The woman who jailed the president
Thelma Aldana is Guatemala’s Fiscal General, the country’s chief prosector or roughly the equivalent of the US Attorney General. Here, she looks out of the window of her office over Guatemala City.
Thelma Aldana is coming to the end of her four-year term as Guatemala’s top public prosecutor. She says the ministry she heads, the Public Ministry, has made unprecedented progress in prosecuting cases against the country’s often-corrupt elite. It was on her watch that the then-president, retired general Otto Perez Molina, was arrested on corruption charges along with his vice president, Roxana Baldetti. Molina has been in detention since their arrest in 2015, and the case, known as La Linea for a telephone line businesses could call to ask officials about reducing their import tariffs, continues. The arrest rocked a country accustomed to high-and low-level rackets operating with impunity.
Martín Rodriguez Pellecer, editor of Nómada
Journalist Martín Rodriguez Pellecer, editor of the online publication Nómada, remembers the day Molina went to jail – a day the streets filled with people. “It was amazing,” he says. The president “was tried as any other citizen.“
“It was amazing for every citizen to realise that the most powerful person in a state could be prosecuted”
But for Aldana, who was instrumental in prosecuting the La Linea case, the moment of triumph for Guatemala’s justice system was mixed with sadness. She had faced criticism for being too close to Molina, and says it was true, she had believed in him and was deeply disappointed when she saw evidence that he had broken the law.
“It made me very sad, very pained, very worried,” she says. “He was president of Guatemala and I have said openly that I voted for him. At the time of the election, I believed very much in him.
“But it was something that we had to confront, and we had to prioritise the law over any feeling, pain or concern.”
Aldana has worked with a UN-led body which investigates high-level criminal cases, the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala – known as CICIG for its Spanish initials. CICIG brought charges against relatives of the current president, Jimmy Morales, last year, and announced it was also investigating the president’s campaign funding. Outraged, Morales and his supporters have petitioned by legal and diplomatic means to have the CICIG’s director, Iván Velásquez, expelled from the country. So far, they have not succeeded, but Aldana worries the progress the country’s justice system has made is precarious and could roll back.
But she adds she does not believe Guatemalans will accept a return to the old ways of endemic impunity.
“They are active,” she says. “They have awakened from a long sleep, a slumber in which they tolerated corruption, and now there’s an acute awareness among the citizens.”
She says there are two Guatemalas, the one that existed before Molina’s arrest in 2015 and the other one after that. “And I think,” she says in a soft, low voice, “that the everyday citizen is not willing to accept corruption any more.”
– Alice Fordham