certified, prosecutors ordered waves of arrest warrants, raids of the party offices and seizures of electoral records and ballots.

Porras went so far as to try three times to have Arévalo’s immunity from prosecution be withdrawn and she proposed annulling the election.

The judicial onslaught is only expected to continue. Her office is pursuing multiple investigations of Arévalo, including for allegedly encouraging a monthslong takeover of a public university by students. It is also contends his party committed wrongdoing when it gathered petition signatures required to form years earlier.

For former prosecutor Claudia Paz y Paz, Arévalo’s anti-corruption agenda is one Porras sought to block Arévalo from taking office.

“People are demanding that she carry out her duty to investigate cases,” Paz y Paz said. Now that demand is backed “also by the executive branch.”

CAN ARÉVALO GET RID OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL?

In 2016, Guatemala’s congress changed the law to make it more difficult to remove the attorney general. Previously, a president could appoint and remove the top prosecutor for any reason. Now, the attorney general can be removed only for a conviction for a malicious offense.

The only way out for Arévalo is asking for her resignation or authorities initiating criminal proceedings. Congress could also change the law again, but Arévalo’s party likely lacks a congressional majority to make it happen.

The former prosecutor, Paz y Paz, argues there are enough cases with enough evidence to initiate criminal proceedings against Porras. That process could justify demands for the removal of her immunity meant to block the unjustified removal of prosecutors and the criminalization and persecution of judicial officials.

Juan Francisco Sandoval, former head of the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity now in exile after being dismissed by Porras for his investigations, echoed Paz y Paz.

“She obstructed our investigations, took away what we needed to do our work, delayed (judicial) processes and initiated administrative and criminal proceedings against us for doing our jobs with fictitious evidence, made arbitrary arrests … Which collectively led to people being exiled,” said Sandoval.

By Muhammad Hussain