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Fired for Daring to Prosecute Extortion in Rural Guatemala

By: Steve Hecht and David Landau - Jul 23, 2015, 9:06 pm

Editor’s note: you can also read parts one, two, four, five, and six in this series.

Justice Forgone: The Betrayal of Attorney Gilda Aguilar

EspañolWednesday, August 22, 2012, 10 p.m. — On a winding mountain road in the highlands of northwest Guatemala, an auto went speeding through the pitch-black night.

Gilda Aguilar, a prosecuting attorney for Guatemala’s Justice Ministry, was hurrying home to her two teenage daughters. Another attorney, a friend of Gilda’s, was driving; and Samuel Gonzales, a young police officer, was her security.

After repeated threats against her by a heavily armed militia that she was investigating, Gilda had asked for personal protection. Her own ministry had not been responsive. It was the Interior Ministry that had finally stepped up; that very day, it had sent a man to guard her.

The car stopped. A barrier on the road was blocking the way. Through the foggy windshield, the car’s occupants could see a large mound of boulders lit up by the headlights. As the driver backed up the car, shooting began — large-caliber gunfire, crashing into the cabin of the vehicle.

Samuel jumped out and went toward the barrage, firing, while Gilda and the driver fled the car in the opposite direction.

It was rainy, the temperature of the high mountain air below freezing. Gilda, keeping close to the ground, crawled through the underbrush. Samuel was hit, but kept firing.

The attackers stopped firing. Had they left, or were they lying in wait?

Gilda was lightly clad, not having dressed for a swim in the cold grass. Her diabetes kicked in, she struggled for breath, but she wouldn’t call for help; the assassins might hear her and finish her off.

After waiting as long as she could, she used her phone to dial her boss, the district attorney. He answered, took the report, and promised to send help.

Another lifetime seemed to pass.

Those were very difficult moments for me. I felt death quite near. I was sure my guard had died. He thought the two of us were dead in the car.

All at once, police and soldiers were swarming over the scene. They found Samuel with a wound near his groin; while Gilda and her friend were deeply shaken.

Gilda felt sure she knew who had fired on her.

March 2012, Huehuetenango province, northwest Guatemala — The province was beset by turmoil. In the town of Santa Cruz Barillas, a militia attacked the property of a hydroelectric company.

May 1, 2012 — After a local man had been killed, militia gunmen went on a rampage through the province. They attacked an army post, stole munitions, and beat up soldiers. They burned down a local hotel where officials of the hydroelectric company had stayed. They even closed down a local fiesta, proclaiming that as long as suffering went on, no one should rejoice.

The situation was bad enough that the president of Guatemala, Otto Pérez Molina, declared a state of emergency. When a team of Justice Ministry officials investigated, militia members kidnapped them, held them for several hours, and forced them to destroy evidence.

Arrest warrants had been issued against 23 individuals for involvement in the initial attack. Gilda Aguilar, a prosecutor in Huehuetenango, was assigned to execute the warrants. Part of her job was to coordinate with the army force, whose task it was to establish a perimeter. The soldier in command, a colonel, told Gilda that her boss — meaning her ultimate boss, the attorney general — wanted the effort to fail. The statement baffled her.

Gilda’s team arrested two people out of the 23. One of the two, Jaime Leocadio Velázquez, wanted to talk about the militia — the Committee of United Campesinos (CUC). It was the first time that Gilda had heard anything of substance about this group.

Gilda summarized Jaime Leocadio’s statements this way:

The CUC militia forced the campesinos to take part in demonstrations that apparently supported the CUC. I say “apparently,” because in truth the demonstrators were coerced.

According to Jaime Leocadio, each person was paid a hundred quetzales to attend the demonstrations [US$13, a full day’s salary or more]. Anyone who didn’t attend was forced to pay 100 quetzales to the CUC.

Whoever didn’t pay had to contribute “community service.” Whoever didn’t give service was beaten, and was told that his or her children would be barred from attending school.

Such were the penalties for not supporting those organizations which call themselves “human-rights groups.”

This evidence was even more damning than property destruction, arson, theft, or kidnapping. It was coercion on a mass scale — the rule of force over communities, the subversion of individual and family life.

After further investigation, Gilda brought Jaime Locadio before a sitting judge to give his testimony publicly. She also petitioned the judge to issue 10 more arrest warrants for persons associated with the CUC’s activity.

