By Jody García and Pep Balcárcel.
Translated form the original Spanish by Andrew Feldman.
In the defendant’s dock, Roxana Baldetti was restless. She wrote religious prayers on a piece of paper, as well as the names of former allies turned enemies. The woman whose iron will led her to the vice presidency in 2012 had finally been cornered. Though her lawyer, Mario Cano, asserted that the prosecutor’s office (MP, for its initials in Spanish) and the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) had not a single recording in which her voice could be heard, the constant references to Baldetti in the wiretapped conservations along with the rest of the evidence laid out a very compromising situation.
During the 2003, 2007, and 2011 campaigns, Baldetti always came across as a self-assured person. She did not imagine that a few years later her plans for protection would fail and she would be in a courtroom taking slow and nervous breaths while the CICIG and MP presented evidence that linked her with the customs fraud structure called La Línea. When she was a candidate and Congresswoman between 2004 and 2011, the former vice president emphasized her firm opposition to corruption. Transparency was the buzzword of her term in office, even as her administration’s actions were the exact opposite of transparent.
On Monday, August 24, as she sat in the corner of the High Risk Court, dressed in a simple suit and a cream blouse, playing with a pen and constantly glancing over at her lawyer, Baldetti’s promises of fighting corruption were a distant memory. Now she was accused of leading the largest corruption scheme known to date. Yesterday, in the wiretapped phone conversations, it was shown that the political project that she formed in 2004 with Otto Pérez Molina had a different objective than that of practicing politics for the common good. The objective was to hit the jackpot at the expense of the state.
Roxana Baldetti had the chance to make profound changes to Guatemala. She succeeded in becoming the first female Vice President despite the country’s machista society, an impressive political feat. But her obsession with controlling the customs department was stronger than any other drive. In the recordings presented during the hearing, the court heard how “The Lady”, “The Number 2”, “The Big Boss” could on a whim reassign key members of the government in service of that goal. At the same time, she was trying to control the courts and the prosecutor’s office to avoid any eventual prosecution. And she was close to achieving just that.
Close. But this week she was anxious, afraid, acting hesitant in a way never seen when she was the prepotent deputy head of state. Or during her first foray into politics, in 1993, as press secretary for ex-president Jorge Serrano Elías, who attempted to become a dictator through a coup d’etat, “Fujimori style”. Serrano Elías sent censors to the major media outlets, and Baldetti, with her degree in journalism, was the main censor. 22 years from then to now. During the hearing prosecutors played a call from her spokesperson, Karen Cardona, to Salvador Estuardo “Eco” González (member of the structure and then-CEO of the newspaper Siglo 21), in which she asked him not to publish anything about the complaints filed against Baldetti by the local chapter of Transparency International.
But the attempt at censorship would not last long. The truth begins to catch up to Roxana Baldetti. Without handcuffs, but seated in the defendant’s dock, her true face begins to show.
She had long left behind her days growing up in the working-class Primero de Julio neighborhood in Guatemala City’s outer Zone 19. Left behind her family’s debts (and the claims filed to collect them). Left behind the time of alliances with business leaders out of which emerged the Patriot Party. Left behind the populist press conferences demanding the resignation of cabinet members or impeding Congress. Left behind the excesses and cynicism of the time spent in the Presidential Residence, such as when she called the national mental hospital, one of Latin America’s worst, “a super-nice place”. There was the Vice President who resigned on May 8 after massive citizen pressure. There was the ruthless person who took control, through a criminal organization, of the country’s customs operations. There she was writing the Lord’s Prayer on a white sheet of paper with a borrowed pen.
The Baldetti-OPM train and the justice train
That Baldetti was in the dock was not the happenstance result of just another corruption case or just another trial in Guatemala. It is one of the most decisive trials both in the country’s history and for its future.
It began years ago. On June 13, 2002, together with General Otto Pérez Molina and businessman Alejandro Sinibaldi, Baldetti founded the Patriot Party (PP) with three clear objectives: to control the Directorate General of Migration, the Directorate General of Customs, and the ports. Two years later they would become minority partners in the pro-business government of Óscar Berger and would achieve their objectives. Four years later they would be the second largest party in Congress. Eight years later they became the governing party and set up the structure that was La Línea. And 3 years later they formed an alliance with a group of lawyers and with the Líder party – run by Manuel Baldizón – to control the process for selecting judges.
