One Woman’s Quest for the Rule of Law in Guatemala

Thelma Aldana, Guatemala’s attorney general, sent the president who appointed her to prison. Now she wants to prosecute his replacement. But her term ends this spring. How did Guatemala get here?

By Steven Lance

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[dropcap]A [/dropcap]thousand miles and vast disparities in wealth and power separate the United States from Guatemala, a nation of about 17 million in Central America. But the presidents of both countries are right-wing outsiders, famous from television, who defeated former first ladies to win election. And both presidents now face criminal investigations from within their own governments.

The investigation in Guatemala is being led by a pair of veteran prosecutors: Thelma Aldana, that country’s attorney general, and Iván Velásquez, the head of an international commission bolstering Guatemala’s justice system. On paper, the president, Jimmy Morales, looks outmatched. Aldana and Velásquez are both former Supreme Court justices (Aldana in Guatemala, Velásquez in his native Colombia), both 62 years old. President Morales is a TV comedian and, at 48, a political novice. In his previous career, he wasn’t above chasing cheap laughs in blackface or false teeth. He opposes abortion and same-sex marriage. He is moving Guatemala’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. During the last presidential campaign, Breitbart dubbed him “the Donald Trump of Guatemala.”

Aldana and Velásquez want to prosecute Morales for concealing campaign donations and receiving secret bonuses from the Guatemalan Army. In August of 2017, the pair filed an antejuicio—legal papers seeking to lift the executive’s immunity from prosecution—against the president. Morales responded by ordering Velásquez expelled from the country and accusing Aldana, a conservative Catholic, of leftist agitation. Aldana announced that she would resign in protest if Velásquez was forced out. “Without independence,” she explained, “there is no rule of law.”

In September, Guatemala’s highest court blocked President Morales’s order against Velásquez, and protestors took to the street to celebrate, burning piñatas in the president’s image. Since then, despite larger protests, more antejuicios, and renewed calls for his resignation, Morales has held his ground. One advantage he holds is structural: Guatemalan presidents can’t be prosecuted unless the Supreme Court and two-thirds of Congress give their consent. So far, Guatemala’s Congress has sided with Morales. (Several representatives are also under investigation, which seems to work in his favor.) In September of 2017, Congress rejected Aldana and Velásquez’s antejuicio by 104 votes to 25—though recent votes have been closer—and passed legislation reducing prison-time for the crimes Morales is accused of. But Aldana and Velásquez have not retracted their charges.

What will break the stalemate? The calendar favors Morales. The next presidential election is still more than a year away, but Aldana’s term ended this May. Will her replacement keep up the fight?

Aldana told me she had one piece of advice for the next attorney general: “Be honest.” It sounds simple, and for Aldana, perhaps it is. In her time in office, she has shaken her country’s political class, attracted death threats from shady networks, and earned nicknames like “la fiscal de hierro,” the iron prosecutor. (My taxi driver one morning in Guatemala City called her “the messiah.”) Aldana minimizes her personal importance, pointing out that she has only done her job. But she seems to operate in a paradigm outside of Guatemalan history, where graft has no appeal and death threats have no persuasive force.

The roots of the current crisis in Guatemalan national politics go back generations. But its main contours—the compromised president unwilling to resign, the prosecutor unafraid to stand up to him, the protestors chanting in the streets—have more recent roots, in a high-level corruption scandal that unfolded in 2015. That crisis, centering around a customs racket known as “La Línea,” made Aldana and Velásquez national heroes. It raised expectations about the force of law and its constraint on power. It reignited political activism after decades of repression. It brought Morales into power. And it set the scene for the standoff that may remove him.

Last spring, Aldana met me in the headquarters of the Ministerio Público, Guatemala’s national law enforcement agency, in a conference room on the top floor. The building was easy to find—eight stories tall, it towered over the rusting roofs and paint-peeling walls of Guatemala City’s historic center. Armed guards in suits patted me down and waited outside the door. As I waited for our meeting to begin, I surveyed the room—dark wood, leafy plants, and diffuse light from windows looking out on the capital—and remembered what a former American ambassador had told me about Aldana: “Nothing prepares you for meeting her, because she’s very soft-spoken, very respectful, very unassuming. And she has brought governments down.”

Aldana entered the room through a pair of inconspicuous wooden doors that connected to her private office. She smiled broadly, wearing bright lipstick and gold earrings. Her hair was short, uniformly black. A Guatemalan flag, taller than Aldana in heels, stood beside her desk. Aldana told me she spent at least 12 hours a day in this office suite. It was the only place in the city where she could be alone.

As we spoke, an assistant entered with a pitcher of water, and the bodyguards glanced in at us. The Ministerio Público’s investigators have uncovered credible assassination plots against Aldana, including one involving hitmen from El Salvador and Honduras. Neighbors have spotted drones flying over her house. Aldana and her family used to get standing ovations in restaurants; now they can’t risk eating out. She commutes to work in an armored car.

