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Guatemala: “Armed men came looking for me at court”

Claudia Escobar

Claudia Escobar has always strived to promote transparency in the Guatemalan judiciary. In this fight for justice, the magistrate of the Guatemalan Court of Appeal has made many powerful enemies. After she revealed a large-scale corruption scandal, Claudia faced many attacks and threats of sedition charges. She was finally forced to leave her country.

Why did you choose to become a judge?

Choosing a career in the judiciary is not a professional decision but a vocation. It was a choice to dedicate myself to justice. The issue of corruption was not on the radar when I joined the judiciary. The compulsory year of training at the judicial school was designed to prepare us for our legal career, but corruption and the impact it might have on our future work was never discussed.

How and when did you become aware of corruption in the Guatemalan judicial system?

After my first months in office, I began to realise that incidents bordering on corruption were happening regularly in court. I saw lawyers trying to be nice to judicial officials by bringing them a gift for their birthday, for example, when in my view it is unethical for an official to receive any type of perk or advantage for doing their job. I also saw a lot of delays in judgments, and I understood that at least a third of the people working in the system were actually extorting its users for personal gain.

I began to see and understand how individual lawyers were committing and assisting fraud to steal property and other assets. I took steps to clear my own court of officers involved in corruption, so that I could trust the officials I was working with.

I asked other judges to share their experiences and together we started to analyse the situation of what it meant to be a judge in Guatemala at that time. We found many serious incidents of intimidation, harassment and violence going back more than ten years. Some judges even feared being poisoned or attacked by their own staff! We were all working in very difficult environments.

I started keeping records and disciplinary complaints and began a programme to promote transparency in the court system.

What were the personal consequences of you highlighting corruption in this way?

In my own context I had the support of the court when I first reported these issues. So, at first, I had the protection I felt I needed to continue doing my job.

But as I began to file an increasing number of disciplinary complaints against lawyers engaged in fraud and corruption, the level of threat escalated dramatically. On several occasions, armed men in militarised vehicles came looking for me at court to make it clear that I was crossing a line. When lawyers challenged my complaints in civil court, I was obliged to repeat the facts of corruption in this very public setting, without the subjects of the complaints being at risk of imprisonment or any other criminal penalty.

Can you tell us a bit about your decision to leave Guatemala? How did the risk escalate to the point when you felt this was necessary?

In 2014 the risk really started intensifying. Groups with a vested interest in controlling the courts, were manipulating the lists of candidates to include people without judicial experience and with clear links to organised crime. People who had defended drug traffickers were now listed to be magistrates, while experienced judges were excluded. This was really worrying for us.

At this time, I was part of an institute that promoted transparency, and I targeted by threats of criminal proceedings from major political figures who were trying to discredit me. The threat of sedition charges against me is what really pushed me to leave the country with my family. I only had a few weeks to make this decision and to leave.

You talked before about entering the judiciary as a vocation rather than a professional choice. What was the personal impact of being forced to leave your profession?

I had to end my relationship with the judiciary, which was extremely difficult for me. At first, I took advantage of existing laws protecting the judicial function, which allowed me to get away from my position without losing my career. I was initially allowed to leave the bench without pay for several months, and then finally I was granted the maximum available leave of five years. That leave expired earlier this year, so I had to leave my position.

Despite this personal difficulty and the terrible situation of justice in Guatemala, I still encourage young people who are interested in law to pursue their studies. I would tell them to keep their horizons broad and focus on promoting change in our institutions. I believe that we can all influence our world and our environment, but we must remain ethical. So, if they can maintain their honesty, they will be able to act properly in any context, no matter how complicated.

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