Guatemala: The End of the Spring of Claudia Paz y Paz

If former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt’s trial for genocide symbolized an opportunity for the courts in Guatemala to rid themselves of their history of gag rules and the annulment of proceedings, then the virtual dismissal of Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz was the old order putting its collective foot down and demanding a return to power.

If former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt’s trial for genocide symbolized an opportunity for the courts in Guatemala to rid themselves of their history of gag rules and the annulment of proceedings, then the virtual dismissal of Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz was the old order putting its collective foot down and demanding a return to power. Fearful judges, secret negotiations, and networks of favors have kept the Guatemalan justice system beholden to interest groups, corruption and old taboos.

Source: Sala Negra

The day she was unseated, Claudia Paz y Paz was thinking she had won the match. At 11a.m. that Thursday, Guatemala’s attorney general gathered the closest members of her team for a meeting in her offices.

It had been months under intense political fire. In only three years she had imprisoned entire Mara Salvatrucha or Barrio 18 gang cells, military members accused of war crimes and 100 members of the Zetas. She had captured and extradited from the United States the historical heads of local drug trafficking who, thanks to political connections, had enjoyed virtual immunity for years. Paz y Paz symbolized a new Justice in Central America. But trying former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt for genocide in 2013 had placed her in the crosshairs of Guatemala’s historically powerful right-wing.

The upper echelon spent months trying to shorten her term in office, which was at first to end in December 2014 to May 2014. In Paz y Paz’s round, freckled face, they saw the left and the old communism retaking the justice system and turning it against them. They wanted her out. They wanted to send her a clear signal of their former efficacy and power.

That was the match that the Attorney General had thought was won on Thursday, Feb. 5. She had miscalculated the time frame and thought that the legal limit for the Constitutional Court to decide on the case had expired. Certain statements made the previous Thursday by Vice President of Congress Manuel Barquín approving two technical reports of the Supreme Court of Justice in favor of Paz y Paz bolstered her optimism. She thought both the law and politics were on her side.

At 11a.m. that morning her whole team came to the appointment. With her wispy voice and habitual parsimoniousness perfectly suited to recounting stories and telling secrets, Claudia Paz told them of her next strategic step in the drawn-out chess game that had altered the arm wrestling match in the Guatemala courts. Arturo Aguilar, her right hand for years and until that moment her Private Secretary at the Public Ministry, was about to leave that post to become special counsel at the CICIG, the Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala before the United Nations. She and Aguilar had discussed it for several weeks, deciding alone and having already spoken with the CICIG commissioner, a former Colombian attorney general, who gave the transfer his complete endorsement.

Elvyn Díaz, the Attorney General’s Private Undersecretary at the time, attended the 11a.m. meeting.

“On that day, Claudia told us she knew that 2014 was going to be our last year at the Public Ministry but we still had the chance to leave a favorable setting so that after we were gone, everything wouldn’t fall apart or there wouldn’t be a witch hunt for us.”

Do you remember four months later, already having left the Public Ministry?

“That’s why Arturo transferred.”

And how did you all respond?

“We honored our boss’s decision. We told her, ‘If you have all studied the situation, and think it’s best for the group, go ahead.’”

It was a defensive move. Though Paz y Paz thought the challenge for the rest of her term was resolved, she knew that other attacks were coming. With Aguilar’s transfer, she intended to plant the seeds of her three years management experience at other organizations, incarnated by her team of a dozen young penal and Human Rights lawyers that she had been working with for more than a decade. The oldest of them was 50. Others, like Aguilar, were barely out of their 30s.

Díaz is 29. He carries himself like a top student. He likes to speak fast, has a dry sense of humor and a biting, sarcastic wit. Right after the meeting, he was having lunch with two journalists in the Plaza Pública when he received the call: the Constitutional Court had cut short the Attorney General’s term.

“In December, a group of lawyers from the 10th zone met with President of the Constitutionality Court Pérez Aguilera, and he already advised them that Paz y Paz was leaving in May, he said. “We knew this… And yet we still spent a week proclaiming victory. They tricked us, very well indeed, we’ll give them credit for that,” said Díaz.


