Guatemala’s Chief Human Rights Prosecutor Arrested on Trumped-Up Charges
Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales and Attorney General Thelma Aldana arrived in Washington to convince aid and lending agencies of Guatemala’s commitment to rule of law just a day after their government arrested its most prominent human rights prosecutor.
Orlando Lopez, was detained on baseless charges following a complaint filed by an organization tied to former military officers.
Lopez prosecuted former General Efrain Rios Montt on charges of genocide, and has spearheaded many other groundbreaking prosecutions, related to extrajudicial executions, forced disappearances, sexual enslavement and other grave violations of human rights involving paast and present members of the Guatemala government and security forces.
The prosecutor is charged with culpable homicide in a hit-and-run incident. But evidence connecting him to the crime is so weak that Internal Affairs prosecutor Romeo Santos refused to issue an arrest warrant. Observers believe this provoked his removal last week and replacement with a prosecutor willing to request the warrant.
The Foundation Against Terrorism has filed scores of complaints against Guatemala’s most effective judges, prosecutors and forensic experts, including judge Miguel Galvez who presides over the trial of former president Otto Perez Molina on corruption charges.
President Morales and Attorney General Aldana are currently attending a meeting at the Inter-American Development Bank to discuss Guatemala’s slice of an unprecedented U.S. aid package called the Alliance for Prosperity. The White House initiative allocated $750 million in 2016 to combat the root causes of migration from the Northern Triangle–Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador–, and the president has requested an additional $750 million in the 2017 budget. Key to this objective is fighting impunity as a necessary step to ending violence and corruption.
The arrest of Prosecutor Orlando Lopez demonstrates what Guatemalans have long known–the so-called Central American Spring, if it ever existed, is long over.
In its first report published September 2015, the Alliance for Prosperity cites advances in the prosecution of corruption cases as an achievement of the Alliance. But these objectives of the Alliance will never be met when the nation’s most effective public prosecutors and judges are targets of spurious and malicious prosecution.
Lopez spent last night in a holding cell at the Guatemala City court. There is grave concern for his safety, as there are reliable reports of a scheme to kill him in the Guatemala City preventive prison. The judge says it may be ten days before his initial hearing due to the administrative processes involved in transferring him to the city of Zacapa.
On July 8, 2016 Lopez was driving back to Guatemala City from Puerto Barrios after a hearing along a route through the departments of Zacapa and Izabal–a stronghold of organized crime networks in Guatemala. This stretch of highway is renowned for ambushes and massacres. Shortly after dark, Lopez and his three body guards felt an impact on the side of the car. The head of Lopez’s State security detail told Lopez to keep driving due to the security risks in that area.
Lopez reported the incident to the Secretary of the Public Prosecutors Office. He later learned that a man who was known to be a chronic alcoholic had been hit by a car while intoxicated on the highway and killed that night. Concerned, Lopez investigated the incident and found that an eyewitness had described the car responsible, which clearly did not fit the description of the car Lopez was driving.
The Foundation Against Terrorism has informants inside the Public Prosecutor’s office who leak information to them. When they learned of Lopez’s concern, the Foundation presented an accusation of culpable homicide against him.
The president of the Foundation Against Terrorism, Ricardo Mendez Ruiz is the son the colonel of the same name who commanded the infamous Coban military base during the genocide. in January of this year, Lopez arrested 14 men under Mendez Ruiz’s command on charges of crimes against humanity.
Mendez Ruiz acknowledged to The Guardian that the complaint he presented against Lopez was reprisal for the prosecution of military officers, stating “We’re bringing a small wave of lawsuits to counteract an enormous wave of lawsuits being brought by the extreme left against our soldiers who fought in the internal armed conflict against a Marxist invasion and against the private sector, which obstructs economic development in our country.”