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How a Guatemalan businessman brought a judge to justice

Acción Ciudadana

Javier Muñoz*, a small businessman from the town of Amatitlán in Guatemala, fought long and hard to bring a gang of extortionists to justice only to see his efforts frustrated by the misconduct of a judge. His struggle is a small but significant contribution to making rogue judges in Guatemala face the consequences of their actions.

On 8 March 2017, a note was delivered to the internet café run by Mr Muñoz. It ordered him to begin paying protection money of 8,000 quetzales (US$1,057) a month, starting from the end of the month. “If I didn’t, they would kill my wife, my family, me obviously and my workers,” said Mr. Muñoz, “the person who brought the note showed they knew my daily routine and where I lived.” This kind of extortion is frighteningly common in many Guatemalan towns and cities — during 2017, the number of official complaints about extortion was 44 for every 100,000 inhabitants, according to the Diálogos research group.

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Entrapment fails

Mr. Muñoz reported the attempt at extortion to the public prosecutor in the neighbouring city of Villa Nueva and the police began investigating. They encouraged him to set a trap by leaving the payment in a rubbish bin near his premises for the extortionists to collect. But on the agreed day the policeman did not turn up and the operation was aborted. A few hours later, another note arrived announcing the protection money had now gone up to 10,000 quetzales (US$1,327) and was due in two days’ time. “If not, they said they would blow up the premises with a grenade and if anyone inside got blown up too that was not their problem,” said Mr. Muñoz.

A new police agent was assigned to the investigation and on 2 April 2017, the extortionist was caught red-handed trying to collect payment. As well as being a gang member, he turned out to be a client of the internet café. An initial hearing was held and the suspect placed in custody awaiting trial.

Threats and upheaval

The following months took a heavy toll on Mr. Muñoz and his family. Their plans to open a second business were put on hold and relatives urged them to leave the country. “But it is hard to start all over again, especially when you are someone who loves your country and are here fighting to make things better,” said Mr. Muñoz. The threats kept coming and, fearing for their safety, he and his wife spent the next months hardly leaving the house. During this time his income dropped by around 60 per cent. Mr. Muñoz began taking medication to help himself sleep and his wife became chronically depressed and started seeing a psychiatrist. In October 2017, she left for Colombia where she now lives. “So here I am living alone. It has turned my life upside down,” said Mr. Muñoz.

Two weeks later on 14 November the trial began. Mr. Muñoz attended the first session wearing dark glasses and a hat and using a false name to protect his identity. Much to his dismay, the judge Edwin Raymundo Cabrera obliged him to remove the disguise and reveal his real name and other personal information to members of the gang present in the court room. He then questioned the veracity of evidence and finally dismissed the case and set the alleged extortionist free.

Mr. Muñoz turned to Transparency International’s Guatemalan chapter Acción Ciudadana for help.

Record of misconduct

With support from Acción Ciudadana’s Advocacy and Legal Advice Centre, Mr. Muñoz filed a complaint about the judge to Guatemala’s judicial supervisory board, who eventually agreed to look into his behaviour. The board found the judge had committed serious misconduct by putting the safety of someone under special protection at risk and ruled he should be suspended for 30 days without pay. At the same time, with the help of journalists, Acción Ciudadana discovered that 16 or more official complaints had already been made about the same judge including violating the anonymity of witnesses, abuse of authority and irregular procedures.

With this evidence in hand, Acción Ciudadana and Mr. Muñoz are now attempting to have the judge declared unfit and have him sacked from his job.

Many Guatemalans have little faith in the integrity of their justice system. Currently, 44 per cent believe that most or all judges and magistrates are corrupt, higher than the regional average of 42 per cent. This is according to the latest Global Corruption Barometer — Latin America and the Caribbean, which asked more than 17,000 citizens in 18 countries across the region about their perceptions and day-to-day experiences of corruption.

“We often receive complaints about the justice system. The conditions for people to be able to report crimes such as extortion do not exist and, if people do declare these crimes, the measures to protect them are often disregarded,” said Edie Cux, president of Acción Ciudadana.

*Name has been changed

Transparency International’s Advocacy and Legal Advice Centres (ALACs) provide free and confidential legal advice to witnesses and victims of corruption. With more than 100 offices in over 60 countries, ALACs provide an accessible, effective way for people to report corruption and demand action.

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This article was written as part of the Global Corruption Barometer 2019 — Latin America and the Caribbean.

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