Colombia defends minister who led Guatemala corruption inquiry as row deepens | Colombia

A growing diplomatic row has broken out after Guatemala’s government accused Colombia’s defence minister of breaking the law during his time as the head of a UN-backed anti-corruption mission in Guatemala.

This week, Guatemala announced that Ivan Velásquez was being investigated for “illegal, arbitrary and abusive acts” stemming from his inquiry into corruption allegations involving the Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht.

But critics of the Guatemalan government say the incident is just the latest in a string of cases targeting those involved in investigating high-level corruption in Guatemala.

Velásquez, a prominent human rights lawyer, previously led Cicig, the UN-backed unit which was responsible for dismantling dozens of powerful corruption networks before it was expelled from Guatemala in 2019. He was last year named defence minister by Colombia’s leftwing president Gustavo Petro.

Speaking from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Petro defended the minister, saying that he would not accept any attempt to arrest him.

“The criminals are striking back … [Velásquez] demonstrated his fight against corruption – and we will not allow corruption to persecute him,” Petro said.

On Tuesday, both countries summoned their ambassadors for consultation.

Guatemala’s president, Alejandro Giammattei, said that Velásquez was simply under investigation and not facing criminal prosecution.

The rightwing Guatemalan leader has been accused of purging the justice system, derailing corruption investigations and forcing judges and prosecutors to flee the country.

The announcement that Velásquez was under investigation was made by Rafael Curruchiche, a Guatemalan prosecutor sanctioned by the United States, which withdrew Curruchiche’s visa and included him on a list of undemocratic and corrupt actors.

Curruchiche’s boss, attorney general María Consuelo Porras, was also sanctioned by the US on the grounds she “repeatedly obstructed and undermined anti-corruption investigations to protect her political allies and gain undue political favor”.

But Porras retains the support of Giammattei, who named her for a second term as attorney general.

At least two dozen judges and anti-corruption prosecutors targeted under Porras are in exile, having fled Guatemala to escape pending charges or arrest warrants – including her predecessor as attorney general, Thelma Aldana and a former Cicig investigator.

One of the most egregious examples is that of Virginia Laparra, a former anti-corruption prosecutor who was sentenced to four years in prison for abuse of authority for reporting her suspicion that a judge had leaked sensitive details from a sealed corruption case.

Amnesty International has said it considers Laparra to be a political prisoner.

No arrest warrant has been issued for Velásquez, the Colombian minister, but Guatemalan prosecutors have claimed he was responsible for “irregularities” in co-operation agreements with senior Odebrecht executives who become co-operating witnesses in a bribery case involving allegations of multi-million dollar bribes to Guatemalan politicians.

Among them is Manuel Baldizón, a former presidential candidate, who was convicted in the United States for money laundering and later deported. On his return to Guatemala, he was arrested but released on bond earlier this year.

In a report last year, Wola, the Washington Office on Latin America, said Guatemala had been previously making progress in strengthening its institutions.

But, it added, “today, rule of law in Guatemala is on a dramatic downward spiral. A handful of corrupt political, military, and economic elites seeking to maintain their privileges at the expense of Guatemala’s Indigenous majority population have captured the state.

“They have systematically dismantled anti-corruption mechanisms such as UN-led Cicig and the special anti-corruption prosecutors’ office and infiltrated the justice system, starting at the top.”

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