The highway was still enveloped in fog as thousands gathered in Guatemala’s western highlands Thursday morning. Paulina González was one of the first to arrive in Los Encuentros, a key juncture along the Pan-American Highway. The local Indigenous Maya Kaqchikel mobilization, which she and a few of her fellow Indigenous Maya Tz’utujil ancestral authorities attended, was one of dozens of protests taking place across the country.
“People can’t take it anymore,” said González. “We have united today to shut things down all over.”
Last week, the ouster of a Guatemalan prosecutor leading embattled efforts against high-level corruption sparked an explosive new chapter in the country’s long-simmering political crisis. The move provoked widespread condemnation, suspension of some U.S. aid, and protests. Heeding calls by Indigenous leaders for a “paro nacional,” or nationwide shutdown, on Thursday, communities and social movements marched, rallied, and blocked roads around the country to demand the president and attorney general resign.
The tipping point came on July 23, when Attorney General María Consuelo Porras fired prosecutor Juan Francisco Sandoval, head of the Special Anti-Impunity Prosecutor’s Bureau, or FECI by its Spanish acronym. In a somewhat ambiguous public statement announcing Sandoval’s termination, Porras’s office referred to bias and disrespect. Sandoval responded with a press conference and laid out detailed allegations that Porras obstructed FECI’s work in order to protect high-level officials, particularly those in the president’s circle, from prosecution for corruption. Porras and President Alejandro Giammattei have both refuted the allegations.
“Today I am the latest in a string of prosecutors who have suffered consequences for seeking truth and justice,” Sandoval said at his press conference last Friday. “History will judge us. The results are there.” Fearing for his safety, he fled the country later that night.
During his three years at the helm of FECI, Sandoval took on presidents, legislators, judges, business leaders, and other powerful figures. FECI worked in tandem with the United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG, to identify, investigate, prosecute, and dismantle complex criminal networks entrenched in state institutions. In 2015, the two entities brought down sitting President Otto Pérez Molina and most of his administration for graft. Two years later, their investigations into then-President Jimmy Morales, who took office in 2016 and replaced Pérez Molina’s interim successor, prompted fierce backlash from the Guatemalan government. Morales deemed CICIG commissioner Iván Velásquez a threat to national security, barred him from the country, and opted not to renew CICIG’s mandate. The commission shut down in 2019, and FECI took over CICIG’s cases. Ever since, Sandoval has been the main target of animosity from current and potential subjects of corruption investigations.
“As Indigenous authorities we are very concerned about corruption,” said Lorenzo Castro, Sololá’s Indigenous mayor, in charge not of the official municipal government but of the area’s autonomous traditional Indigenous governance system. Kaqchikel authorities in Sololá have powerful convening capacity, as do autonomous K’iche authorities in the neighboring department of Totonicapán. Mobilizations along the Pan-American Highway in the two predominantly Indigenous regions were the largest actions in Guatemala on Thursday.
First it was Iván Velásquez and CICIG, and now it is Juan Francisco Sandoval, Castro told The Intercept at the protest in La Cuchilla, a village two miles from Los Encuentros at another key turn-off of the Pan-American Highway. Throughout the day, he and other Sololá Indigenous authorities moved between the various protest points in their territory to monitor conditions and coordinate with community-level mayors. The removal of Sandoval was the removal of a remaining hope, they said. “The situation is critical,” said Indigenous vice mayor Pedro Vásquez.
“Who would not be angry? They took our last defender away,” Tomás Saloj, a former Indigenous mayor of Sololá, told The Intercept in La Cuchilla, where protesters were taking cover under plastic sheets, umbrellas, and trees as the rain picked up. “We need to understand the situation we are facing. Now there is nothing. And if we leave things as they are, if we ignore it, imagine what they could do. What would become of Guatemala?”
