Guatemala City — Erika Lorena Aifán is used to threats after more than a decade as a judge in Guatemala, but she says the tone has intensified in recent months, such as the text message to her cellphone saying that she and her family “should be dead.”
woman who has become one of the most-visible faces of Guatemala’s fight against
corruption says she won’t be intimidated.
an “interest in obstructing my work, in attacking my judicial independence,”
Aifán told The Associated Press.
against corruption in Guatemala was left in the hands of prosecutors and
judges, like Aifán, after a U.N. anti-corruption commission that had helped
investigate and prosecute hundreds of corrupt politicians, public officials and
businesspeople over 12 years departed the country in September. The commission,
known as CICIG, stopped operations after President Jimmy Morales refused to
renew its mandate, but not before it launched legal proceedings against three
former presidents, including Gen. Otto Pérez Molina, who resigned in 2015.
commission and Guatemalan prosecutors had tried to lift the immunity from
prosecution that Morales enjoys as a sitting president to investigate him for
possible illicit electoral financing, though the legislature declined to do so.
also brought a case against Morales’ son and brother. He denies wrongdoing, and
his son and brother were cleared by a Guatemalan court last month.
activists have expressed concern that politicians and Morales’ government would
seek to criminalize the commission’s work and move against anti-corruption
judges and prosecutors. In late September, congress created a committee to
review, and potentially reverse, work done by the U.N.-backed mission. The
committee can file complaints and request personal information from people who
worked on the commission.
speaks softly and uses her words sparingly, appearing shy. But her rulings have
been blunt, sometimes threatening the powerful and sending politicians and
businesspeople to prison. Local and international organizations have expressed
concern for her safety, and a few weeks ago the Inter-American Commission on
Human Rights requested that additional measures be taken to guarantee her
safety, saying the current ones are not enough.
2006, the judge has been accompanied by a small group of security guards, some
armed with AK-47 rifles, wherever she goes. She recently received an armored
vehicle to travel in.
Erika Aifán is one of the main faces of the fight against corruption,” said
Adriana Beltrán, director for citizen security the group Washington Office on
Latin America. “She has had, in recent years, the highest-level cases.”
regional rights commission says that although the judge receives protection
from the judicial system, the pressures on Aifán have “their origins precisely
in certain people in state institutions, without an appreciation … for
implementing more concrete measures to reduce the climate of hostility against
her, such as publicly reaffirming the legitimacy of her work and demanding
respect for her integrity at all times.”
Aifán has handled many high-profile cases, her emblematic one — and the one
many feel is drawing the latest threats — is the “Phoenix” case. The
investigation, made public in April, found that businesspeople and others had
conspired to launder about $50 million in a huge fraud involving the country’s
Social Security Institute.
to the investigators, the mastermind of the operation was businessman Gustavo
Adolfo Herrera Castillo, with the help of his son Sergio Alfredo Herrera
Acevedo, among others.
Castillo, who is a fugitive, is accused of selling land at artificially high
prices to the social security system through front companies, allegedly
scamming the government of millions. His son was arrested and is being
processed in a Guatemalan prison.
the “Phoenix” case arrived in her hands for review, the judge said, attacks
against her have increased on social media and directly on her phone.
said she discovered that two employees of her court had shared confidential
information on the case and others with lawyers. She said the employees also
removed pages from the “Phoenix” file, adding that this has created the risk
that some of those involved, such as Herrera’s son, could be released.
at the Washington Office on Latin America said the judge is being harassed
because of her investigations.
intention is to recapture state institutions and maintain the status quo, in
order to ensure impunity,” she said.
dozens of files on shelves, tables and the floor swamping Aifán’s small office
speak of the challenges she faces and her conviction to continue at her job.
leaving the country,” she said.
understands the risks she runs and acknowledged feeling fear at times. For now,
she hopes the judicial system and government will comply with the measures
granted by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and protect not only
her life, but that of her family.
says there have been times when she felt the doors to her house were being
watched. Once a car parked in front of her house for two hours and pulled away
when a guard approached it.
they sent me a message that said I should be dead, along with my family,” the
said it is clear powerful groups want to block investigations into corruption,
but she said she must continue her work because without the rule of law there
will be no social peace or harmony.
always believed that someone has to do these things. We can’t keep be leaving
the country out of fear all our lives,” she said. “That is what the
criminal structures want."