I asked Aldana if the job of attorney general was worth these sacrifices. “The country is worth it,” she responded. Aldana wears her courage lightly. She’s a workaholic lawyer, a mother of two adult children, a career public servant—and she believes the law should be followed, even by the powerful. She told me she hadn’t gone looking for politicians to prosecute. “But if they show up in our investigations,” she added, raising her hands, “what are we going to do?”

The attorney general’s life tracks a turbulent period in Guatemala’s history. She was born in 1955 in the eastern city of Zacapa, a year after a coup, organized by the CIA, overthrew a leftist president and launched decades of authoritarian rule by U.S.-backed strongmen. In 1960, when a group of army officers mutinied, initiating a guerrilla rebellion, Aldana was in kindergarten. Around five years later, when security forces began incorporating “disappearances” (secret arrests, ending in torture and execution) into their counter-insurgency playbook, she was in primary school. By the time peace came, she was middle-aged. “My whole life,” Aldana told me, “I lived in the time of repression.”

But she was lucky: she grew up away from the war’s worst ravages, in the western highlands city of Quetzaltenango, where her family moved not long before a military operation began in Zacapa that left more than 8,000 civilians dead.

Aldana’s father, Humberto Aldana Vidal, was a pharmacy clerk who moved 200 miles away to Quetzaltenango for a job. Her mother, Marta Hernández Garza de Aldana, a teacher, followed with the children soon after. In this provincial capital, Aldana was insulated enough from national affairs to have a quiet childhood. Her father worked in the Farmacia Rosario, eventually buying and running it, and moonlighted as a soccer referee. Her mother—“Doña Marta” to her students—taught at a public primary school for boys. A former student there remembered it as “a humble school for the poor,” with many students who didn’t have water or electricity at home.

Aldana helped her father keep score during Sunday games, and sometimes visited her mother’s school in the afternoons (classes ran until 6 p.m.). Most evenings, she stayed home studying. When her older sister and a cousin began sneaking out to attend parties without their father’s permission, Aldana told on them, offering her sister’s diary as evidence. (One neighbor told me the future attorney general snuck out, too, but Aldana assured me he was misremembering.)

In 1977, just before her 22nd birthday, Aldana enrolled as a law student at the public Centro Universitario del Occidente (CUNOC), the local branch of USAC. But by this time, the fighting between government troops and amateur revolutionaries had spread into the mountains of the southwest, not far from Quetzaltenango. A series of dictators were carrying their “anti-communist” campaign to a murderous climax, massacring villages in rural areas on the hunch they were aiding the “subversives,” and assassinating anyone seen as a threat in the cities. Aldana was studying laws the nation’s leaders flouted. The irony escaped her for many years. “I lived, grew up, and studied, thinking that the rule of law was fundamental and believing that it existed,” Aldana recalled. “Perhaps I had a false idea.”

***

[dropcap]Q[/dropcap]uetzaltenango is a twisting, four-hour bus ride from Guatemala City. In the store-front office I had come to see, light wood paneling lined the walls. A painting of Che Guevara hung above the desk. A secretary, age 70, sat behind a typewriter. Outside, a brass nameplate was embedded in the stucco wall. When a neighbor saw me reading it, he waved me over. Jorge E. Jiménez Cajas, the name on the sign, isn’t the lawyer who works there now, he said. “That’s the one they assassinated.” Just inside the office door, two trails of holes in the tile showed where the last bullets landed.

On Wednesday, March 5, 1980, around 12:45 p.m., Jiménez Cajas—a labor lawyer, professor, and politician—walked out of this office. His last meeting had been with an indigenous woman from the village of Cantel. Jiménez Cajas was known for representing clients like her. “He helped the poor people a lot, the campesinos,” Susana Hurtado, who was Jiménez Cajas’s secretary and still works in the office, recalled. “He defended them without charging a cent.” Hurtado remembers clients who walked from Coatepeque, 40 miles away on the other side of a volcano, to meet with Jiménez Cajas. Instead of charging for his services, he gave them money for the bus fare home.

Hurtado remembers Thelma Aldana, then 24 years old, stopping by the office to chat about “university things.” Aldana was taking Jiménez Cajas’s labor law course. “He was too brilliant,” Aldana recalled. She looked forward to that class on Tuesday nights. But the night before, March 4, Jiménez Cajas hadn’t shown up.

To the military dictators controlling Guatemala, defending the rights of the rural, indigenous poor was effectively aiding the enemy. Jiménez Cajas had been receiving threatening phone calls. His name had appeared on a “list of the condemned” being circulated by the Secret Anti-Communist Army, an ultra-right death squad staffed and funded by the Guatemalan Army. The previous December, an incendiary bomb had burned buildings on the campus of CUNOC, where Jiménez Cajas taught. A year before, the founder of Jiménez Cajas’s political party had been killed in Guatemala City—the attackers chased his car through the streets with motorcycles, cars, and a helicopter, until they caught him and shot him some 40 times.

After Jiménez Cajas left the office that afternoon, Hurtado heard the door of his car, parked out front, open and shut. Then, abruptly, he came back inside. He told Hurtado to go into the inner room, his private office—“to protect me,” Hurtado said. Jiménez Cajas stayed in the outer room, standing by the door.