In December 2010, no one in power, no clique attached to the Guatemalan justice system, was betting that President Colom would nominate Claudia Paz y Paz as Attorney General. Those are the exact words of one of the men who most influenced him to do so: Carlos Menocal, a former journalist who was Governance Minister at the time.

Stocky, informally dressed, backpack strapped on his shoulders, neatly-cut beard and designer lenses, Menocal can’t decide whether to order a coffee. He always gives the impression of being in a hurry, of being extremely busy and about to leave, but then gives details and explanations for almost an hour, as if to show that what happened four years ago was a part of his job. In that way, Carlos Menocal the journalist is good at politics as well.

“Álvaro Colom was a little upset because his government was not advancing the transitional justice system,” he says. The nomination of Claudia Paz, an expert in Humans Rights, fit the bill perfectly.

So nominating Paz y Paz was a personal battle for Colom to bring justice to the war victims?

“Let’s say it was a personal battle for him and also for some of those who were his associates.”

Actually, transitional justice was not the only thing worrying Colom and his closest ministers. Guatemala hit bottom with the assassination of three Salvadoran Central American parliament deputees in 2007, at the hands of a group of corrupt police. Six days after the crime, an armed commando entered the maximum security prison “El Boquerón” where the assassins were detained, killed them, and left the way they had come in. Not a single door had been forced. No guard had seen a thing. No one was ever captured. The government of then President Óscar Berger, in either denial or complicity, tried to pin the crime on other inmates, though they had no evidence or witnesses.

It is a proven fact that during the Berger administration, death squads aimed at social cleansing were operating within the police. The “El Boquerón” mass killing was not the only one committed during that time in Guatemala’s prisons, which became scenes for the settling of accounts between criminal groups, with the complicity of the Government. But silencing, by gunshots and imprisonment, the authors of a crime with diplomatic implications was the best re-enactment of an absolutely destroyed judicial system.

Already in power a year later, Álvaro Colom found seven microphones and two hidden cameras in his offices. Someone was spying on the president of the Republic. The man who was supposed to clean up corruption in the Guatemalan security forces could not even trust his bodyguards.

In 2009, a small revolution in the justice system broke out that prevented Guatemala from becoming a failed State. The CICIG, created in 2006 as an international crutch for a limping country, began to lay bare the illegal parallel structure that was operating within the State, and its pressure, together with foreign cooperation, managed to give the Attorney General’s office new legal and scientific tools, such as wire-tapping and ballistics laboratories. Also, the gradual appearance of new groups of economic power unconnected with the traditional families altered the map of influence on judicial power and allowed the Constitutional Court to reveal secret military documents and rule that disappearances, a habitual crime during the recent civil war, would not become a permanent characteristic. Even amongst the police, considered an irredeemable focus of corruption, the governments of Spain and the United States sponsored and created small groups of young agents specialized in the prosecution of homicides and extortion.

But it was not enough. By March 2010, Colom had been forced to dismiss three consecutive Governance Ministers and two Police Director Generals for corruption in only two years. His government was about to face a coup d’état in 2009 and he was having difficulty navigating between power struggles, resulting in it being difficult to distinguish purely political ambitions from those with criminal roots. Despite isolated advances, the magical country that millions of tourists came to each year in search of Mayan ruins was in ruins itself.

The final upheaval would occur in June 2010: Spaniard Carlos Castresana, Commissioner of the CICIG, publically announced his resignation, alleging that one week before, Colom had named a corrupt Attorney General despite his knowledge, through reports that he himself had given him that he had links to drug trafficking. The Attorney General under suspicion, Conrado Reyes, was forced to resign and a new selection process was initiated. That is how Colom was able to nominate Claudia Paz y Paz in December.

When I ask Menocal how the same Álvaro Colom who selected Paz y Paz as Attorney General could months earlier select Reyes, he becomes a politician again and tries to whitewash the president:

“Colom listens a lot. The decision was too democratic,” he said. “He listened to a lot of different groups and especially his party.”

