The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Anti-corruption judge flees Guatemala despite U.S. efforts to protect her

Erika Aifán, judge of Guatemala's high-risk court, at a home in Washington, D.C. on March 21. (Eric Lee for the Washington Post)
5 min

MEXICO CITY — One of Guatemala’s most important judges and a key U.S. ally in the fight against corruption has resigned and fled the country in what might be the most worrying sign yet of the deterioration of its judicial system.

Judge Erika Aifán, who presided over cases implicating high-level Guatemalan officials including the country’s president, submitted her resignation on Monday morning. She had learned from colleagues that the supreme court was planning to strip her of her judicial immunity and could send her to prison.

“It became clear to me that remaining in Guatemala and continuing to do my job represented a threat to my life,” she told The Washington Post.

Aifán, 46, fled to Washington, where a growing number of high-level Guatemalan judges and prosecutors have sought exile in the last year from a government that has repeatedly detained judicial officials who were overseeing cases involving institutional corruption.

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

The government’s attempt to silence Aifán garnered particular attention because the United States had repeatedly held her up as an example of judicial independence. The Biden administration invited her to Washington last year to receive a leadership award from Secretary of State Antony Blinken and first lady Jill Biden. The State Department released several statements in her defense as the Guatemalan government pursued its case against her.

That case — in which prosecutors accused her of “abuse of authority” without presenting any evidence publicly — showed the limits of U.S. power in the country. The Biden administration says bolstering anti-corruption programs and improving governance in Central America are essential to deterring illegal migration. Vice President Harris traveled to Guatemala not long after taking office to emphasize the importance of an independent judiciary.

But the relationship between the two governments has grown increasingly strained. Last year, the United States put several senior Guatemalan officials, including Attorney General María Consuelo Porras, on its list of “corrupt and undemocratic actors.” It warned the government over and over to drop the case against Aifán.

The U.S. ambassador to Guatemala attended a hearing in the case against Aifán to show U.S. support for her. But the gesture appears to have yielded little. Not only did the Guatemalan government not drop the charges, but Guatemalan officials expressed deep frustration at what they said was Washington meddling in domestic affairs.

Aifán has grown ambivalent about the usefulness of U.S. backing in a country that seems uninterested in bending to international pressure.

“I appreciate all of the U.S. support for my work and the work of an independent Guatemalan judiciary,” Aifán said. “But that support did not have the impact they had hoped.”

In a story published by The Washington Post last month, Aifán described the government’s attempts to threaten and pressure her, including flying a surveillance drone outside her 14th floor office.

On Monday, she posted a video on Twitter describing her reasons for resigning.

“Criminal and political networks that have been affected by judicial advances decided to co-opt institutions and persecute those who have tried to combat impunity,” she said.

U.S. accuses senior officials and politicians in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras of corruption

Aifán left Guatemala on March 10. She wasn’t planning a permanent move. She had a few weeks off from work and wanted a break from the immense pressure and threats against her. She packed a single suitcase.

But in recent days, when she learned that the supreme court was planning to strip her judicial immunity, a step that would make her vulnerable to detention, she felt she had no choice but to resign.

“This is something I never wanted to do,” she said through tears. “It’s so painful to walk away from 20 years of work.”

Aifán said she is not yet sure if she’ll apply for asylum in the United States or seek another status in a different country. She’s now staying in a friend’s guest room. But she says returning to Guatemala could put her in grave danger. Since coming to Washington, Aifán has met with former Guatemalan magistrate Claudia Mendoza and former judge Gloria Patricia Porras Escobar, both of whom are living in exile after fleeing threats.

“As we’ve seen elsewhere, a dying justice system gives rise to all kinds of extremism and authoritarian behaviors that ruin democracy,” said Eric Olson, director of policy at the Seattle International Foundation. “Sadly, the witch hunt against Judge Aifán has become symbolic of the continued decline of Guatemala’s democracy.”

Advocates have helped support the growing number of exiled Guatemalan judicial officials, but say it has been difficult for many to land full-time jobs and find suitable places to live.

In Aifán’s absence, it’s unclear who will inherit her caseload. She had collected witness testimony alleging that President Alejandro Giammattei funded his 2019 campaign with $2.6 million in bribes from powerful construction companies. He has denied the allegations. Aifán also handled cases of military commanders and congressmen accused of money laundering and corruption.

When The Post asked the office of the Guatemalan Attorney General last month about the case against Aifán, the office denied it was politically motivated.

The office said it does not “conduct investigations based on political matters. What we pursue is an objective and impartial investigation.”

Not long ago, the U.N.-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG, was considered one of Central America’s most notable judicial triumphs. The commission helped prosecutors build investigations against some of the country’s most powerful officials.

When CICIG was shuttered in 2019, judges such as Aifán shouldered the work of continuing anti-corruption investigations. But recently, former CICIG employees have been targeted. The former head of the commission, Leily Santizo, was arrested by Guatemalan police in February. Eva Sosa, another former prosecutor who worked with CICIG, was also arrested in February.

Even after learning of their arrests, Aifán had hoped that her position would be protected and that the government would not come for her next.

“What happened to me is an indication of just how bad things have become,” she said.