'Paradise for organized crime' – Guatemalan judge Claudia Escobar Mejía fled to the United States

If you do not cooperate with corrupt politicians, you can run into serious problems. Almost all of Central America is plagued by kleptocracy and there’s no rule of law, says Academician Claudia Escobar Mejía.

When the rule of law is broken, organized crime and corrupt politicians take over. 

Claudia Escobar Mejía, a Guatemalan judge and academic who today has to support the shaky rule of law in her country from exile, knows this better than most. 

In her native Guatemala, she served for many years as a judge and as the president of Instituto de la Judicatura, an organization founded by Judges. She came on a collision course with the country's government when the association started to pay attention to the political appointments of judges. 

The judges of the country's Court of Appeal and Supreme Court were (and still are) appointed for a five-year term by the country's Congress. 

"It's horrible, because the posts are decided by the political parties," Escobar Mejía says in a video interview. “And politicians have links to organized crime.” 

In 2014, the Association of Judges found that there was a lot of ambiguity and corruption in the election process. Some of the candidates had paid large sums of money to become Supreme Court judges. The organization issued a confidential statement to the UN, but word spread that the judges' organization was trying to put a spanner in the works. This began to worry politicians. 

A crude offer 

At that time, Escobar Mejía received a phone call from a lawyer, an old acquaintance from university, who wanted to come and talk about the election of judges. Escobar Mejía herself was a candidate for a five-year extension in the Court of Appeals. 

"Then he said that the President of the Congress would join the meeting, which seemed very strange." 

That man was Gudy Rivera, the right-hand man of the president of the country and a well-known, very questionable politician. Escobar Mejía worried that the duo would put pressure on her, and she decided to record the conversation with an iPad on the table. 

It turned out that their case concerned the country's vice-president, Roxana Baldetti, against whom there was a lawsuit in the courtroom of Escobar Mejía. Baldetti wanted to remain the general secretary of her political party at the same time as she served as the vice-president of Guatemala, although the constitution forbade this. 

"They asked for legal protection for Baldetti. They needed my help to settle the case in Baldetti's favor, and against this they would make sure that I would get elected as a magistrate." 

Escobar Mejía says she was amazed at the arrogance of the proposal. 

”A crude offer, with no shame.” 

At the same time, she says she was afraid, because she knew that these men could do anything to people who are against them. 

“Judges that oppose organized crime can get killed,” she says. 

She got elected, but how? 

Escobar Mejía did as she saw fit. She told the lawyer that this kind of pressure was wrong and illegal, and that if she were hurt in any way, she would report the pressure publicly. 

She sentenced Baldetti's case against her. Baldetti was however allowed to continue in office, as the verdict was handed down by a panel of three judges, and the other two sided with Baldetti. 

Escobar Mejía was elected to the Court of Appeal for a second term, and the lawyer congratulated him via text message. 

“I felt that the decision was in some way tied to this, and by choosing me, they wanted me not to talk about pressure at all. They wanted to buy me out.” 

Accepting the job would have felt as if she had given in to pressure, and Chairman Gudy Rivera would always have this information in his back pocket. 

“I couldn't have acted as an independent judge,” says Escobar Mejía. 

She decided to resign, and publicly recounted the pressure. 

Gudy Rivera didn't understand what he had done wrong — he had, in his own words, just tried to help Escobar Mejía. A scandal ensued when Escobar Mejía denounced the illegal proposal made by Rivera. 

Rivera was sentenced to more than 13 years in prison. 

Around the same time, the Guatemalan Constitutional Court was considering whether the election of judges should be annulled as corrupt. However, it concluded after a vote that there was no reason to do so. Escobar Mejía had thought that she could continue as a judge, but after that court decision, she felt that there was no chance. 

"Organized crime took over the judiciary," she says. 

She received a lot of threats, as many judges knew that she had tried to overturn the judicial election, and even President Otto Pérez Molina said on television that Escobar Mejía had no credibility and that she manipulated politicians. 

“One of the corrupt judges elected for the Supreme Court announced they were going to prosecute me for sedition,” Escobar Mejía says. 

She decided to move to the United States, where she still lives. 

The government fell, the president jailed 

The following year, the country was shaken by a corruption scandal known as "La Línea", in which both President Otto Pérez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti were forced to resign. Both are still in prison

But, unfortunately, the rule of law did not win in the end. 

At the time, Guatemala was home to the International Commission Against Impunity (CICIG), which sought to eradicate the culture of impunity and corruption. 

"The rate of impunity is 98%, and it is a paradise for organized crime," says Escobar Mejía. 

There are many organized crime groups in the country, the most famous of which is the Mexican-based cartel "Zetas". They have close relations with many policymakers, police forces and the military. 

President Jimmy Morales, who came to power after Pérez Molina, decided to expel the CICIG from the country. Human rights organizations and the international community protested and the Constitutional Court tried to stop Morales, but in did not succeed. 

“It was a polarizing moment. The politicians absurdly wanted to say that the court was trying to bring the leftist to power when it was supposedly right-wingers who were now in power. But in reality, it was the kleptocrats who were really in power,” says Escobar Mejía. 

Ailment common in Central America 

At the moment, according to Escobar Mejía, there is no rule of law in Guatemala. 

“No one believes in institutions, and people take justice into their own hands.” 

The human rights high commissioner of the UN has expressed worry over the deterioration of rule of law in Guatemala. According to Escobar Mejía, the situation is similar throughout Central America, with the exception of Costa Rica. 

“Central American countries are small, and crises are transmitted a bit like an epidemic from one country to another," says Escobar Mejía. 

The situation in Nicaragua is the most alarming: the rule of law has been cracked down, there are political prisoners and the media has also been silenced. 

”Nicaragua is seen as a dictatorship in the world, but people from outside do not see Guatemala, El Salvador or Honduras in the same light, even though these countries have de facto dictatorships of corruption,” says Escobar Mejía.  

When the judiciary is broken, criminals and corrupt politicians take advantage of the opportunities. According to Escobar Mejía, this is visible in the society as a whole: there is no decent education, no health care and no development. 

“Poverty rates are high, and so is violence.” 

The US and the EU can support 

Escobar Mejía has advocated that the United States could do a lot for the rule of law in Central America. Often, for example, financial crimes extend beyond the borders of a country when corruption money is transferred out of Central America. 

Be Just, an organisation led by Escobar Mejía, is investigating how they could be prosecuted in the United States. 

The EU could also play a bigger role, she says. 

"Economic sanctions could be imposed on these individuals and companies." 

The European Union has a 'Magnitsky Act', modelled on that of the United States, which helps to impose sanctions on human rights grounds. Escobar Mejía also believes that stricter conditions on the rule of law and anti-corruption could be included in trade agreements. 

Scholarships for democracy defenders 

Also through her own work, she is trying to support the rule of law in Central America and the defenders of justice. 

In addition to her NGO work, she is starting this work at the university where she works as a Distinguished Visiting Professor. George Mason University will begin a programme this year offering study scholarships to either the United States or Costa Rica to people who have defended democracy or opposed corruption, and whose lives in their native Central America have therefore become impossible. 

Escobar Mejía is the director of the program. 

"You have to stand up for the people who defend the rule of law," says Escobar Mejía. 

"It can be difficult to understand from elsewhere what it's like to live in a country like that. We are in a similar situation to where Colombia was at the time of Pablo Escobar's drug trade, when judges were murdered and the Supreme Court was burned."