FROM EL FARO ENGLISH: Mild Reaction by US to Zamora Sentence in Guatemala

Jun 16, 2023
1:33 PM
Originally published at El Faro English

José Rubén Zamora on June, 14, 2023. (Photo: Johan Ordóñez/El Faro)

Hello. Five journalists from Central American media are nominated for Gabo Awards, one of the continent’s most important journalism prizes. Congratulations to Contracorriente’s Daniel Fonseca, Plaza Pública’s Simone Dalmasso and Eduardo Say and El Faro’s Carlos Barrera and Carlos Martínez.  It’s a sign of hope given the circumstances of the free press in our region. And the focus of this newsletter.

This edition of El Faro English was written by Nelson Rauda, with reports from Julie López from the courtroom, and edited by José Luis Sanz.

Guatemala, in Brief: Guatemalan journalist José Rubén Zamora was convicted to six years of prison for money laundering this Wednesday in Guatemala. It’s the outcome of a tilted process where Zamora never appeared to have a chance. elPeriódico, the independent newspaper he founded 27 years ago, was forced to close one month ago.

Zamora was also ordered to pay a $40,000 fine for a money laundering charge, after a severely irregular process that the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA) called “legal and judicial harassment to discourage journalistic investigation.” Former prosecutor Samari Gómez, who was on trial with Zamora, was acquitted of leaking classified information in connection with other two charges against the journalist: influence peddling and blackmail. He was acquitted of those.

Both the defendant and the prosecution said they will appeal the decision.

The outcome could have been worse. The Attorney General’s Office had asked for a conviction of 40 years against Zamora, something the IAPA called “an act of intimidation against all Guatemalan journalism.” The trial had already caused the financial ruin and closure of elPeriódico, Guatemala’s most relevant investigative journal.

The money laundering trial was officially not a freedom of expression case, but right after the sentence was read, Rafael Curruchiche, head of the Especial Prosecution Against Impunity (FECI) charged against Zamora’s work: “He directed [a newspaper] where they insulted, belittled prosecutors, judges and other officials. The court’s decision carries this message,” he said. Then he stammered when a reporter recalled to him that  Zamora was not on trial for any crimes against honor.

Zamora’s reasons for appealing the decision have been much more apparent. He prepared a 19-page handwritten statement for his right to the final say. The presiding judge prevented him from reading it, prompted by petitions of the prosecution, but he still managed to sum up how he felt “all of his rights” were violated in the process. “They rejected all of the evidence I introduced. I went through nine lawyers: four were taken to prison, (and) two more went out of the country. Each knew less about my case than the prior,” Zamora said.

Zamora, a constant thorn on politicians’ side with his articles and elPeriódico investigations, was convicted for laundering $40,000 in a complicated affair that Guatemalan prosecution put together in just 72 hours, as we told you in August.

He claimed he obtained the money from businessmen who wanted to fund the operation of the newspaper but demanded anonymity for fear of political retaliation. Then he turned to former banker Ronald García Navarijo —probably a bad call, as the guy has been indicted on money laundering since 2016— and asked him to cut him a check in return for the cash. García Navarijo became the main witness against Zamora.

The court considered that Zamora’s decision to obscure the origin of the funds proved that it was illicit.

The acquittal of Samari Gómez, who at the moment she was detained was, as a prosecutor, in charge of García Navarijo’s cases. After the hearing, Gómez said that she was only charged because the Fundación Contra El Terrorismo (a key actor in prosecuting justice agents in Guatemala) needed a public official to be a plaintiff in the process. She regretted to have been unjustly imprisoned for 10 months.

There was no way Zamora was walking out a free man yesterday. The FECI has also accused him of “obstructing justice” and, in the most recent case, announced just the day before his six-year sentence, charged him with “using false documents to get in and out of the country” claiming that he forged his own signature.

Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression at the OAS, Pedro Vaca, said he was worried about the conviction and recalled that this was the trial that ended elPeriódico.

“Several journalists who have covered the trial are being investigated. Reports of fear and self-censorship in Guatemalan press come daily,” Vaca said.

U.S. Plays Good Cop, Bad Cop

Zamora’s conviction happens only 11 days before Guatemalans vote for a new president and the irregularities and abuses on his trial extend to the electoral process. After all, three presidential candidates who polled well —TikTok phenomenon Carlos Pineda, Indigenous leader Thelma Cabrera and elite mutineer Roberto Arzú— were disqualified. With versions that even the President has interfered in different parties’ primaries for Congress, the doubts about fairness have reached a peak.

Guatemala is also a country that has seen in the last years an exile of their most prominent fighters against corruption, like former Attorney Generals Thelma Aldana or Claudia Paz, judge Miguel Ángel Gálvez, or lead prosecutors like Juan Francisco Sandoval.

An AP story in March said that 30 justice operators, human rights activists and journalists have fled the country since the start of Giammatei’s government in 2020. Commenting on Zamora’s trial, Juan Pappier, acting deputy director of Human Rights Watch, said: “The objective was not to investigate a bank transaction but discipline journalism and private actors who support the press. The objective is silence and impunity.”

Yet, the main international actors seem to walk on eggshells on the matter of Guatemala. After Zamora’s sentence, Brian A. Nichols, Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, stated that “This verdict threatens independent journalism and freedom of expression in Guatemala.”

But a day before Zamora’s conviction, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris spoke with President Alejandro Giammattei.

They did not talk about lawfare, or the rule of law, according to a readout distributed by the White House. Zamora’s name wasn’t mentioned, according to the readout. They talked about “Offices of Safe Mobility,” a rebranding of Trump’s “Third Safe Country” agreement that seeks immigrants to remain in places like Guatemala, away from the U.S. border, and then file a form online to be evaluated for “the possibility of an entryway to the United States.”

On the election issue, not a word of worry: “The Vice President re-affirmed the Biden-Harris Administration’s support for free, fair, inclusive and peaceful elections and a transparent electoral process.”

That’s it from us today. We will bring you full coverage of the Guatemalan elections next week. Be sure to follow us on social media and pass this along to someone you think would be interested.