From the inner room, Hurtado didn’t see the two men enter the office. She didn’t hear any words. But she heard gunshots, too many to count. When the room went silent, Hurtado peered out and saw two strangers running out into the daylight. The office was filled with smoke and the smell of gunpowder. Everywhere she stepped, there were spent cartridges. Jiménez Cajas lay face down by the door, covered in blood.

When the police came, Hurtado recalled, they didn’t ask her any questions.

Who killed Jiménez Cajas? The two men hadn’t bothered to cover their faces, but they were never identified. “It was undoubtedly the repression of the state,” Carlos Sacalxot told me. In 1980, Sacalxot was a young lawyer working for Jiménez Cajas. After his mentor was killed, Sacalxot kept up the practice, representing the same clients. He left Jiménez Cajas’s name on the wall outside—part memorial, part act of defiance.

Five thousand people attended Jiménez Cajas’s funeral. Aldana was one of them. She organized a group of ten female law students—there weren’t many more at the school then—and they went together to the church where the mass was being held. A group of official pallbearers (all men) would carry Jiménez Cajas’s body to the cemetery, but first, the young women from CUNOC carried the coffin in a procession around the parque central.

In the spring and summer of 1980, the violence at CUNOC intensified. Guatemala’s leaders thought the public universities, traditionally independent and socially conscious, were breeding guerrillas. The campus was bombed in May, then again in August. In June, the director of the law faculty was shot to death in Quetzaltenango, along with his wife, who had tried to shield him. The next month, the bodies of two missing CUNOC students were found buried in a farm. In August, a law professor was murdered. A student was kidnapped, then found dead. In September, Lucila Rodas Hidalgo de Villagrán, a CUNOC professor who had also overseen Aldana’s high school, was shot and wounded. The next day, while the 60-year-old Villagrán was recovering in a hospital, six men with rifles and masks burst in and killed her.

Aldana and her classmates studied under a pervasive fear that they would be killed, either in their classrooms or on their way back home. Many were too afraid to attend classes. Some professors were too afraid to teach. The campus was deserted. “Right now, if you would see about 150 students in a lecture hall,” said a student leader from those years, who asked to be identified as Agustín, “at that time there would be 10 or 20.”

“We were scared most of the time,” said Edgar Solano Pereira, a lawyer who studied with Aldana. “At any moment, the army could stop you and search you, sometimes going as far as inspecting your back to look for marks from a backpack.” Carrying a heavy pack, in the army’s logic, meant you had been trekking through the mountains with the guerrillas. The military kept the neighborhood around CUNOC under close watch, Agustín said, sometimes flying helicopters over the campus, regularly sending in young spies who posed as students. Sheets of paper with names listed on them circulated through the university, Aldana remembered. “A name would appear—Jorge Everardo Jiménez Cajas—and a cross: ‘already dead.’ Or Señor Rodríguez, the director: ‘already dead.’ And there were others, who were not dead yet.”

One September evening in 1982, Aldana was in a night class when the lights went out. She heard hurried footsteps, then gunshots; she and the other students threw themselves to the floor. Armed men in army boots had entered CUNOC’s campus and rushed the offices. The new director was dead. Lying on the classroom floor in the darkness, Aldana waited for the sound of the door being forced open, the next explosion of gunfire, and the bullets she knew would kill her. But they never came.

Aldana told me she never considered dropping out. “No, because I knew what I wanted to do,” she said. “In the end, you get used to living in a war. It becomes almost natural and normal.” The conflict lasted more than three decades: the majority of Aldana’s life, she pointed out. The era’s muted heroism was part of her education. “That was how we lived,” Aldana said. “Silent, with a few gestures, like carrying the professor’s coffin.”

***

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n 1983, after graduating and passing her exams, Aldana heard about an opening for a secretary in Quetzaltenango’s appellate courthouse. She knew the court’s three judges from her student job—mopping floors and organizing files at the local family court—so she told them she was interested in applying.

“They said no,” Aldana recalled. Even with her law license, there was one qualification she couldn’t meet. “We want a man here,” she remembers being told, “not a woman.”

A few months later, Aldana heard the same job was available in Guatemala City, so she traveled there to apply. This time, the response was different, but not necessarily because the judges were more enlightened. By chance, one of them had grown up with Aldana’s father, and Aldana’s grandparents had taken him in when his mother was sick. This connection earned her an offer. She rented a room in the capital—the same room where her older brother, a doctor, had lived during medical school—and accepted the job.

From there, Aldana climbed the ranks of the civil service. She transferred to the appellate branch of the family court, then to the court of criminal appeals. In 1988, after the army restored civilian government, Aldana joined the labor ministry as a legal adviser, eventually rising to deputy minister. She ran human resources for the national tourism agency, then became chief legal adviser in the electrification agency.