“But everybody says that he listened to you in December.”

“And to other close officials. Despite pressure from his party, business interests and within his own government, he made the correct decision in December for the country, not for his party, not even for himself.”

Members of the pre-selection committee for the new Attorney General included Paz y Paz in the final list of six hopefuls so that her academic and progressive profile would clean up the process for the sake of public opinion, at a time when the legitimacy of the political system was going down the sewer. They assumed that the president wouldn’t be so outlandish as to select an attorney with such provocative ideas, dedicated for years to elucidating war crimes, and with neither friends not debts in politics. They were wrong. At noon on Thursday, December 9, 2010, Colom told Menocal to get ready, that Paz y Paz would be nominated at 6p.m., and that he would be the only cabinet member present. He also asked him to send urgent invitations to the other State powers and diplomatic delegations.

Only six embassies attended, among them the United States. The Attorney General who over the coming years would revolutionize the Public Ministry took the oath in a hurried ceremony in a small room, far from the pomp customarily accorded the investment of her predecessors. Colom had to leave for a trip the next day and wanted to leave the Attorney General already installed. He feared that, in his absence, those who opposed the nomination, if they wanted to, could gather forces and counter-attack.

Under these precarious circumstances, it was no wonder that Colom’s political supporters didn’t help Paz y Paz much once in office. Intending to hinder her work, Congress did not name an MP Assistant Counsel for the next four years, a post necessary to authorize administrative decisions such as firings. Even though within the MP an internal purge was agitated for and attempted, Paz y Paz could not dismiss any of the 286 attorney generals and employees of the MP who were corrupt or useless during her term. When she left office, many continued to collect their salaries despite being out of service.

The Attorney General was never able to gain absolute control over the Public Ministry. Elvyn Díaz admits that Claudia Paz could not control the attorney generals in customs contraband, which only solved one case during her entire term in office, and environment, in the hands of attorney generals she did not trust but possessing immunity through their work with labor unions. She also had little influence on attorney general branches that were more distant geographically from the capital, where attorney generals who were under suspicion but could not be fired were often sent.

Moreso, Paz y Paz’s administration was overshadowed from the outset by the idea of her ouster. The rumors she would not last long were widespread, even in the newspapers and magazines. In June 2011, after only six months at the MP, a journalist asked her about this constant noise in the background. Her answer at that time has a somber meaning three years later: “The law is clear and I still say what I said before: this would be a technical coup d’état. My work plan is for four years; no less.”

What do the private sectors who opposed Claudia Paz y Paz gain by her abrupt exit? —I asked Menocal.
“It disseminates the spectre of a witch hunt about the idea of genocide. The country’s power elite thinks that if Ríos Montt were to stand trial, the general of all generals, the gendarme of the oligarchy, anyone could fall. It opened the door. It opened the dike, and the waters could drag you down. So the primary objective is to prevent the theme of genocide from advancing. Look, anything having to do with transitional justice, as little as it may be, makes waves. I believe that Colom never considered the political dimensions of nominating Claudia Paz y Paz.”

He didn’t know what he was getting embroiled in?

Exactly. He whose government made hundreds of thousands of pardon requests for war crimes, which came to request pardon in the name of the State for the assassination of his own uncle by the Army in ’79, did not see the waves he was about to make.”


Yassmin Barrios. Photo El Faro/Fred RamosJustice Yassmin Barrios has to climb into a police patrol car even to buy flowers. She goes to the supermarket in a pickup with sirens encircled by police agents, who have been protecting her for ten years, since the day before she initiated the trial for the assassination of Bishop Juan Gerardi when someone threw a fragmentation grenade on the patio of her house. Last year, she received new death threats, and the judicial system issued her an armored car, but she only uses it twice a day: to get to and from the courthouse. Nothing else. She says the car is not hers and uses a lot of gasoline. “One should be frugal and not abuse things,” she argues with maternal logic. Yassmín Barrios, the judge who found Efraín Ríos Montt guilty of genocide in May 2013, tries to simplify the most complex logic. And she doesn’t even have her own car.

