The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This judge is one of the last U.S. allies in the Guatemala corruption fight. Politicians keep trying to sideline her.

Erika Aifán, a judge for high-risk crimes in Guatemala, in her courtroom in Guatemala City in 2019. (Moises Castillo/AP)

GUATEMALA CITY — Judge Erika Aifán was in her 14th-floor office in Guatemala’s towering judicial building when she heard the buzzing noise. She pulled the curtains aside and found herself staring at a surveillance drone, inches from the glass window.

Her colleagues wondered aloud how a drone could get so close to one of the most sensitive government offices in the country. But Aifán knew. It was her own government that was spying on her.

Aifán, 46, is the judge of Guatemala’s high-risk court, which handles the country’s biggest corruption and criminal cases, including several indictments targeting politicians and wealthy business executives. She has collected witness testimony alleging that President Alejandro Giammattei funded his campaign with $2.6 million in bribes from powerful construction companies. (He has denied the allegations.)

Aifán is among the ever-shrinking group of Guatemalan judges and prosecutors handling such cases who have not been fired, arrested or forced to flee the country.

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The Biden administration has searched desperately for partners in Central America who can help root out corruption and improve governance, partially in an effort to deter migration to the U.S. border. But that quest has largely been thwarted. Many top officials in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are currently blocked from traveling to the United States because they’ve been accused of corruption. Attacks by high-ranking officials on the judiciaries in those three countries have exploded.

Ask a U.S. official to name high-profile Guatemalan allies in the fight against corruption and the list often begins and ends with Aifán. Last year, first lady Jill Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken presented her with the State Department’s International Women of Courage award.

“Despite the strong opposition she has faced throughout her tenure, Judge Aifán has become an icon in Guatemala in the fight against corruption,” they said.

But when Aifán returned from Washington, the threats against her only escalated. There were moments when it felt almost inevitable that she would be removed, or worse.

“What power do I wield as an individual in the face of criminal structures that can come up with $10 million in bribes?” she said this month in an interview in her office. “They have the power to build an army. While we have problems with personal security, they are the ones with political power.”

So many Guatemalan judges and prosecutors have sought asylum in the United States amid threats against their lives that they have formed a WhatsApp group in Washington. The group has at least 10 members, all judges and special prosecutors. Its name: “Dignity.”

Recently, several more Guatemalan judges met with U.S. and U.N. officials to seek their support in the event that they felt the need to flee the country. Aifán was among them.

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At least seven times, Guatemala’s attorney general and other members of the country’s political and business elite have attempted to revoke Aifán’s judicial immunity, which would allow the government to jail her. Aifán says she has found recording devices planted in her office. She’s been followed repeatedly. Her security detail eventually traced the surveillance drone outside her office to a municipal government office.

Colleagues and friends have suggested she leave the country.

“For her to stay in the country is to put her life in risk. These people are capable of anything,” said Carlos Ruano, the vice president of Guatemalan Association of Judges for Integrity. Aifán is the association’s president.

“She’s the last obstacle facing those in power,” said Juan Francisco Sandoval, the former special prosecutor for impunity, who fled to the United States last year. “That’s why they’re so desperate to remove her.”

Her requests for additional armed guards — she has two — have been rejected by the Guatemalan attorney general, María Consuelo Porras, herself one of the officials on the U.S. State Department’s list of “undemocratic and corrupt actors.”

The list of people who have backed attempts to strip Aifán’s immunity is a who’s who of the Guatemalan elite, many of them defendants in her court. One is Moisés Galindo, a former military official accused of money laundering in a case involving Guatemala’s prison system. Another is the former deputy of Guatemala’s congress, Armando Escribá, accused of corruption and money laundering in another of Aifán’s cases. Galindo and Escribá have denied wrongdoing. They did not respond to requests for comment.

Ricardo Méndez Ruiz, a right-wing politician who was also included on the State Department’s list of undemocratic and corrupt actors, called Aifán a “danger to society.” He, too, has backed efforts to strip Aifán of her immunity, after his organization tried and failed to obstruct a case involving former military officials accused of violence, intimidation and harassment of corruption investigators. Méndez did not respond to a request for comment.