On a different set of tracks, beginning in 2002, human rights and justice organizations were working with the United Nations to create an international commission against impunity and build a functional justice system. Five years later they had convinced two successive governments to lobby for the project and Congress approved the formation of the CICIG in 2007. Two years later they backed the selection of the best set of Supreme Court justices since the return to democracy. And one year later they backed the nomination of Claudia Paz y Paz as Attorney General.
Under the new Supreme Court, Justice César Barrientos took over the Criminal Chamber. Among many decisions, he created the High Risk courts for paradigmatic cases against narcotraffickers, corrupt politicians, and military officials accused of crimes against humanity. And he selected Miguel Ángel Gálvez, one of the most independent judges, as well as Jeannette Valdés and Yassmín Barrios, whose court later convicted Ríos Montt of genocide on May 10, 2013. These courts have additional security measures so that judges can rule based on evidence and law, and not political pressure or death threats. These efforts reduced the impunity rate for crimes against life from 98% to 72%, according to a study from the Myrna Mack Foundation.
Corruption and impunity were winning the battle
But Pérez Molina and Baldetti’s project, the system of corruption and impunity, needed to put an end to these measures. To do so they called up Pérez Molina’s former private secretary, the formidable retired military office Juan de Dios Rodríguez, as their lead operator. Rodríguez was the president of the Social Security Institute and therefore had access to huge monetary resources. So many resources, in fact, that he is currently in prison awaiting trial for a corruption case involving $15 million that caused the deaths of 26 dialysis patients.
The operators of the system of impunity applied so much pressure that they appeared to be winning the battle. This pressure reached such an extreme level that Justice Barrientos killed himself on March 2, 2014, putting a stop to many of the advances in the Criminal Chamber. And those judges on the High Risk courts, Miguel Ángel Gálvez and Yassmín Barrios, thought that their courts would most likely be shut down.
Pérez Molina and Baldetti’s conservative allies managed to reduce Claudia Paz’s term in office and remove her on May 8, 2014, replacing her with Thelma Aldana. Then, on September 2, 2014, together with Baldizón they selected the new Supreme Court of Justice and 120 appeals court judges. And, to round things out, they threatened to shut down the CICIC by not renewing its mandate in April 2015.
But they didn’t expect the new Commissioner of the CICIG, Colombian Iván Velásquez, to investigate cases that went as deep as La Línea, which put them on the defensive and forced them to renew the CICIG’s mandate. And, as a further surprise, they didn’t foresee the coming rebellion of Attorney General Thelma Aldana and 12 of the 13 Justices.
La Señora faces the judge
As a result, on Monday, August 24, 2015, Baldetti was in the defendant’s dock in the High Risk Court. The preliminary hearing was scheduled for 8:30 am on the 14th floor of the central high-rise courthouse. It began with shoves, tension, and dozens of riot police lined up to protect the former Vice President of the Republic. The first of three days in court.
Baldetti, in front of a judge, was thinner, worried, tormented. With no more power than that of any other citizen at a public trial with their defense attorney.
Judge Gálvez asked her to sit in front of him so he could record her personal details. She stated her name, her age, her address, her profession, and general information about her family. After this, the judge explained to her how the criminal process works and how the preliminary hearing would proceed.
Baldetti exhaled and blinked slowly. In a nervous tone but with a clear voice, she greeted the judge and the nine lawyers seated across from her. Four prosecutors, two representatives from the CICIG, the representatives from the solicitor general’s office and the internal revenue agency (SAT).
Before beginning the hearing, a prosecutor mistakenly played a piece by Beethoven through the sound system. Baldetti took advantage of the moment to look everyone in the eye. She joked and laughed with the prosecutors, and this proved to be the only light moment of an otherwise tense day. When investigator Juan Antonio Morales read the first part of the charges against her, the former vice president shook her heard from side to side, looked straight ahead and squinted her eyes. She clearly disapproved of what was being said and mouthed a silent “no”.