Her house is objectively small. Miniscule compared to her renown. She received us herself at the gate at the street, under the uneasy watch of her bodyguards, themselves resigned to the judge’s simple ways. She was dressed probably the same way as her neighbours, in a checked skirt and blue sweater decidedly out of fashion. But the judge did allow herself the vanity of asking us to let her put on makeup when she realised there would be a photographer at the interview. She returns with her face washed, red lips, and ordinary black eyeliner. Even Yassmín Barrios’s vanity rejects grandeur.

Is it difficult to be a judge Guatemala?

“Yes, it definitely is. Not because of the cases we judged but because of the atmosphere surrounding us.”

What atmosphere?

“The reigning violence, and the prosecutors’ insecurity.”

Do you believe that there are judges who recuse themselves from certain cases out of fear?

“I can’t answer for other persons. They can answer that for themselves. Each person knows why they recuse themselves. What I can say is that recusing only happens when there is a motive. And there is no reason to recuse oneself. One is obligated to carry out one’s duty.”

Well for example, one motive could be having two grenades thrown on your house’s patio, as happened to you.

“That was the night before, the discussion was the next day. And I appeared for work.”

What motivates you to go forward with such complicated cases?

“Simply because I am a judge. When I started this job, I swore an oath. This is part of being a judge.”

Before Claudia Paz y Paz was removed from office and the map of the Courts in Guatemala was redrawn, the original idea for this article was to profile a handful of people who over the last few years seem to have dragged the country out of the hands of organized crime and impunity pacts. A handful of untouchables. Mid-level police officials, career attorney generals, women with the international reputations of Paz y Paz or Barrios. A cast of tightrope walkers in a political minefield working in highly contaminated institutions setting precedents unthinkable in neighbouring countries like El Salvador or Honduras, countries incapable of judging 95 percent of their present day criminals and not a single human rights violator from the past.

During the eight weeks of the trial against Ríos Montt, Barrios was a little, curly-haired David battling history, vehement defense attorneys, and an invisible Goliath under political and media pressure. The plaintiffs’ intent was to maneuver carefully so as not to fragment the country, whereas Ríos Montt’s loyalists and the corporate interests accused Paz y Paz and Barrios of undermining Guatemala and putting the peace accords at risk. The Guatemalan right-wing closed ranks, re-established ties with influential retired military, and cast aside their differences, all toward a common end. There were several legal attempts to halt the hearings and at any moment it was feared that a political monkey wrench would truncate the trial.

Knowing full well they were walking a narrow plank, the attorney generals withdrew witnesses at the last minute so as not to incriminate President Otto Pérez Molina, a retired general and field commander during the mass killings of those years, and thus avoid the temptation of intervening in secret to halt the judgement.

In a brief survey carried out by Rafael Landívar University at the time, 72 percent of those interviewed said they were sure the trial would not reach its conclusion and that the former dictator would be declared innocent despite the evidence against him. Another study by the same university found that 61 percent of the columnists from the country’s principal periodicals supported the trial in their articles, but the sensation around Justice Barrios was, as she puts it, a media circus.

Maybe it’s because the Guatemalan élites don’t even need to get majorities to tip the scales. As the trial advanced so did the sensation, so much that the noise it created intruded into the courtroom. Maybe it was like a spring coiled in the collective consciousness of the rest of the country, reacting to the voice of its old masters like someone hypnotized who relives memories upon hearing a key word or a certain melody.

And so, March and April 2013 were months of hope for those who for decades have been asking for reforms in the Guatemalan courts. In less than a decade they went from troglodyte injustices at hands of the Police to the investigation and bringing to trial of both common delinquents, as well as former dictators who in the realm of ideas were just as murderous as Berger’s hitmen. If to this we add that since 2010, the country has experienced a slow but constant decrease in the number of homicides, Guatemala was having a springtime in the courts of justice.

