Exclusive-Guatemalan president says graft fighter biased, ahead of Harris visit 

Guatemala's President Alejandro Giammattei speaks during an interview with Reuters at the National Palace of Culture in Guatemala City, Guatemala June 1, 2021. REUTERS/Sandra Sebastian


By Frank Jack Daniel

June 2, 2021

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - Guatemala's President Alejandro Giammattei criticized the country's best-known graft prosecutor for what he said was a left-wing politicization of the fight against corruption, a view at odds with strong U.S. backing for his work.

Speaking in an interview with Reuters late on Tuesday, Giammattei nonetheless expressed hope that a visit to Guatemala next week by U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris will produce shared strategies to create prosperity in rural areas prone to emigration.

Harris, a Democrat, is in charge of Washington efforts to tackle the causes of mass migration from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, collectively dubbed the Northern Triangle, including a focus on corruption and poor governance that she says limit opportunities. There is a $4 billion U.S. aid package to the region in play.

To tackle the root causes of migration, the United States should focus on countering drug trafficking, which has "corrupted the political system," said Giammattei.

He said he would ask Harris to channel rural support via the World Food Program and the government. Much U.S. aid currently goes to non-governmental projects.

"When we look at the new map of migration, the majority leave from rural areas," Giammattei said. "An alliance between Guatemala and the United States can help overcome these structural causes through institutional programs."

The 65-year-old president detailed his own efforts to clean up government, including a presidential commission he set up, a bill aimed at tackling money laundering, and his obstruction of a law passed by Congress that would allow local officials greater discretional spending.

However, asked about high-profile prosecutors such as the office of the Special Prosecutor Against Impunity headed by Juan Francisco Sandoval, and about a leading judge, he said they had allowed political beliefs to color their work.

The comments were the first time Giammattei has spoken to the media about these issues.

Giammattei, a conservative, said there were "sufficient cases" that demonstrated justice was being administered selectively and politicized.

"Everybody has a right to their own ideology," Giammattei said, stressing that the attorney general's office was independent of the executive. "The problem is when you transfer that ideology to your actions, and worse when you are in charge of justice."

U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala William Popp last week said Washington was "working to robustly support" Sandoval, who is facing a legal challenge from a lawyer seeking to dismantle his unit. The U.S. State Department declared Sandoval an "anti-corruption champion" in a February award.

Sandoval told Reuters in response to Giammattei's' comments that "obviously" judges and prosecutors had political beliefs but said their work reflected respect for laws, and not ideology. He pointed out that his unit had also prosecuted members of center-left party UNE. Most governments in Guatemala have been conservative.

Sandoval's unit supported the work of a U.N. anti-corruption body known as CICIG that launched investigations leading to the resignation of a sitting president in 2015. Giammattei was himself imprisoned for 10 months as a result of a CICIG investigation into seven extrajudicial killings during a prison raid in 2006, when he was director of the penitentiary system.

Sandoval was among the prosecutors involved in the case. Giammattei was eventually acquitted. He denies wrongdoing.

IDEOLOGICAL FAULTLINES

Giammattei's views reflect ideological faultlines stemming back to the country's civil war. Some other conservative Guatemalans believe CICIG and its allies in the justice system, civil society and Congress were seeking to steer the country to the left without winning elections. CICIG departed Guatemala in 2019.

Without being specific, Giammattei said some of the fiercest critics of corruption were "destabilizers" who wanted to break with the democratic system and were themselves corrupt.

Giammattei also defended the process to select new judges to Guatemala's Constitutional Court, the country's top tribunal. The selection pushed prominent graft fighter Gloria Porras from the bench, prompting criticism from Washington and civil society.

In his first public comments on the controversy, Giammattei said the decision to bar Porras from the court was correct because complaints about technical violations in her selection had yet to be resolved.

In contrast, he said Nester Vasquez, a magistrate who has been linked to a judicial corruption probe https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/guatemala-congress-due-swear-judge-linked-graft-case-2021-05-31, was selected by thousands of lawyers in a legitimate vote.

"There's nothing more democratic than that," he said.

Giammattei denied there was a campaign of revenge or a pattern to recent moves against lawyers and activists linked to CICIG. He said after his imprisonment people might think he himself was vengeful, but that was not correct.

INVESTMENT

Giammattei said he had asked Washington to help track drug income, seize property on its soil and return the proceeds to Guatemala. He said the United States was studying the proposal.

He is also seeking COVID-19 vaccine supplies from the United States, and said he believed they would be forthcoming with AstraZeneca shots.

"It looks like there will be help," he said, adding that he didn't know how many doses or when they would arrive.

Unlike neighbors Honduras and El Salvador, Guatemala has no interest in sourcing vaccines from China, Giammattei said, citing what he said was their low effectiveness. He said his government would not seek to establish relations with Beijing, out of loyalty to long-time ally Taiwan.

Laying out a plan for economic development, he cited a new law making it easier to create low-tax free trade zones in the interior of the Central American country, with a goal of attracting call centers and manufacturing.

He said a Singaporean company was interested in making a $250 million investment to manufacture surgical gloves and hazmat suits, and mentioned negotiations over a $7 billion investment over two years by a different company, but declined to provide more details.

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