Falling Through the Cracks of Guatemala’s Justice System

Absence of Rule of Law Leads to Zealous Persecution

Guatemala's justice system

The book gives voice to those who fall through the cracks of a system with no equality before the law. (@pareanogt)

Not long ago, I got to know a great woman called Anaité Alvarado. She is a US citizen living in Guatemala with her twin children and her parents.

In 2015, her world fell apart when Guatemalan police showed up at her door and arrested her. Her former husband, Jorge Roberto Montano Pellegrini, fled the country along with his accountant and left her to take the rap for a US$15 million scam that defrauded investors from several countries, including a major US pension fund.

As a result, Anaité had to spend months in jail and face a criminal probe riddled with irregularities for illicit association, illicit enrichment, and money laundering. Her husband is still on the run from both Guatemalan and US authorities.

By the time I met Anaité, I had already started reading her book, Back Where I Belong (to be soon republished as Still Standing: Finding Light Inside a Guatemalan Prison). What initially caught my attention was that she had spent 65 days in one of Guatemala’s worst jails.

I then took the opportunity to know more about her life-changing experience. She made many good friends there, and the book is mostly a diary where she also shares the stories of other inmates.

Justicia … it does not really exist. It is simply something we pretend may be accomplished to make things right, when we fully know that it is impossible.”

Anaité’s account gives voice to those wronged by Guatemala’s legal and prison system. The way that her family, friends, and legal team work to navigate through such an uncertain process makes clear that it takes an enormous collective effort for truth to come to light. Her dedication to improving circumstances in prison, before and after her journey, also speaks volumes for her generous spirit.

You can pre-order the e-book and paperback versions, to be published in August 2018. (Amazon)

The concept of justice may summon images of courts with reasonable judges who apply laws in a fair manner, and the weight of the evidence having the final say in whether someone is guilty or innocent. However, when reading this book you realize that some justice systems are more just than others; Guatemala’s can be intimidating, confusing, and outright absurd.

After Anaité was arrested in September 2015, the only proof prosecutors had of her alleged participation in the scam was that she was married to her husband.

The case first met Judge Jisela Yadel Reinoso Trujillo, who gave prosecutors three months to produce evidence against Anaité, and he told her not to leave the country. Days later, Reinoso herself was arrested and subsequently convicted to 13 years in prison for illicit enrichment, money laundering, and breach of duty.

In January 2016, the new judge ordered Anaité’s incarceration, arguing that she could otherwise tamper with evidence (prosecutors had presented none). She could have been released on bail or house arrest, but my view is that there must have been backroom influence at play, pressuring the judge and authorities on the case.

As the legal team fought for her release, Anaité found a haven in prison, Serigrafía de la Gringa—a silk-screen printing workshop founded by Ashley Williams, a young American who arrived in Guatemala at the age of 18. That is where Anaité went most days to read, get to know other inmates, and teach them English. Crucially, she learned about the injustices that compelled her to write this book.

Anaité’s cousin and her parents set up a Facebook page to keep family and friends posted, and also pressure Guatemalan authorities. While in prison, the prosecutors attempted to negotiate, but Anaité refused. She had a lot to lose, but she did not want to lose her dignity.

On March 11, the judge decided there was not enough evidence to merit a trial. After two months in prison, Anaité was finally able to return home to her children. Despite having been granted an extra six months, Guatemalan prosecutors weren’t able to come up with evidence of any wrongdoing. Eventually, a court ordered the prosecutors to close the case.

Decades of economic and social inequality in Guatemala have led to well-intentioned but misguided calls for increased political activism in the justice system. In recent years, a different kind of corruption, but corruption nonetheless, has taken hold of Guatemala’s institutions. The United Nation’s involvement through the CICIG (International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala) has led to abuses and witch hunts such as the one Anaité had to endure.

Guatemala needs to rebuild her judicial and penitentiary systems from scratch. The international community has a role to play, helping train magistrates and other government employees. However, it must do so respecting the country’s sovereignty and avoiding the creation of incentives that push zealous prosecutors to find scapegoats instead of real criminals.

Ashley Williams is one of my law-school colleagues, a friend of Anaité Alvarado, and the owner of  Serigrafía de la Gringa, a design company that prepares custom-made shirts.

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