But ever since that May 10th, 2013, when Barrios condemned Ríos Montt, there have been signs of going backwards. An invisible hand began to shake the tightrope that Paz y Paz, Yassmín Barrios, and the rest of the untouchables were trying so hard to walk.

First came the quick annulment of the trial, only 10 days after the sentencing. The Constitutional Court, controlled according to sources from both the left and the right, by the historical corporate élite and less so by the Executive in power, alleged procedural errors in order to order a complete retrial. In theory, it should take place in January 2015. Then came the onslaught against Claudia Paz that culminated in her precipitous exit from office.

Meanwhile, the Bar Association of Guatemala tried to suspend Yassmín Barrios from her post, for supposed ethics violations in the treatment of a defense attorney during the trial. Her sanction was never applied and ended up being rejected by the Constitutional Court, but a dark shadow fell upon those who had tried to condemn the former dictator.

It was as if someone were decreeing an end to the spring.

Do you feel yourself challenged to an arm wrestling match between two Guatemalas? —we asked Barrios.

“Why do you ask me that?”

Because there are clearly two Guatemalas, if not more. One that wanted the Ríos Montt trial to end and the other that didn’t want it to conclude. One part of Guatemala identifies with you, and the other denounces and pressures you.

“I am a woman who believes in justice, nothing more. I am a lawyer. I believe in justice. So it’s easy. There isn’t much confusion.”

You say it as if it were easy.

“It is. I am a woman. I am a lawyer. I believe in justice. That is all, directly and concretely.”

The justice’s response had a sobriety that would frustrate any interviewer. Any attempt to get her to pronounce upon the trial and Guatemalan politics was useless. She declined to respond to questions about the trial’s impact on society or the degree of independence in the Guatemalan courts. Nor would she opine whether Guatemala was racist 30 years after the genocide.

At times she would act as if we were in the hearing room and she were presiding. Responding from her sofa with her back straight and her hands in her lap, almost immobile, a perpetual smile on her face, she asked four times if we would rephrase a question because she didn’t share its premise or because the subject exceeded her competence as a judge. I tended to think she was so prudent because she knew that any word she spoke could be used against her by her adversaries.

But there was another possibility, and a more probable one. Yassmín Barrios is so meticulous in her conduct and work, so by the book, that as a journalist she challenges you to look for cracks, defects, the dark side. In her case, you won’t find any. Maybe this is not about a woman who is prudent out of fear of her enemies, but rather about someone with the discreet and restrained character of Yasmín Barrios who has managed to survive for more than a decade on the front lines of a Justice System cornered by economic, political and group interests.

A new trial for Ríos Montt, what would that mean for the courts?

“I can speak in our capacity as judges,” Barrios says measuredly, again. “Our sentence, because we are three tribunal judges who made the judgement, constitutes an advance. Not only because the discussion was held, but also because we arrived at a sentence. There was evaluation of the witnesses, experts, documents, and there is the accused’s responsibility for the crimes of genocide and against humanity. This constitutes an advance not only for Guatemala but also for Latin America and for the entire world.”

There is another possible reading: having a former head of State stand trial for genocide is undoubtedly an advance, but on the other hand, the reactions outside the courtroom and the final result, nullification of the sentence…

“Let me clarify that the sentence was not annullled. The trial was annulled. Those are two different things. The Court did not annul our analysis. There was no error indicated in the sentencing that was not looked at, which is very important.”

Or it could be…

“The case is sui generis. There are no precedents of this nature in our penal judicial system.”

And do you believe the annulment was against the judicial system?

“I believe the most important thing is what the rest thinks.”

“What the rest thinks” is a confusing concept. When the Constitutional Court annulled the Ríos Montt trial there were international organizations who considered it a legal aberration. Civil society organizations denounced the decision’s political character. And then commissioner of the CICIG, Francisco Dall’Anesse from Costa Rica, publically declared three months later that it was an “illegal annulment.”