In 1996, a U.N. peace process ended the civil war, but Guatemala’s chronic problems—including poverty, corruption, and profound inequality—remained unresolved. Peace brought a U.N. “historical clarification” commission but little accountability, an economy strengthened by foreign investment but still lacking opportunity for poorer Guatemalans, and a reign of lawlessness as death squads turned to organized crime, using bribes and intimidation to keep the justice system weak. Aldana was in her 40s, with a son already and a daughter on the way.

In 1999, she returned to the courts, winning an appointment as an appellate judge. During the evenings, she studied at USAC for a master’s degree in gender studies. Her thesis grew into a book about the law’s treatment of violence against women: The Challenges of Hope. And she kept her day job, presiding over courtrooms like those she had once cleaned.

In 2009, after ten years on the appeals court, Aldana was named to a five-year term on the Supreme Court—the sole woman among 13 justices appointed that year. In 2011, she was voted president of the judicial branch. That same year, a retired general named Otto Pérez Molina was elected president of Guatemala, and Aldana met him for the first time.

Aldana had voted for Pérez Molina, but one thing about his background gave her pause. The civil war’s slow-burning trauma had haunted Aldana’s youth. The war left more than 200,000 dead, mostly rural poor of Mayan ancestry. Thousands were tortured or raped; at least 150,000 fled the country. The U.N. truth commission attributed 93% of the human rights violations to government forces and their allies. Pérez Molina was five years older than Aldana. The war had made his career.

During the 2011 presidential campaign, archival footage in one of his ads showed him striding across a stage, 15 years before, in a uniform bedecked with medals and gold tassels, while a graying commander of the revolutionary alliance walks toward him in civilian clothes. Without shaking hands, they sit at a writing desk. The video goes into slow motion. Someone hands them a piece of paper. As they sign it, the dignitaries seated behind them applaud; so does the audience. Just like that, the war is over. Building a national myth out of moments like this, Pérez Molina presented himself to voters as a peacemaker. “That was how I saw him,” Aldana told me, explaining how she had resolved her doubt. “As a soldier of peace, not a soldier of war.”

In some ways, their paths had been parallel. Both had spent their entire careers in government service—Aldana in the judiciary, Pérez Molina in the army, both passing through the executive branch. Pérez Molina grew up in the capital. Like Aldana, he was a good student—he entered the Guatemalan military academy at the age of 16, and went on to study counter-insurgency theory at the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas. Later, he took courses in “continental defense” at the Inter-American Defense College, studied business in a Costa Rican program run jointly with Harvard, and earned a master’s degree in international relations from Universidad Francisco Marroquín, Guatemala’s most exclusive private university.

Pérez Molina also excelled at the Kaibil School, the training program for the Guatemalan Army’s elite commandos, recognized by their crimson berets and feared during the civil war as sadistic killers. The Kaibils’ training, conducted at a camp in Guatemala’s sweltering northern jungle nicknamed “El Infierno,” had an attrition rate of 80 percent. Macabre rumors abounded about what the training entailed. It was said that Kaibil cadets were forced to bite the heads off live chickens; that each cadet raised a puppy, then butchered it at graduation; that they drank out of spent artillery shells; that they ate human flesh. “Kaibil, if I advance, follow me,” the unit’s motto ran. “If I hesitate, push me; if I retreat, kill me.” After completing the 60-day program, Pérez Molina became an instructor.

By the time Aldana finished law school, Pérez Molina was a major, commanding a squad of Kaibils in the Ixil Triangle, an indigenous region in the northwest highlands. From 1981 to 1983, the Guatemalan Army committed 77 massacres in the Ixil region, with 3,102 known victims. As many as 90% of the region’s villages were razed. The journalist Allan Nairn, who interviewed Pérez Molina and his soldiers for a 1982 documentary, called Pérez Molina “the local implementer of the program of genocide.” In one scene, the young major, bearded and wearing a red beret, stands over the mutilated corpses of four guerrillas whom, according to the troops, he has just finished interrogating.

In August of 1983, Pérez Molina, then 33 years old, was back in Guatemala City to support an officers’ coup against the de facto president, General Efraín Ríos Montt. Tanks thundered through the streets, helicopters flew overhead, seven people died, and a new general took power. During the rest of the decade, Pérez Molina rose to prominence in the army, gaining a reputation as a reformer.

In 2001, he retired from the army and turned to politics, founding the Patriot Party with Roxana Baldetti, a beauty queen and television journalist whom he met while she was working in public relations in the president’s office. (Both he and Baldetti were married with children; the nature of their relationship inspired speculation.)

The following spring, in one of the Patriot Party’s first notable acts, Pérez Molina and Baldetti led 3,000 protestors in a march to the Plaza de la Constitución, an open square facing the eclectic behemoth of the Palacio Nacional in the center of Guatemala City, to demand the resignations of a president and vice-president accused of enriching themselves from public funds.

