Guatemala Attorney General’s office wants to arrest the Colombian Minister of Defense

Guatemala Attorney General’s office seeks the arrest of its former head along with Iván Velásquez Gómez, the current minister of Defense of Colombia. The Special Prosecutor against Impunity accuses the minister of being connected to the Odebrecht corruption scandal.

Colombian Minister of National Defense Iván Velásquez Gómez
Colombian Minister of National Defense Iván Velásquez Gómez on November 2022 during a meeting in Washington with the U.S Secretary of Defense | U.S. Department of Defense

Guatemala Attorney General’s office accused January 16, Iván Velásquez Gómez, the current minister of Defense of Colombia of conspiration and seeks his arrest, causing a diplomatic riff between the two countries.

Asked about the situation with Guatemala after landing in Davos for the World Economic Forum, Colombian President Gustavo Petro stated on Tuesday that Colombia “is not going to allow [Mr Velasquez] to be attacked for what he has done and be persecuted for his fight against impunity or be cornered by those who exercise impunity.” He said he would reject any arrest warrant issued by Guatemala for his minister and added that “if Guatemala insists on putting good men in prison, we have nothing to do with that country.”

For Mr Petro, the attacks against the Colombian minister come from a series of changes that he initiated when he was in Guatemala.

Rafael Curruchiche, the head of the Office of the Special Prosecutor against Impunity, announced that the office approves the arrest of the minister for obstruction of justice, conspiration and abuse of power. He added they will take legal action to hold Mr Velásquez accountable for “his illegal and abusive acts.”

He connects Mr Velásquez to a contract signed by Guatemala in 2017 with Odebrecht, the Brazilian construction company at the core of a massive corruption scandal across Latin America. Businessman Marcelo Bahía Odebrecht admitted in a U.S. Justice Department plea agreement he paid 800 million dollars in bribes to high-ranking officials in a dozen countries in Latin America and Africa in exchange for lucrative public works contracts.

During that time, Mr Velásquez was the commissioner in charge of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) between 2013 and 2017.

The CICIG was an international body created in 2006 in agreement with the United Nations in order to investigate and prosecute serious crimes and corruption in Guatemala. But the former Guatemalan president Jimmy Morales in 2019 unilaterally decided to terminate CICIG’s mandate, alleging it put the security of the nation and the sovereignty of the country at risk.

He declared Mr Velásquez persona non grata in Guatemala and forced him to leave the country. CICIG, along with the former attorney general and head of the public prosecution’s office Thelma Aldana, had begun an investigation against Mr Morales for illicit enrichment. Guatemala has also announced seeking the arrest of Ms Aldana.

In a video posted on Twitter by the attorney general’s office, a series of emails between lawyers who discussed the contract showed Mr Velásquez was aware of the negotiations and therefore approved the signature of the “anomalous” contract. For Mr Curruchiche, this proves he “had full knowledge of the dark and corrupt negotiations that were being carried out with the company Odebrecht.”

Mr Curruchiche is the head of the Office of the Special Prosecutor against Impunity (FECI), a body responsible for investigating corruption. It formerly belonged to the CICIG but has been transferred to the attorney general’s perimeters since the dissolution.

He took the position in August 2021 after the attorney general Maria Consuelo Porras, who succeeded Thelma Aldana in 2018, dismissed Juan Francisco Sandoval. Mr Sandoval is a lawyer decorated by the United States for his work against corruption now in exile, while Consuelo Porras was reappointed attorney general in May 2022 by the current president of Guatemala Alejandro Giammattei, a move perceived negatively by the United States and the European Union.

For Human Rights Watch, Ms Porras weakened the FECI: “Progress on the cases has come to a standstill” compared to the “more than 120 corruption schemes in all three branches of government” exposed by the attorney general’s office from 2007 to 2019. The United States imposed sanctions on Ms Porras for hindering corruption investigations.

In an interview with Plaza Pública in March 2022, Rafael Curruchiche answered critics telling he was a political operator of mafias and the business elite. He responded he “was not interested in what people, institutions, governments think.” He added his mission was to “rescue FECI from all the accusations that have been made [in the past] to bring it back to the field of objectivity, impartiality and legality.”

The Colombian minister of Defense released an official statement on Monday night saying “he has not been notified of any requirement by the Guatemalan authorities,” and assured he was “confident that the work carried out in the Central American country was done with total transparency and within the legal framework that protected the operation of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala.”

The FECI announced two other arrest warrants against the lawyer who represented Oderbrecht and the former secretary general of the public prosecution’s office.

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