When I last saw José Rubén Zamora, the owner and director of Guatemala’s leading investigative newspaper, elPeriódico, in early June, he told me he suspected that the government was cooking up a case against him. His fears were not unfounded.
Seven weeks later, the government came for him. On the night of July 29, Guatemalan authorities raided his house as well as the newspaper’s headquarters. Some staff members were detained by the authorities for over 16 hours. Mr. Zamora was placed under arrest and taken to the Mariscal Zavala military prison. Then, over the weekend the newspaper’s bank accounts were frozen, which means he cannot even pay his staff.
Mr. Zamora’s plight appears to be part of a crackdown by President Alejandro Giammattei of Guatemala on anti-corruption institutions and voices in the judicial system. Journalists or media outlets that investigate or criticize the government have increasingly been targeted for their reporting.
Guatemalans are warning that his arrest marks a significant escalation of the government’s assault on democratic values. The United States is the country’s most powerful ally, economic supporter and trading partner outside Central America. Many Guatemalans say they are frustrated that the Biden administration hasn’t had a more forceful response to the country’s slide into authoritarianism.
The situation wasn’t always so dire. Until recently Guatemala’s justice system stood as a beacon of hope in a region awash in authoritarian rule and state corruption. Beginning in 2006, the United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, known as CICIG, which comprises international and national prosecutors and works with the country’s public prosecutor, exposed crime groups embedded in government and brought charges against nearly 700 people, including the former president Otto Pérez Molina.
CICIG received most of its funding from the United States and had full bipartisan support. But in 2018, Guatemalan politicians and business interests hired U.S. lobbyists to influence Republican lawmakers. The strategy paid off. That year, Senator Marco Rubio blocked funding to the commission, citing unsubstantiated claims that the Russian government had penetrated the commission.
Mr. Rubio claimed he was defending Guatemalan sovereignty from foreign interference. Yet a 2017 poll found that 70 percent of Guatemalans approved of the commission. As U.S. support and funding evaporated, Guatemala’s president at the time, Jimmy Morales, who himself had fallen under CICIG’s scrutiny, shuttered and expelled the anti-corruption body from the country. The Trump administration had a muted response.
The Biden administration promised to re-engage in the fight against corruption in Guatemala and has been vocal in supporting those leading the effort. But the judges and prosecutors the United States has tried to protect are usually those who have fled the country. Under the Morales and Giammattei governments some 24 Guatemalan anti-corruption judges and prosecutors have been forced into exile and about half as many have been jailed in Guatemala or await trial.
Guatemala’s narco-kleptocracy has perfected a closed electoral system that rewards and empowers corrupt candidates and parties. Under Presidents Giammattei and Morales, Attorney General María Consuelo Porras, considered a “corrupt and anti-democratic actor” by the United States, has blocked corruption investigations and weaponized the justice system against judicial officers.
The Guatemalan media, with at least a dozen independent print, radio and digital outlets, has been a defiant defender of democratic values. So it seemed inevitable that after hollowing out Guatemala’s justice system, Mr. Giammattei and Ms. Porras would set their sights on the country’s pugnacious free press.
Rafael Curruchiche, the chief of the Public Ministry’s Office of the Special Prosecutor Against Impunity — who is also on the U.S. State Department list of corrupt officials, and is cited specifically for making “spurious” accusations against prosecutors and attorneys — told news outlets that Mr. Zamora’s arrest “is not related to his activity as a journalist”, and that he is charged with money laundering and extortion.
Mr. Zamora says he is “a political prisoner” and the victim of an “orchestrated case by the president and attorney general”.
It is clear that Mr. Zamora’s arrest is part of a broader government pattern of singling out and attacking journalists for their work. Last October, the home of the reporter Juan Bautista Xol was raided by soldiers and the police. In March, another prominent journalist, Juan Luis Font, fled the country amid accusations of money laundering.
A survey by the Guatemalan Press Association published this year found that since Mr. Giammattei took office in 2020 the government had carried out 350 attacks against the press. As of July at least five Guatemalan journalists have gone into exile in the wake of criminal charges similar to those brought against Mr. Zamora, while others are facing similar charges.
Since a C.I.A.-backed coup in 1954 ended Guatemala’s only decade of democratic rule, the United States has intervened and meddled in the country’s politics and supported the military dictatorships that plunged the country into a three-decades-long internal war that devastated Guatemalan society. The country is among the most unequal in the world, despite having the region’s largest economy. The Trump administration’s complicity in CICIG’s expulsion led to the dismantling of Guatemala’s anti-corruption justice institutions, and to its slide into authoritarianism.
But the Biden administration owes the defenders of Guatemala’s democracy more than tweets and lists of corrupt officials. It can and should speak forcefully and act strongly in defense of the country’s democracy. The United States could withhold economic and military aid unless the Guatemalan government shows that it’s not using the justice system as a tool for political persecution and does not interfere in free and competitive elections.
From here in Latin America, it can be hard to tell what, if anything, the United States believes in strongly enough to raise its voice in defense of those who are being silenced. No one should hold his or her breath that the military and economic powers behind Mr. Giammattei will be swayed. But as the Guatemalan opposition and civil society gear up for protest and resistance this week, they need to know that the United States will actively support them.
On Monday, Mr. Zamora’s arraignment hearing went well into the night. Riot police officers, some of them in black balaclavas, surrounded him in a show of force more appropriate for a hearing in the trial of a major narco capo. Human rights observers were barred from the courtroom. However, the press was allowed in, along with extreme right internet trolls from the Foundation Against Terrorism, who support the Giammattei government. Mr. Zamora insists the money the government accuses him of laundering was a loan to keep his newspaper afloat. If only we could feel confident that the truth will be enough to set him free.
Francisco Goldman, a novelist and journalist, is the author, most recently, of the book, Monkey Boy, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.