***

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n 1977, the year Aldana started university, Iván Velásquez was entering his third year of law school 1,200 miles south, in Medellín, Colombia. The drug-smuggling ring known as the Medellín Cartel had been founded there a year before, and the cocaine wars that turned Velásquez’s hometown into the world’s murder capital were heating up. After graduating, Velásquez stayed in Medellín and cut his teeth as a prosecutor investigating the likes of Pablo Escobar, the cartel’s leader. In 2000, after Medellín’s homicide rate had fallen by half, Velásquez was appointed to Colombia’s Supreme Court. In 2013, at 58, Velásquez left Colombia, accepting an appointment from the U.N. Secretary General to lead the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (known as CICIG for its Spanish initials).

Velásquez may not have expected to stay long in Guatemala. CICIG, created by a treaty signed in 2006 between Guatemala and the U.N., had an initial term of two years. The commission’s mandate—investigating the clandestine criminal structures wielding power within Guatemala’s government and proposing reforms to strengthen the justice system—had been renewed three times, at the request of successive Guatemalan presidents. The organization—funded in part by the United States, and staffed by expert investigators from Latin America and Spain—had unraveled complex cases like the suicide of Rodrigo Rosenberg, a bizarre act of political sabotage that nearly destabilized the nation. (Rosenberg arranged his own assassination, leaving behind a video in which he fingered then-president Álvaro Colom as his killer.) But by the time Velásquez arrived, Pérez Molina had made clear that he would let CICIG’s mandate expire in 2015. “We are not going to keep depending on international organizations,” the president said. “We have to strengthen ourselves.”

Shortly after taking office, Velásquez announced that CICIG would investigate reports of corruption in the Guatemalan customs system. This made sense to Aldana. Every Guatemalan knew there was something rotten at the ports, she told me. But Pérez Molina wasn’t pleased. CICIG was running out of time, he told the press, and shouldn’t waste its final months chasing new leads. Instead, Velásquez should concentrate on transferring knowledge to Guatemala’s permanent institutions. “There are always going to be areas to investigate,” the president said.

On May 12, 2014, Aldana was sworn in as attorney general and chief of the Ministerio Público. She was 58, fresh off her term on the Supreme Court. President Pérez Molina had appointed her. After he administered the oath of office, Aldana gave a speech affirming her “unbreakable commitment to the independence of the Ministerio Público.” Aldana told me she was pleased that the president showed no intention of interfering with her work.

“He was extremely respectful,” she recalled. Then she smiled. “Whether he was very sure of his impunity, or he underestimated my abilities, I don’t know.”

Neither knew it yet, but the investigation that would pit Aldana and Pérez Molina against each other had already caught a lead.

***

[dropcap]M[/dropcap]iao Miao—33, bespectacled, and a little heavy—ran a chain of clothing shops in Guatemala City. He had never heard of La Línea. Neither had the Ministerio Público agents recording his phone calls.

Since moving to Guatemala from China, Miao Miao had adopted the first name Erick and become fluent in Spanish. He brought his merchandise through Puerto Quetzal, a modern port on Guatemala’s Pacific Coast. Miao Miao thought he knew the system. Negotiate a bribe, get a deal on customs tax. But the bribes cost more now, and he wanted to find out why.

It was May 8, 2014. The phone rang once. Julio César Miranda picked it up.

“Hello?” he said. Years before, Miranda had worked for the national customs agency. Now he was a kind of consultant.

“Julio, it’s Erick,” Miao Miao said. “They’re saying there’s new things at the port—a line, something like that?”

“Ah, yes,” Miranda said. “The way they do it now, it’s all coordinated from above.” Someone had taken control from on high—sent down a shadow list of prices, even dictated how to split up the bribes.

At this point in the recording, which prosecutors played in court the following year, Miao Miao says otra vez (again), and the words sound less like a question than a sigh.

Otra vez, Miranda confirms. “The truth is the prices aren’t that bad,” he says. “And what they collect goes to the people on the inside.” They have to make money, too, he says.

Miao Miao doesn’t sound happy. He’ll have to learn the new system and cover the costs. What was it called again?

The agents listened for the answer. They had tapped Miao Miao’s phone after noticing irregularities in his revenue-stream. But he was leading them into something much bigger than they had expected.

La Línea, Miranda said. The Line.

When Aldana took over the Ministerio Público, this phone call had already been intercepted and recorded—but not yet played back. Over the next several months, Aldana and her staff learned that La Línea was a conspiracy operating at several ports in Guatemala with the collusion of customs officials. With more than 300 people involved, La Línea was defrauding the state of millions of quetzals (about seven are worth a dollar) every week.

Miao Miao’s phone call to Miranda was the first of about 88,000 the Ministerio Público intercepted, in partnership with CICIG. About 60 investigators and prosecutors worked in secret to build the case. In addition to tapping phones, they intercepted 7,000 emails, raided 17 buildings, and pored through more than 600,000 pages of records to understand how La Línea operated.

The scheme turned out to be simple: importers in the network called a phone number (“The Line”) and agreed to pay a kickback, a fraction of the customs duty they would normally owe. Customs agents in the port then exempted these importers’ containers from inspection, and revised their declarations to sharply discount the customs rate—usually to about 40% of what they owed. The remaining 60% was divided evenly: the network pocketed about 30% in bribes, the crooked importers saved 30% in discounts. In a single year, the bribes totaled 28.5 million quetzals (about $4 million)—enough to pay the monthly wages of more than 10,000 Guatemalan workers. Guatemala, a nation the size of Tennessee with an economy about one-fifth as big, where most of the population lives in poverty, was being robbed.