Sandoval’s ouster sparked not only national outrage but also international condemnation. The most concrete response to date has been that of the U.S. government, which announced the temporary suspension of cooperation with the Guatemalan Public Prosecutor’s Office while it conducts a review. The removal of Sandoval “fits a pattern of behavior that indicates a lack of commitment to the rule of law and independent judicial and prosecutorial processes,” State Department deputy spokesperson Jalina Porter told reporters at a press briefing Tuesday. “As a result, we have lost confidence in the attorney general and their decision — and intention to cooperate with the U.S. Government and fight corruption in good faith.”
“I think the [Guatemalan] government is worried about what will happen,” said Edie Cux, a lawyer and president of the Guatemalan anti-corruption group Acción Ciudadana, noting that on Thursday Porras and Giammattei both attempted to minimize the fallout in written responses to the suspension. The Biden administration had pledged to prioritize anti-corruption efforts in northern Central America as a driver of U.S.-bound migration, as Vice President Kamala Harris highlighted during her first official foreign trip to Guatemala last month.
“On that trip, the United States announced that we will launch an Anticorruption Task Force which will include U.S. prosecutors and law enforcement experts who will investigate corruption cases,” Harris wrote Thursday in a letter concerning U.S. strategy for addressing root causes of migration. Task force plans previously announced by the White House included capacity-building and mentorship for Guatemalan prosecutors from the Departments of Justice, Treasury, and State, with FECI as a key counterpart. The suspension of cooperation puts that work on hold before it even began.
Regardless, the Guatemalan government is probably most concerned with the response of the Guatemalan people, Cux told The Intercept. “I think they are still evaluating how long these kinds of shutdowns, protests, and citizens’ demands will last,” he said. “If the pressure keeps up, I think the government may cede to some extent.”
Along with the resignations of Porras and Giammattei, some communities and organizations are demanding Sandoval’s reinstatement. Legally that would be possible, as the dismissal did not result from the disciplinary process required by law, said Cux. Practically, however, Cux said Sandoval has been the target of powerful groups that exert significant pressure on the government and would be much more willing to sacrifice Porras as attorney general than to accept Sandoval’s reinstatement.
Some communities in remote areas of the Quiché and Alta Verapaz departments had called for two days of protests and maintained their road blockades overnight. While Indigenous authorities and social movements take stock and determine next steps following Thursday’s mass demonstrations, spontaneous local actions will likely continue to take place in several departments of Guatemala. Feliciana Macario, a Maya K’iche human rights leader, took part in a march Thursday in Santa Cruz del Quiché, 22 miles north of Los Encuentros, and she expects protests will continue.
“It is outrageous that decisions are being made just to benefit a few people involved in corruption and also in human rights violations,” said Macario, one of the coordinators of a national coalition that represents victims of Guatemala’s decadeslong internal armed conflict.
As is the case in most Central American countries, U.S. intervention in Guatemala has had far-reaching consequences. A U.S.-backed military coup in 1954 ushered in decades of dictatorships and civil war. An armed conflict between the military and leftist guerrilla forces spanned from 1960 to 1996, leaving an estimated 200,000 people dead and another 45,000 disappeared. More than 80 percent of victims were Maya civilians, and military forces were responsible for more than 90 percent of massacres and other atrocities according to a U.N.-backed truth commission, which concluded that state actors had committed acts of genocide. Domestic courts have since concurred.
Prosecution of conflict-era crimes against humanity is the responsibility of a human rights prosecutor’s bureau, which is separate from FECI. But those efforts would likely be affected by obstruction of FECI’s attempts to prosecute a corruption case involving lawmakers, judges, and defendants who have allegedly all conspired together to stack the country’s top courts. Macario sees the removal of Sandoval as the latest in a series of concerted developments intended to undermine justice. The CICIG shutdown, the closure of peace institutions last year, and the alleged conspiracy to stack courts are all also part of efforts to ensure impunity for past and present crimes, she said.
“It is all a big chain of events. That is why Guatemala is in agony right now,” Macario told The Intercept. “We can only change the course of the country if we all unite.”