At the other extreme were the reactions, as expected, of representatives of the CACIF, the organization where the corporate upper echelon of the country has historically been concentrated. They personally petitioned for nullification of the trial, and accused Commissioner Dall’Anesse of violating the Guatemalan Constitution by challenging a judicial decision. At that point, the Costa Rican had only one month left in office and was thereby out of the game. A statement issued by the CICIG during the trial denouncing the media campaign to have Ríos Montt declared innocent, came up against the Pérez Molina government, which complained through diplomatic channels to the UN and forced him out of office. Taking a position against Ríos Montt in his trial for genocide will garner you powerful enemies in Guatemala.


Yassmín Barrios and Pablo Xitumul during the Rios Montt trial. Photo Plaza Pública/Sandra SebastiánMagistrate Pablo Xitumul, who together with Patricia Bustamante and Yassmín Barrios composed the tribunal that found Ríos Montt guilty, insists that he was not pressured or directly threatened during the trial, but he does say that his telephone was tapped and recalls that in the middle of the hearings, one of the general’s defense attorneys shouted at him, “I will not rest until I see you behind bars.” In another case, those words might not have meant much, but in this one, it was so difficult to assess their seriousness that the judge still remembers them one year after everything ended.

“At that time, military patrols used to pass in front of my house on the shoulder, because I live alongside the highway. They were there throughout the entire trial. At first, I said, ‘That’s great, they’re providing security,’ but 8 to 15 days after the trial ended they left and have never come back. Coincidence?” said Xitumul.

Do you think it was?

Xitumul, originally from a small indigenous village in Rabinal, in the Department of Baja Verapaz, quiets for an instant, smiles, and opens his large eyes even wider, if that’s possible.

“And another thing: The National Civil Police around that time stopped my oldest son maybe five times. He works at a restaurant chain and sometimes would come home at 10 or 11 at night. Just as he arrived at the house, they would stop him, tell him to get off his motorbike and ask for his identification. Was that a coincidence? I don’t think so.”

Pablo Xitumul has just come out of a hearing and receives me in his offices, where there is a desk, three chairs and a sofa with barely enough room to walk around. Together with Barrios and Bustamante, he has just sentenced six men who had formed a kidnapping ring to 20 some-odd years in prison. How was it that in the genocide case, he never opened his mouth throughout the entire trial? He remained rigid and tight-lipped in his chair, deliberating in whispers with his colleagues occasionally, but never raising his voice publically. I dare to say that few in Guatemala have ever heard it. For most, High Risk Courtroom A had only one face: Yassmín’s, the target of all looks and attacks—of her hair, her gestures, her supposed ideology— by those who wanted Ríos Montt declared innocent.

“They had specific objectives. The first was to take the tribunal apart. And how could they take the tribunal apart? By changing the presiding judge. Whichever one of us was presiding would have been attacked. They would have found a way,” says Xitumul.

And why do you think they made those particular attacks?

“Because of the type of trial, the type of personality being tried, and also the underlying theme, which is armed conflict.”

But other war crimes have been tried, without such a commotion.

“This time, the initial objective was not to allow such persons to be brought to justice, not for that particular person, but because in Guatemala and other countries, the military, business and political élites all come to an agreement. They feared that judging an individual of their ranks will cause a domino effect leading to business heads.”
It seems like that’s the key point: the business leaders.
“They did everything they could but they couldn’t stop the start of the trial, so they resigned themselves to ending it: one fourth of the way through, halfway, almost at the end… And they couldn’t do that either. So they did what they could do.”

At this point it becomes obvious that the tribunal’s silent man is, in private, much less reserved in his opinions than Yassmín Barrios. Pablo Xitumul seems almost selfless when he speaks, as if anything they would steal from him didn’t matter, as if he’d already seen it all. Maybe it’s because his father disappeared in 1982, when he was seven years old, and since then he’s been able to confront the powers that be. He recounts how, three months after the disappearance, he went with his mother to the Chixoy jail, where his father worked, to collect his outstanding wages. They asked for the death certificate. They told them to go check all the bodies found in recent months on the Guatemala-Cobán highway. He says he stood firm, argued, and managed to get them to give his mother “a tiny cheque.”