The next phone the Ministerio Público tapped was Miranda’s. His conversations, then his emails, led them higher up the criminal organization’s hierarchy—first to bigger importers and customs brokers, then inside the customs agency, then to the presidential staff, then higher.

While prosecutors, analysts, and agents under Aldana’s supervision worked closely with CICIG investigators to flesh out La Línea’s structure, Pérez Molina pursued his own agenda. In January of 2015, he convened a committee to evaluate whether CICIG’s mandate should be renewed. According to later reports, this was political theater; Pérez Molina’s mind was made up to shut it down. “The original idea was that the committee would be the one to say no to CICIG, on the basis of a supposed technical evaluation,” an executive-branch source told the magazine Plaza Pública. “That way, the president would wash his hands of it and not have to carry the political cost.” By April, as the committee completed its evaluation, “everything indicated that the report was negative,” Plaza Pública’s source said.

But CICIG and the Ministerio Público moved first. The arrests began just after sunrise on April 16, 2015. In a press conference held while raids were still in progress, Velásquez introduced the Guatemalan public to La Línea, explaining a year of investigations in 45 minutes. His presentation included organization charts, diagrams, and surveillance photos of La Línea’s lieutenants showing up to meetings in Land Rovers and leaving with armloads of cash.

By noon, 22 suspected members of the network were in custody. But the Ministerio Público’s primary target had eluded capture. Based on the best available evidence, investigators had settled on Vice President Baldetti’s private secretary, Juan Carlos Monzón, as the conspiracy’s ringleader. That morning, agents raided Monzón’s home and office, attempting to execute a warrant for his arrest. But they didn’t find him. Over the weekend, reports surfaced that Monzón was with Baldetti in Seoul, South Korea, where the vice president was accepting an honorary doctorate. Monzón had never accompanied Baldetti on international travel before, the press pointed out, and his participation in this trip had not been announced.

Early in the morning of April 17, without speaking to reporters or issuing a statement, Baldetti boarded a commercial flight from Seoul to Houston, Texas. When she arrived in Houston, a private jet was waiting to take her to Guatemala City. But one member of her entourage had stayed behind. Where was Monzón? If Baldetti knew, she wasn’t saying.

***

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]ldana described the reaction to La Línea as a dividing line in history. “It was as though Guatemala was asleep,” she once said. “But this case shook every Guatemalan awake.” After the press conference on April 16, 2015, scattered demonstrations broke out near the Plaza de la Constitución. On April 20, Gabriela Carrera, a 28-year-old political science professor, joined a small protest organized by teachers and artists. None of them thought it would change anything. “Those first days, we were mad, really mad,” Carrera told me. “Because they were taking us for idiots.”

A Facebook event had already caught Carrera’s attention. Posted from a page titled “#RenunciaYa” (#ResignAlready), it was a peaceful protest, set for April 25, calling for Baldetti and Pérez Molina to resign. “I was hoping we could get between 250 and 500 people in the plaza to protest,” an organizer later wrote. “That would be a big success.” By the 17th, 2,000 people had responded as “attending.” Soon it was 10,000. #RenunciaYa was going viral.

Andrea Reyes, a 24-year-old law student, clicked “yes” on the invitation. She was struck by the consensus playing out on her news feed. “That’s what got my attention,” she said. “Friends of mine whom I considered pro-military invited me. Friends of mine whom I considered progressive invited me. Friends of mine who were super-apolitical invited me. I saw the event circulate and circulate and circulate, until 30,000 people had confirmed.”

No one knew how the modern Guatemalan security forces would respond to a mass protest in the capital. As recently as 2012, soldiers had killed six civilians and injured 34 in a demonstration in Cuatro Caminos, a crossroads town on the highway to Guatemala City. Older Guatemalans remembered worse instances of violence during the civil war. Some of Gabriela Carrera’s students, who planned to attend the protest without their parents’ permission, asked Carrera if it was safe. “Nothing’s going to happen,” she told them, hoping that was true.

Andrea Reyes’s mother, remembering the kidnapping and torture of her activist brother in the early 1980s, asked her daughter to stay home. “She had a very strong, vivid terror,” Reyes recalls. “My daughter, look, it scares me that you’re going to this protest,” Reyes remembers her mother saying. “They’re going to kill you.”

Mamá,” she responded, “we’re not in that generation anymore.”

When Reyes got to the protest, the plaza was already jammed with people. “All the colors, all the sizes—there were little kids, adults, everybody.” The clamor was overwhelming. Vuvuzelas—loud plastic horns popular at soccer games—were everywhere. People were beating drums. Street vendors were selling food. Strangers sang the national anthem together and waved the Guatemalan flag.

