Illustration Credit: Alfredo Morales, Prensa Libre
Last Friday, Guatemalan Attorney General María Consuelo Porras removed Juan Francisco Sandoval from his position at the head of the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity (FECI), an anti-corruption task force created by the United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), which was removed from the country in 2019. While Porras accused Sandoval of “constant abuses and frequent abuses to the institutionality” of the office, Sandoval—an internationally recognized anti-corruption and transparency crusader who has been deemed an “anti-corruption champion” by the United States Department of State—characterized his sudden dismissal as “illegal” and accused Porras of attempting to undermine the independence and impartiality of his office. Accompanied by human rights activists, journalists from The Associated Press, and Swedish Ambassador to Guatemala Hans Magnusson, Sandoval fled Guatemala to El Salvador just hours after his firing, citing fears for his life, but has maintained that he will “continue working for the good of the people of Guatemala.”
The removal of Sandoval—notorious for his dogged pursuit and prosecution of dozens of criminal networks, including those connected to former President of Guatemala Otto Pérez Molina and high-profile government ministers—prompted a domestic and international outcry. Hundreds of Guatemalans protested his dismissal outside of the Palacio Verde in Guatemala City, presidential palace, and the country’s powerful campesino federations have called for a general strike. Meanwhile, U.S. officials such as Samantha Power, Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and Julie Chung, Acting Assistant Secretary of State, have respectively described Sandoval’s removal as “outrageous” and a “significant setback to the rule of law.”
The dismissal and exile of Sandoval, who has described himself as “the latest in a string of prosecutors [to] have suffered the consequences for seeking truth and justice,” represents the culmination of several months of backsliding on anti-corruption initiatives in Guatemala, a country key to the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden’s agenda for Central America’s “Northern Triangle” region (which also includes Honduras and El Salvador). Last April, Guatemala’s Congress of the Republic refused to swear in Magistrate Gloria Porras (no relation to the Attorney General), another famed anti-corruption advocate, to fill her elected seat on the nation’s high Constitutional Court. The Biden administration has placed eradicating graft and corruption in Central America at the center of its efforts to combat surging northward migration from the region, and thusly views Sandoval’s removal—which, according to the U.S. Department of State, “fits a pattern of behavior that indicates a lack of commitment to the rule of law and independent judicial and prosecutorial processes”—as an affront to such endeavors. In response to news of Sandoval’s dismissal, the U.S. has announced a temporary suspension of its cooperation with Guatemala’s Public Ministry. According to Tiziano Breda, a Central America analyst for the International Crisis Group, Sandoval’s removal confirms fears that despite expressing a rhetorical commitment to fighting corruption, the Guatemalan state ultimately remains more interested and invested in defending entrenched traditions of elite impunity in the country—a reality that arguably calls into question the viability of the Biden administration’s stated goal of combatting corruption through increased cooperation with national governments in Central America.