Never did I suppose I would unleash a wave of violence against myself by the chief of the Justice Ministry, Dr. Claudia Paz y Paz.

Huehuetenango, August 2, 2012 — It was those orders of arrest that brought the attorney general and the secretary general of the ministry to our office in Huehuetenango, where they scolded me and demanded an explanation for the warrants.

I wanted the attorney general to understand that I had no political agenda; that I was a prosecutor with an obligation to enforce the law and apply it equally.

With a lot of annoyance, and without knowing the substance of the cases, she and her secretary general told me the warrants were not legal. They said that whatever happened in this investigation, I should have consulted the ministry before taking action.

That, to me, was completely illegal, because we as prosecutors are bound by the law, and whenever a crime is committed we must take action without consulting any higher authority [emphasis hers].

The attorney general and her secretary instructed another prosecutor to get the warrants cancelled, and to have Jaime Leocadio’s testimony declared invalid.

Somewhere in the verbal melee, Paz y Paz told Gilda: “You’ve given me a problem. The high commissioner is asking for explanations.”

“What role does that person have in our Ministry of Justice?” Gilda asked the minister.

“He expects human-rights groups to be treated with consideration,” Paz y Paz said. “In bringing charges against such groups, much care is required.”

Prosecutor Gilda Aguilar sought to make known the coercion behind the militia activity in rural Guatemala. Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz, instead of supporting Aguilar, dismissed her. (<a href="http://www.lavoz.gt/" target="_blank">Liga ProPatria</a>)
Prosecutor Gilda Aguilar sought to make known the coercion behind the militia activity in rural Guatemala. Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz, instead of supporting Aguilar, dismissed her. (Liga ProPatria)

Paz y Paz’s present hosts at Georgetown University might pay special attention to those statements; for in them Paz y Paz reveals the governing structure of the country.

“High commissioner” denotes the same UN officer who had had the prior attorney general thrown out of office, paving the way for this one. A different person was now the high commissioner, but the structure of authority was the same.

One of Paz y Paz’s jobs as attorney general was to oppose illegal state security apparatuses. That was also the job of the UN official, whose “International Commission Against Impunity” had become, by agreement with Guatemala, part of the country’s governance.

Something different was going on. Through Paz y Paz’s ministry, the United Nations was working to impose a topsy-turvy order in Guatemala. The same CUC that Paz y Paz was defending, and some of whose henchmen Gilda Aguilar was trying to prosecute, had in fact been a branch of the EGP, the Guerrilla Army of the Poor, which Paz y Paz’s relatives had joined during the nation’s armed conflict.

To the politically inexperienced but sharply observant prosecutor, the CUC and its protector, the attorney general, had just revealed themselves. The CUC was not a defender of human rights, but a perpetrator against people’s liberty. In effect, it was precisely the sort of illegal state security apparatus that Paz y Paz and the United Nations were supposed to be curbing. Yet here it was, operating freely under Paz y Paz’s protection.

Another of Paz y Paz’s missions in office was to help in the reconstruction of the country. When given an opportunity to rein in a group that was oppressing the country’s most helpless people, the attorney general had gone the other way and spoken for the oppressors.

For Paz y Paz’s international supporters like Georgetown’s directors, a crucial part of her mandate was the defense of women’s rights. But Paz y Paz was a steamroller against Gilda Aguilar from the moment of their August 2 meeting.

On September 3, 2012, in Berkeley, California, Pacifica Radio station KPFA, with an extended seven-minute report, became the first news medium outside Guatemala to break the story (audio below). A Justice Ministry prosecutor had suffered an attempt on her life — and the head of her ministry, the attorney general, had lifted not a finger in her defense.

The saga of Georgetown’s laureate — the purported crusader for justice, human rights, and women’s rights — was just getting started.

Guatemala report on KPFA Radio on September 3, 2012 (seven minutes).
Steve Hecht and David Landau Steve Hecht and David Landau

The authors have worked together in Guatemalan political matters for 20 years. Steve Hecht (pictured), a businessman with two degrees from Columbia University, has lived in Guatemala for more than four decades. David Landau, based in San Francisco, cut his journalistic teeth as managing editor of the Harvard Crimson. He is an expert on Cuba and publisher of Pureplay Press. Follow @shecht6.