When evening fell, fireworks shot across the sky. The people had taken over the city center, in the largest protest in Guatemala in decades. What had changed to make this possible? In Aldana’s view, it had taken two things: CICIG, with its independence and international credibility, and a new generation in the lead—a generation that never knew the old Guatemala and didn’t bear its scars. When I asked Aldana why her generation didn’t protest, her response was blunt: “Because we knew that they would kill us.”

***

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he sun was setting on May 8, 2015. Hundreds of people were gathering at the Plaza de la Constitución, blowing whistles, banging drums, clapping, and chanting.

In a press conference, President Pérez Molina had announced Vice President Baldetti’s “difficult but valiant decision” to step down. By resigning, Baldetti was voluntarily giving up her immunity and would collaborate with the investigation, he said.

“She did not resign, we fired her!” a group of young people shouted in the plaza.

Now that Baldetti had lost her immunity, the Ministerio Público prepared to investigate her. Aldana had been careful not to jump to conclusions about the evidence. But in the intercepted phone calls, members of La Línea had mentioned “la Señora,” and “la R.” “All of Guatemala was sure that it was Roxana Baldetti,” Aldana told me. There were other aliases, too: “Number 1,” “Number 2,” “the owner of the plantation,” and “the big boss.” She resisted the thought that Pérez Molina might be involved. To her staff, Aldana counseled caution. But, privately, her suspicion grew. “If ‘Number 2’ is Roxana Baldetti,” she recalls thinking, “almost like a syllogism, ‘Number 1’ is—?”

Earlier in the investigation, a prosecutor had played Aldana a confusing recording. It was a phone call between Pérez Molina and the superintendent of the customs agency. Pérez Molina was fuming, demanding to know why the agency’s human resources chief hadn’t been replaced.

Strange, Aldana thought. It wasn’t proof. But as the summer progressed, the evidence against him—phone calls, documents, and the web of connections they implied—began to fit together.

The breakthrough was a raid on the office of Salvador Estuardo González, known to his co-conspirators as “Eco,” and suspected as La Línea’s second-in-command. Eco held no official position in government. Yet among his files, agents found receipts for airline tickets for Pérez Molina and Baldetti, an invoice in the president’s name for a bullet-proofed Jaguar, checks to Baldetti, and a memo, addressed to Pérez Molina, about weaknesses in the customs system. On Eco’s computer, they found a spreadsheet explaining how La Línea’s earnings were distributed: half to Number 1 and Number 2, half to everyone else. For Aldana, it was a smoking gun.

On August 20, 2015, the Ministerio Público raided one of Baldetti’s houses and seized a cell phone. The next morning, Aldana and Velásquez held a press conference. Aldana spoke first, laying out the investigation’s scale—thousands of intercepted calls and emails, hundreds of thousands of seized documents. “In light of these various materials,” she said, “we believe that Roxana Baldetti participated in the criminal structure known as La Línea.” She flipped through a document on the table in front of her as she spoke, her face a mask. “Additionally, we have filed an antejuicio against the president of the republic on the grounds that he, too, participated in the illicit activities of La Línea.”

There was a shuffling sound in the audience. Someone bumped the camera. While Aldana’s words sunk in, Velásquez began his presentation. As in April, his slides included an organization chart, but this time, photos of Pérez Molina and Baldetti appeared at the top of the pyramid.

Baldetti was arrested that night. Calls for Pérez Molina to step down came from every direction. Students organized marches against him. Conservative business groups, once allies, demanded his immediate resignation. Rigoberta Menchú, a Mayan activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, said his departure was necessary and inevitable. Alfonso Portillo, a former Guatemalan president who had served time in U.S. federal prison for money laundering, said Pérez Molina should resign “for the sake of dignity.”

On August 23, Pérez Molina gave a televised speech, wearing a tie that matched the light blue in the Guatemalan flag behind him. Back in April, he had claimed the customs investigation was his idea. (Velásquez reminded the press this wasn’t true.) Now the president tried a different tack. He said the investigations were an affront to Guatemalan sovereignty, “an interventionist strategy” bent on “crushing democracy.” He denied any involvement in La Línea, swearing he had received nothing from “those evil funds.” He called on “Guatemala profunda”—deep Guatemala—“that rural Guatemala that has always been in the center of my attention, that plural and diverse Guatemala,” to show its support. Before signing off, he wagged a finger across the screen and said he would not resign.

“Guatemala profunda” refused the president’s call. The phrase was interpreted as an attempt to turn rural Guatemalans against the largely urban, middle-class protestors. The next day, Asamblea Social y Popular, an indigenous rights organization, called for rallies around the country, followed by a march on the capital on August 27, 2015. Activists in Guatemala City and around the country picked up the momentum. Soon it became clear that the 27th would be more than a protest—it would be a nation-wide strike. Smaller businesses announced they would close for the day, then larger ones. Schools and universities canceled classes. More than 10,000 people had filled the plaza for the first #RenunciaYa protest on April 25. But the National Strike was on another order of magnitude. The crowd was the largest and most diverse in Guatemala’s history. As many as 250,000 people joined the demonstration in the capital alone, not counting marches in other cities.

