Guatemala arrests former first lady for corruption

AP, GUATEMALA CITY

Wed, Sep 04, 2019 - Page 7

Former Guatemalan first lady and presidential runner-up Sandra Torres was on Monday arrested on charges of campaign finance violations, the latest high-profile political figure to face allegations of malfeasance even as a UN anti-graft commission is set to shut down.

Investigators searched Torres’ Guatemala City home in the morning and transported her to court, handcuffed, with her face obscured by a scarf, a hood and dark glasses.

She told journalists she was the victim of a political vendetta.

Prosecutors said she is accused of unregistered electoral financing and illicit association related to the 2015 election and the National Unity of Hope party, of which she was both candidate and general secretary.

According to investigators, the party did not properly register about US$3.6 million in financing for her campaign.

The investigation found that several businesses financed the party through the payment of commissions, diversion of funds and bribes to various public and private institutions.

Torres’ vice presidential running mate from 2015, Mario Leal Castillo, is also wanted in the case and is considered a fugitive from justice.

Torres, 63, finished second in both the 2015 and this year’s presidential elections, to outgoing Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales and Guatemalan president-elect Alejandro Giammattei respectively.

Giammattei is to take office in January next year.

“Everything is political, and you should ask Dr Giammattei why he said he would not rest easy until he puts me in prison,” Torres said at the court. “Go ask him. It is a political persecution.”

The judge set a hearing for Friday, and Torres was sent to a center for provisional detention, despite her lawyers’ appeal that she be sent to a private hospital.

“There could be a risk of flight and obstruction of justice,” Judge Claudette Dominguez said.

The Mariscal Zavala detention center is in a military base and has been referred to by some as a VIP prison, with dozens of other former officials, judges and politicians, including former Guatemalan president Otto Perez Molina, among those in custody.

The National Unity of Hope party also criticized Torres’ arrest.

“We reject the disproportionate and unnecessary measure taken against Sandra Torres,” it said on Twitter.

Party official Eduardo Velasquez said Torres had previously handed over her passport in assurance that she would not leave the country.

The investigation targeting Torres was presented earlier this year by prosecutors and the UN commission, known as CICIG for its initials in Spanish.

However, as a presidential candidate, Torres enjoyed immunity from criminal prosecution just as elected officials do. That protection ended once Giammattei’s election was officially certified last month.

CICIG, which for 12 years has helped press high-profile graft investigations that ensnared many of Guatemala’s powerful and wealthy, ceased operations yesterday after Morales refused to renew its mandate.

The commission had brought cases against Morales and some of his family members.