It’s not that he’s stern: years later, when he decided to study law, he chose it by a process of elimination. He had already been forced to interrupt his studies for lack of money and didn’t want to return. The law school was the only faculty whose hours allowed him to continue working in order to pay the university tuition. In that way, Xitumul resembles Barrios: his outlook and judgement are eminently practical.

So the Guatemalan courts are subject to political arm wrestling?

“Quite, quite. A judicial career starts as justice of the peace, and goes all the way up to trial judge, where we are now. Everyone goes through a selection and evaluation process, and we are nominated for a term of five years. But what happens with Court magistrates, the court of appeals, the Constitutionality Court?”

I don’t know. You tell me.

“Well, they come from the outside, many of them never have been judges, but are sponsored by political parties or business groups. And all of that compromises their actions. There have been a lot of people who, though cronyism, connections, will get up to the magistracy. There are always going to be people who will fight to get there. In my opinion, there is noguarantee that justice will really be served.”

You’re painting a dark picture. You’re a pessimist.

“I’m just being honest. Look, I live in Guatemala, and I have seen that as soon as the Supreme Court is in session, the magistrates go to breakfasts, lunches, talks, chats, with the big economics groups. I, as judge, could never sit down with them. I am dedicated to my work and will in no way compromise my judgement. I have enough to eat, I have the basics. There are many who wanted to get rich and live in luxury, and because of that they forget about Justice.”

Xitumul’s words could be due to disappointment. In 2009, he admits, he also applied as a candidate to be magistrate in the court of appeals. He thought he didn’t have enough profile to choose the Supreme Court, but he did have the academic merits and experience to be on the court of appeals, which is more technical. During the pre-selection phase, they awarded him 46 points out of 100 and did not include him in the final list decided upon by a committee named by Congress. He became frustrated and said he would never again take part in one of those processes.

“But what do you know? They also didn’t select those who got 86, 88, 89 points, including my colleague Yassmín, who was one of the most qualified.”

Not even her?

“They included her on the list only to comply. But when it came to a vote in the Congress of the Republic, they didn’t count her. And in my case, it wasn’t just the points, because there were people on the list who got 29, 30 points who are presently courtroom magistrates.”


Before forcing the resignation of Attorney General Conrado Reyes in 2010, the CICIG had already rattled the Guatemalan justice system with another public accusation. On 6 October 2009, Commissioner Carlos Castresana reported that a group of lawyers was trying to take control of the Supreme Court of Justice for their own benefit. He insisted that six of the 13 final candidates to make up the Court had ties to a lawyer and businessman who had secretly pulled strings to put them there: Roberto López Villatoro, widely and contemptuously known in Guatemala as “the tennis shoe king.”

It has been written that he incarnates a sector of emerging businessmen who have grown rich under the aegis of the State —his nickname comes from an old footwear purchase allocation — and that during the last decade he personally disputed the CACIF over control of the Supreme Court, the Bar Association and the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, which used to be his exclusive influence playground.  López Villatoro is a public persona who moves skillfully through the system’s grey areas. He is the operator that one goes to when one needs to circumvent, find political solutions to legal problems or pseudojudicial solutions to political disputes.

I ask him for an interview to confirm Xitumul’s story that the Guatemalan justice system is mired in a network of favours. Favours to him, who everyone calls the master of influence peddling.

He meets me at a coffee shop in the 10th zone where they sell natural cocktails and the type of designer clothes I’ve only seen in sports clubs and croquet photographs. Before beginning, he asks me in English if I want to speak on the record or if I prefer that he tell me the truth. When I say that I need both he cracks a joker’s smile and breaks all protocols:

“I have a friend who says that Guatemala is a chess game where the king is hueco —homosexual—, the queen a whore, and the bishops on both sides do business amongst themselves. All on a round board.”

Between the lines, the tennis shoe king is telling me that he is a bishop.

They say you pull the strings to get someone elected magistrate to the Supreme Court.