Five days later, on a rainy Tuesday, a scene unfolded outside Congress that Aldana remembers vividly. Her antejuicio against Pérez Molina (the petition to lift his immunity) was up for consideration. But Congress couldn’t enter the building. At first, a group of protestors with unclear intentions, some holding sticks, blocked the entrance. But counter-protestors surrounded them, passing out roses and water bottles, and persuaded them to clear the door. Then two rows of civilians, linking arms, joined police officers to make a human chain through which the legislators could enter the building. “I want my 105 votes!” the crowd chanted, demanding the supermajority required for the petition to pass.

Inside the Palacio Legislativo, the voting began. When the tally reached 105 and kept climbing, the crowd outside erupted into cheers. The vote was unanimous. Aldana spoke to the prosecutor she had assigned to the case. Get ready to go to the courthouse, she said. It was time to request a warrant for the president’s arrest.

A judge issued the warrant the next morning, September 2, 2015. That evening, Aldana appeared on a prime-time talk show whose hosts seemed overwhelmed by the news. Aldana said it was lamentable to send anyone to prison, let alone a democratically elected president. Nevertheless, she intended to carry out the arrest in the next 48 hours. Asked if Pérez Molina could still be innocent, as he claimed, Aldana offered a professorial explanation of the presumption of innocence, which the president would enjoy the same as any other citizen. Only a judge could declare him guilty, she said.

Then came the question: what happens if he is acquitted?

Aldana’s manner changed back from professor to prosecutor. “I, who have examined the evidence closely, do not believe he can be acquitted,” she said.

One of the hosts laughed. “His chances are very remote, then?” the other asked.

Very remote.”

***

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]fter midnight, Pérez Molina delivered a resignation letter to Congress. A spokesman announced he would appear before a judge in the morning.

The drive to the courthouse was Pérez Molina’s last trip in the presidential limousine, with sirens and a security escort clearing the streets. In court, his face showed the strain of a long night. He grimaced, whispered to his lawyer, yawned. He took notes as prosecutors played back the wire-taps that had begun with Miao Miao. Before the hearing ended, the judge ordered Pérez Molina arrested and imprisoned as a flight risk.

The first round of the elections to replace Pérez Molina took place three days later. Jimmy Morales, well known as a comedian, had entered the race under the slogan, “Neither corrupt, nor a thief.” Morales’s name recognition and outsider status, combined with disillusionment in the Patriot Party and its allies, won him the most votes in the first round. In the October run-off, Morales faced Sandra Torres, a former first lady. Morales promised to renew CICIG’s mandate and keep Aldana in office. He won in a landslide. With him rose to power an obscure party founded by army officers linked to civil-war atrocities.

***

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he full extent of Pérez Molina and Baldetti’s alleged criminality came to light only after their arrests. Baldetti’s secretary, who had fled in South Korea, turned himself in and agreed to cooperate. A stream of damning documents and testimony gushed forth. Aldana and Velásquez revealed that Pérez Molina and Baldetti had spent over 300 million quetzals in state funds—almost $42 million—on lavish trips, high-end properties, and ostentatious gifts for each other. According to CICIG, the Patriot Party, from its start in 2001 to its finish in 2015, was a criminal enterprise. “The Patriot Party rose to power in the Executive Branch with the purpose of coopting the Guatemalan state,” Velásquez announced.

While much of the government—including the public hospital system—faced insolvency, Pérez Molina and Baldetti had lived large. They owned 38 properties in Guatemala and neighboring countries. Baldetti, according to documents disclosed in 2017, had received $250 million from a Mexican drug cartel during the 2011 campaign. Once in office, she wore designer clothes from New York and Paris, traveled often, and underwent expert liposuction from a specialist in Miami. Pérez Molina had his armored Jaguar, two Harley Davidsons, a private jet, and a mansion designed like a futuristic log cabin, on a hilltop surrounded by avocado trees. For the president’s last three birthdays, according to the Ministerio Público, Baldetti had organized a group of officials to present him with increasingly outlandish gifts—a boat, a beach house, a helicopter.

Pérez Molina and Baldetti are still on trial, detained at different prisons in the capital. The cases are moving slowly, as is typical in Guatemala. Aldana suspects their defense attorneys are delaying, holding out for a weaker attorney general, perhaps hoping that Morales will succeed in expelling Iván Velásquez and tilt the balance of power back in their favor.

Is there still corruption in the Guatemalan government? I asked Aldana last year. Without hesitating, she answered, “Yes.” Could she elaborate? “No.”

[hr]

Steven Lance LAW ’18  is a recent alumnus of Yale Law School. Contact him at steven.lance@yale.edu.

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2 replies to “One Woman’s Quest for the Rule of Law in Guatemala”

  1. Lisa Santana says:

    This is a great article! I learned so much.

  2. Vesta says:

    Youre so cool! I dont suppose Ive read anything like this before. So nice to find somebody with some original thoughts on this subject. realy thank you for starting this up. this website is something that is needed on the web, someone with a little originality. useful job for bringing something new to the internet!

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