PART 4: THE CASE OF THE DISAPPEARING ATTORNEY GENERAL
In the spring of 2010, the government of Guatemalan president Álvaro Colom, two years in power, was preparing to choose an attorney general – a semi-independent office which functions apart from the rest of the executive branch.
A nominating commission – comprised of law school deans, bar association officials, and the president of the Supreme Court – would choose six finalists for the post; the president would then name the winner. Several dozen applicants submitted their papers; among them Conrado Reyes, a 46-year-old attorney with extensive experience inside the government and out.
Evaluations of the candidates, and comments from the commissioners as well as other citizens – the so-called “honorability” phase of the nominating process – became a controversial matter. On May 11 the Constitutional Court, Guatemala’s highest judicial body, directed the nominating commission to conduct the honorability phase in public, with a voice vote – thereby exposing this matter for the first time to open view.
No one in this public process voiced a negative report against Conrado Reyes; and significantly, neither did the powerful UN “anti-impunity” commission, known by its Spanish acronym CICIG.
Reyes scored a perfect 100 on the list of official criteria. He jumped to the head of the list and the president chose him for the office, which Reyes assumed on May 25.
Legal disputes persisted, however, around the workings of the honorability phase. On June 10, 17 days into Reyes’s term, an accredited third party petitioned the Constitutional Court to declare the honorability phase invalid and order it repeated – on grounds that the nominating commission had not performed it in line with the court’s earlier order.
That same day, the court issued an opinion which voided not just the honorability phase but the entire selection process. The effect was to cancel Reyes’s tenure. On June 11, the high court notified Reyes that he must quit an office which he had held for less than three weeks.
What was going on?
The New York Times reported on June 12 that Carlos Castresana, the head of the anti-impunity commission, had “resigned in frustration, citing the appointment of Mr. Reyes, who he said had links to drug traffickers and illegal adoption rings.”
Why had the CICIG commissioner not stated this concern during the honorability phase, only a short while before?
The CICIG’s damaging report was backed up by no solid evidence, as President Colom himself affirmed. According to The Times: “The evidence did not prove any wrongdoing by Mr. Reyes, Mr. Colom said, but involved people surrounding him that would have raised ‘tremendous doubts’ about his selection.”
Guatemala’s high court had evidently been in a great hurry to throw Reyes out of office. From start to finish, the court’s entire deliberation of the case took a mere eight hours, which analysts later said was far too short a time to honor all the procedures that the law required.
In essence, a sitting attorney general had been expelled from his post on the basis of gossip. The land’s highest court had joined the president in perpetrating a judicial fraud. Also pushing the fraud along were the vaunted anti-impunity commission and the US ambassador.
Guatemalan attorney José Luis González, a recognized expert in constitutional matters, supplied missing parts of the narrative when, six years after the fact, he recounted his talk with a magistrate – or judge – of the high court.
“I personally heard from one of the magistrates, and in the presence of another two witnesses, about the conversation in which [US Ambassador Stephen] McFarland and Mr. Castresana, the head of [the CICIG], told the magistrates to dismiss Conrado Reyes because, supposedly, he had links to criminal organizations. That magistrate told me the story right to my face. He said he asked them for proof, and told them he could not decide without proof. And they told him: ‘Look, this is public knowledge. We have the proof and we are going to send it to you. But you need to take action now, because this is a very serious matter.’”
“Six years later,” González added, “that magistrate is still waiting to see the proof – because, of course, no such thing existed.”
The reasons for the removal of Conrado Reyes, one of the strangest official transactions in this hemisphere, have never been disclosed. But a telling fact is that Reyes himself, after the event, was never accused of any crime. Nor was a complaint raised against him when he later applied for judgeships on Guatemala’s two highest courts.
A plausible view of these events lies elsewhere – with Reyes’s successor, and in how she got to the office.
Claudia Paz y Paz was an activist attorney and a Marxist sympathizer, known and liked by President Colom’s “in-crowd” for her work in the UN and other transnational groups. She became justice minister six months after Reyes’s removal, in a process distinct from the original contest.
If, in June 2010, the high court had invalidated only the honorability phase as petitioned, Reyes might have held onto the post; while Paz y Paz, not a part of the earlier candidate group, couldn’t have entered the process. By decreeing a total re-do, the court effectively opened the way for her.
Attorney Moisés Galindo, a defense attorney who crossed swords with Paz y Paz, said of her during her term as minister: “She is the attorney general by law, but she did not get there legitimately. It was a fraudulent maneuver by the UN commission, which pushed Guatemala’s institutions to remove the prior attorney general. Then, under the umbrella of the same UN commission, her supporters in civil society propelled her into office.”
It’s quite possible that the real powers had wanted Paz y Paz for minister all along; while Reyes, a good and honorable man, had been chosen to play the fall guy.
In 2014, as her term at the ministry was ending, Paz y Paz tried for reappointment. President Obama’s ambassador, against all diplomatic protocol, urged that she be given a full second term. But not even the power of the US could put Paz y Paz on the list of six names forwarded to President Otto Pérez by the nominating commission.
At the time of her replacement, Paz y Paz was prosecuting various cases against military veterans stemming from Guatemala’s internal armed conflict (1960-1996). The cases were based on fabricated evidence, and the ministry pushed them forward with gross violations of due process. Paz y Paz’s ministry had been loaded with such perpetrations – a fact that likely caused the president’s commission, a body of lawyers, to keep her off the nominations list.
President Pérez chose Thelma Aldana as the new justice minister. The CICIG – despite having opposed Aldana for the Supreme Court four years earlier, calling her corrupt – now made no objections to her.
Since becoming minister, Aldana has worked hand-in-glove with CICIG commissioner Iván Velásquez. She has continued Paz y Paz’s cases against the former officers with help from the CICIG, even though the cases are far outside the CICIG’s mandate.
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