Porras, a close ally of the president, has launched her own effort to strip Aifán of judicial immunity. Experts say that effort is linked to Aifán’s work on a case involving how corruption influenced the selection of judges on Guatemala’s court of appeals. Porras’ office issued a statement last month accusing Aifán of “abuse of authority.”

Asked for comment, Porras’ office said it did not “conduct investigations based on political matters. What we pursue is an objective and impartial investigation.”

After the Guatemalan government shuttered the U.N.-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG, in 2019, many of its cases remained active in Aifán’s court, where she refused to dismiss them.

For years, U.S. Republicans and Democrats alike supported CICIG, defending its investigators as they came under pressure from Guatemalan officials. But in 2019, the Trump administration chose not to support the renewal of the anticorruption body, making it easier for the Guatemalan government to shut it down and then to target its former employees.

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At least eight officials who worked for CICIG are currently in exile in the United States. Its former head, Leily Santizo, was arrested by Guatemalan police this month. Another former prosecutor who worked with CICIG, Eva Sosa, was arrested on Tuesday. The government has not announced charges in either case.

Not long after this story was published, yet another former prosecutor, Carlos Antonio Videz Navas, who worked alongside CICIG, fled the country.

“To prevent an attempt on my life, I made the difficult decision to resign and flee the county to avoid becoming another victim,” he wrote in a statement Sunday.

When President Biden took office, his administration tried to rally behind independent judges and prosecutors who remained in the country. It made similar efforts in Honduras and El Salvador, where U.S. officials also see links between judicial impunity, corruption and the flow of migrants.

But since last year, judges and prosecutors in all three of those countries have come under attack from government officials, and the United States has struggled to find ways to insulate them.

In January, following a renewed campaign to revoke Aifán’s judicial immunity, the United States orchestrated a campaign of its own in her defense. The State Department called the attempt “a blatant effort to obstruct investigations into corruption and an affront to the integrity of Guatemala’s highest courts.”

“This action against an internationally recognized independent judge weakens a vital pillar of Guatemala’s democracy and judicial system,” officials said.

Samantha Power, the administrator of USAID, called the move a “transparent reprisal for [Aifán’s] independence and courage in defense of accountability and the rule of law.”

Earlier, the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala had tweeted photos of Aifán meeting with the U.S. ambassador.

She has mixed feelings about such messages of public support.

“On one hand, the attention does offer some protection,” Aifán said. “But on the other hand it calls more attention to the work I’m doing, and with that, sometimes, comes more problems.”

She spoke with her family about which approach made more sense. Should she go into hiding, or seek more attention, in the hope that U.S. support might deter would-be attackers?

“We analyzed it. We decided I should be more public. The reality is that people don’t hate me because of the nice things the Americans and other embassies say about me, but because I’m an obstacle to their personal interests.”

Messages of defense have not helped Aifán’s colleagues. Sandoval fled the country last year a week after Vice President Harris visited and announced renewed support for his office.

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After the State Department released its list of “Corrupt and Undemocratic Actors” from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras last July, officials who were named largely doubled down on their attacks.

Porras, one such official, dismissed the U.S. allegations as obstructive. She launched another effort to strip Aifán of her immunity on Wednesday.

Speaking on national television, Porras said she was following “the letter of the law.” She made reference to a confidential case regarding “judicial co-option and corruption.” The case led to the arrest and detention this month of Santizo and Sosa, the former prosecutors.

“We will be requesting the removal of immunity of Judge [Aifán] for her possible participation in said illegal action,” Porras said.

The State Department put out another message in Aifán’s defense.

“Under the leadership of Attorney General Consuelo Porras,” the message read, “the public ministry used searches and arrests based on sealed indictments and selectively leaked case information with the apparent intent to single out and punish Guatemalans who are combating impunity and promoting transparency and accountability.”

Aifán had heard the same threats again and again, coming from the most powerful people in Guatemala. She was also accustomed to the words of support from the United States that followed, well-meaning but mostly inconsequential.

That sequence left her, once again, feeling helpless.

“What can Erika Aifán do in the face of these powerful criminal structures,” Aifán asked aloud, “in the face of the state which can use its power against me, under the guise of the law?”

Alejandra Ibarra Chaoul contributed to this report.