“In this country, everybody exaggerates, they make people out to be bigger than they are. In effect, I think I know how the judicial system operates. I have prepared myself. I studied for three master’s…”

Do you know how to alter the election process?

“Knowing many people and knowing how the justice system operates gives you the experience to understand the forces that operate in the country and know how to get by. Always in accordance with the norms established by the Constitution of the Republic and judicial law, of course.”

Tell me what I have to do to become a magistrate.

“You have to speak to academics, with the country’s law school deacons, with  the Bar Association’s union leader, and then, obviously, with the country’s political leaders. The system was created with the good intention of giving weight to different sectors, but along the way judicial independence gets lost.”

Or could it be that once you get to be a high level magistrate, you owe too many favors?

“Obviously, because you have to work as a lobbyist. Nobody is going to get there by themselves. Nobody will get there unless they are supported by a certain sector, by a political party. You could be a magistrate with an impeccable career, but they’re not going to evaluate you by your rulings and decisions. That’s the reality.”

As if all roads in present Guatemalan politics led to Ríos Montt, López Villatoro was married to Zury Ríos, daughter of the former dictator and herself former vice president of Congress. The CICIG said in 2009 they were investigating him for possible illegal businesses, but they never charged him or proved anything. Nor did they manage to stop that magistrate election proceeding and the three lawyers sponsored by López Villatoro have been among the 2014 members of the Supreme Court. Gustavo Berganza, one of the journalists who has best described the power plays in Guatemala, insists that the man I have before me is much more influential today than when they tried to bring him down five years ago.

Concerning the accusations made by CICIG against him in 2009, López Villatoro says that Castresana allowed himself to be manipulated by the traditional élites, who were interested in cutting him and other lawyers out so as not to have to share influence payouts. López Villatoro’s business consists in gaining the support of lawyers to focus on certain candidates. Once in office, they need to be grateful and amenable to him and the syndicates he represents. When I ask him if it’s true what Berganza says, that he is today more influential than when Castresana tried to take him down, he nods.

“Time will tell,” he says. “Thousands of lawyers have come to trust our proposals.”

There are other questions that López Villatoro does not want to answer. There are people and subjects, like the power play for the MP, that he doesn’t want to speak about. It’s a matter of calculation. People like him know that tomorrow the cyclical nature of interests could make your former adversary into a possible ally. It might also be the certainty that there are enemies that are better not disturbed without reason. In Guatemalan legal circles, they explain that the CC is known as the “celestial court” not only because its decisions cannot be appealed, but also because it has direct links to the most powerful men in the country. Even for someone like López Villatoro, it’s still difficult to reach that Olympus.

The Guatemalan justice system is in an even more open wrestling match. The proof is the simple existence of a figure like this bishop and his army of pawns fighting over bits of the old kings’ powers. The proof is also in Paz y Paz’s years of audacity, as well as the ephemeral sentencing of Ríos Montt. In fact, even the CC is not totally outside of the tussle between influence groups. The 5 February decision that shortened Claudia Paz y Paz term was decided unanimously by five magistrates, but the annulment of the first verdict against the former dictator was not. It was finally reached by a split of three to two.

López Villatoro, devoid of romanticisms and clinging to his interests, declares the game open. It’s evident that he thinks those who are patient and prudent will win.

Prudence is a more widespread virtue. Ever since the celestial court ordered a retrial for Ríos Montt, more than 90 judges have recused themselves from the case. They don’t want to be the new Yassmín Barrios or the future Pablo Xitumul. It’s possible they do not want to challenge the élites with a new guilty verdict, but how to explain that there are not three judges interested in gaining favour with the CACIF by absolving them? Calculations are more complicated than that and are not only concerning the ideal of Justice. Judges with future ambitions fear that the present unity between right wing groups might be only temporary, that the table continues to turn and that for them, however they adjudicate, time will put them at the wrong end of the round chess board.

*With reporting by Valeria Guzmán. Carlos Dada assisted in preparing and conducting the interview with Yassmín Barrios.