Her defense lawyer Mario Cano requested an hour to study the charges and prepare her defense. “We requested access to the case file, more however (sic), the MP only wanted to give us part of it.” The judge denied his request and #MásSinEmbargo (roughly, “more however”) started trending on social media in mockery of Baldetti’s attorney’s rudimentary defense. Baldetti has achieved a degree of unpopularity like few others among the three and a half million Guatemalans with internet access.
Wiretapped recordings frighten Baldetti
Only one moment was more difficult for Baldetti than listening to the judge, and that was listening to the recordings of wiretapped phone conversations presented as part of the evidence. As the MP and the CICIG played the calls for the court, it seemed that Baldetti was about to reach her breaking point.
The prosecutors began to present the evidence. Recordings, Excel spreadsheets and notes in appointment books. “The Lady”, “The Number 2”, “The Big Boss” are some of the code names that, according to the MP and CICIG, La Línea used to refer to Baldetti. The defense presented a number of unconvincing counter-arguments. That “The Number 2” wasn’t her but the second in command of the SAT. That the SAT was autonomous of Baldetti and the presidency.
That argument fell apart when the voice of the president was heard in one of the wiretaps, demanding that the head of the SAT make personnel changes within the agency.
“Ok, tomorrow we start to work internally. So, look, the human resources guy we had talked about in the changes…because, otherwise, this isn’t going to get anywhere, since the union says that they are going to start a boycott and do things, so, before that happens let’s do this right away. Why don’t you want to change the human resources guy? What’s the deal?”
Carlos Muñoz, one of the two heads of the SAT who were arrested, sounds fearful in the conversation, and Pérez Molina exerts complete authority over him, with a tone similar to that in his video message to the nation in which he said he would not resign.
This is just one of the 20 recordings presented in the initial hearing. The MP and the CICIG have more than 88,900.
Pérez Molina’s demands are intimately linked to La Línea. The position of human resources director was key for placing members of the criminal structure within the government. The structure started all the way at the bottom, with the customs agents who receive incoming containers from the ships. La Línea offered businesses the chance to pay lower taxes in exchange for bribes and manipulated tax collection data to avoid being caught. Baldetti and Pérez, according to the CICIG and the MP, received 50% of the bribes that the structure collected.
But they don’t appear to be the only ones implicated in Pérez Molina and Baldetti’s government.
In the office of Eco – one of La Línea’s leaders – the CICIC and MP found documents with notes that appear to refer to a collection taken up for US$3.7 million.
The new document has three names written by hand. “Mindf”, “Mingob” and “Energía y Minas”. The names, in the same order, are Manuel, one that’s illegible, and Eric. Additionally, they already received money from Juan de Dios and “Sipi”.
The investigation details that these correspond to Manuel López Ambrosio, former Minister of Defense; the Minister of the Interior; Erick Archila, former Minister of Energy and Mines; Juan de Dios Rodríguez, former president of Social Security and Alejandro “Sipi” Sinibaldi, former Minister of Communications.
Reporter and economist Quique Godoy tweeted that the document referred to a collection among the ministers of funds to benefit the president.
Judge leans toward believing MP-CICIG over Baldetti
“Why was the President worried about someone from human resources (in the SAT)? Obviously he cares because of his own interests,” was one of the most blunt statements in Judge Gálvez’s reasoning. He questioned Pérez Molina and Baldetti’s interference in the revenue office.
Gálvez continued: “He (the defense attorney) says that Baldetti is not heard (in the wiretaps). And if they mention in a conversation giving Q20,000 to a judge? There are lots of judges. Vice presidents? There are not many of those.”
Judge Gálvez did not only rule that Baldetti must wait behind bars while the MP and the CICIG finish their investigation and the case goes to trial. He also decided that Baldetti will wait behind bars as an ordinary citizen. He ordered the prison bureau to remove her from the special men’s prison at the Matamoros military barracks and transfer her to the Santa Teresa women’s prison, where both a past president of the judicial branch and a past director of the national police have been held.
And, in a stroke of poetic justice, Santa Teresa prison is across the street from the national mental asylum that Baldetti so glibly mocked.