GUATEMALA CITY – Three female judges in Guatemala have emerged as critical figures in the fight for the rule of law in a judicial system under attack by powerful interests.
Judges Erika Aifán, Gloria Porras and Yassmín Barrios Aguilar have all ruled high profile cases, harassment, assaults and many attempts to remove them from the bank. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has ordered special protection for all three.
The work of individual judges has only gained in importance since the end of the United Nations-backed anti-corruption mission in 2019, which supported the dismantling of important corruption networks and important law enforcement activities.
On Monday, Erika Aifán, a judge with the Guatemalan High-Risk Criminal Court, received the US State Department’s International Women of Courage Award.
“Despite the strong opposition she faced during her tenure, Judge Aifan has become an icon in Guatemala in the fight against corruption, efforts to increase transparency and measures to improve independence in the judicial sector,” a US statement said -Government.
But it comes at a price.
Aifán has filed 22 complaints against her about her decisions. It decides on cases involving powerful business people and politicians, corrupt judges and drug traffickers.
“I am human and I can make mistakes, but I try to do my best and do my best because I know this position represents the voice of many women and hopes for change for a better country.” Aifan said.
A high-profile case before Aifán’s court against the businessman and political Gustavo Alejos has constantly harassed the judge. Among other things, he is accused of trying to manipulate the selection of judges for the Supreme Court. It has even been reported that two employees of her court took or lost evidence in order to disrupt the process.
But instead of being sanctioned, the two court clerks were promoted by the Supreme Court.
Gloria Porras has just won re-election for another five-year term in Guatemala’s highest court, the Constitutional Court. She has already served in court for a decade, where she is currently the court’s president. She has filed 60 complaints against herself and made 13 requests to have her immunity waived so that she can be prosecuted.
On Monday, the Guatemalan Supreme Court sent another request to Congress to remove Porras’ immunity. This time it came from a group of lawyers who received financial support from Congress. The problem was a verdict that favored the Swedish ambassador when former President Jimmy Morales tried to expel the ambassador for supporting the United States’ anti-corruption mission.
“Despite attempts to damage my independence, I can find, analyze and solve the cases,” said Porras. “The decisions that are made in a judgment cannot be criminalized.”
Among their decisions, Porras voted to stop a congressional proposal to reform Guatemala’s national reconciliation law, which provided amnesty for crimes against humanity. She also voted to block a bill that would have excluded prosecutors from the cases and allowed judges to negotiate charges directly with the defendant.
The cost of Aifán and Porras goes beyond the harassment. Both had to hire lawyers and invest time to defend themselves against attempts to remove them.
Claudia Escobar, a former judge at the Guatemalan Court of Appeals, knows the sacrifice judges make. Without the support of the Supreme Court when she was attacked, she was forced to leave Guatemala in 2015.
“I admire these judges very much, the personal costs that they pay and that they do it on principle,” she said. “The rule of law has deteriorated.”
In 2001, the day before Barrios was due to begin the trial of three soldiers charged with the 1998 murder of Bishop Juan José Gerardi, two grenades were thrown at her home. Nobody was wounded.
More than a decade later, Barrios decided the genocide case of the dictator Efraín Ríos Montt. Her ruling lasted 10 days before being overturned by a higher court that included some judges sympathetic to Ríos Montt.
In this case, the judicial authorities simply don’t send Barrios cases, even though she is still a judge.
Ovidio Orellana, President of the Guatemala Bar Association, said these “Judges are an example … they cannot give in to pressure or attack in the form or manner they choose, but uphold a judge’s appeal and appeal to them adjust legal mandate. “
The judges’ critics suggest that they fail to obey the law.
José Quezada, a former president of the Supreme Court, now a corporate attorney, said politics makes its decisions.
“They are not applying the law as they should and less the constitution,” he said of Aifán and Porras, citing illegal campaign funding cases that took place before Aifán.
Escobar, the former judge, said these three lives are an example of what judges go through in Guatemala. “Emotionally speaking, it is of great value to them to continue their work despite the attacks,” she said.
“I’m sure the majority of judges are honest people who want to do their job well, but sometimes it’s easier to look the other way because the risks are there and obvious,” she said.