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Guatemala: “Corruption of the justice system is an open secret”

Juan Francisco Sandoval Díaz

In his struggle for transparency and justice in Guatemala, Juan Francisco Sandoval Díaz has faced numerous attacks from corrupted politics and businessmen. Banned from speaking in the media, the head of the office of the Special Prosecutor against Impunity fled Guatemala with four arrest warrants.

Why did you choose law as a profession, and how did you come to be a prosecutor?

I wanted to study history and become a high school teacher, but my brother advised me to study law and enrolled me in a course at the University of San Carlos law school. As the course progressed, I really started liking it.

At the beginning, my main motivations were to be someone in society, to have a reputation and a profession, and to get a university-level education.

I was selected for an internship at the Public Ministry. That is how I came to the institution, in 2003, and again, once I got to know the work, I really liked it.

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

Corruption of the justice system is an open secret in Guatemala. The common perception here is that the judge is corrupt, the prosecutor is corrupt, and the police officer is corrupt.

When I arrived at the Attorney General’s office, I started to learn more about how corruption works in the judicial system. There were many rumours linking colleagues to organised crime, for example, and a lot of talk about judges negotiating with lawyers to favour their clients in specific judgments. Judges and magistrates began to alert us about these issues, and our own investigations revealed the existence of networks of lawyers and judges through which judgments could be bought. All this showed us how the judicial system in Guatemala is designed to protect those in power.

How did you manage to continue doing your job?

I believed that the judicial system had the potential to make positive changes for society. Even though I knew that judges were predisposed to solve a case in a certain direction, we would still present my case and try to win.

An example is the trial of former President Alfonso Portillo. He was acquitted by majority, and I later found out that one of the judges who was part of that majority had connections with a defence lawyer. I also knew that a judge in a later court for this case was corrupt, but I still had to present my case to that judge. Regardless of personal and professional conviction, I had to use the legal tools available to try to survive in this judicial system.

What were the personal consequences of this independent work that you did at the Prosecutor's Office?

I have been attacked by politicians and businessmen from the Guatemalan oligarchy. My investigations have established that as well as being users of a corrupt judicial system, they are also its creators.

I was prevented from sharing information with the media on specific cases, and an arrest warrant was issued against me regarding communications with the media. The motivation was to intimidate journalists and media outlets. Freedom of expression in Guatemala is constantly under attack.

The attacks of the political class escalated to the level of the Attorney General herself, who pronounced my dismissal. Several of my colleagues have been detained and prosecuted and I know of at least four arrest warrants issued against me since I left Guatemala in July 2021.

Given your experience and the current situation in Guatemala, what advice would you give to those who want to study law and work in public institutions?

Law is a blessed profession full of opportunities for professional growth, and you can find your place in many areas: in the public or private sphere, in public institutions, and in an independent practice.

The most important consideration is your reputation, because when you work against corruption, that is what they will try to destroy. You might ask how I can talk about reputation when I have four outstanding arrest warrants! But nobody can say that I took bribes or did anything that violated the law. They can keep trying to invent fictitious reasons to question my credibility, but they won’t succeed. So, to those considering entering the law, I would say that the most important thing is to always fight to preserve your reputation.

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