Roxana Baldetti was found guilty of fraud for involvement in a bogus multimillion-dollar scheme to clean up a contaminated lake.
Guatemala’s former vice-president Roxana Baldetti has been jailed for more than 15 years on corruption charges linked to a multimillion-dollar fraud over a bogus scheme to clean up a contaminated lake, thanks to an investigation backed by the UN crime fighting force.
Public prosecutors backed by the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (Cicig) uncovered a criminal network run by Baldetti which conspired to award an $18m government contract to an Israeli company for a clean-up potion that turned out to be sea water.
Tuesday’s verdict was hailed by anti-impunity campaigners battling to save the commission from expulsion by the current president who is fighting impeachment arising from multiple corruption allegations.
President Jimmy Morales argues that his decision to end the commission’s mandate next September was not personally motivated, and used a speech at the UN last month to claim Cicig was a threat to peace.
Morales, who was elected in 2015 on an anti-corruption platform, is facing charges of illegal campaign financing and fraud thanks to investigations backed by Cicig. His brother, son and political party also face corruption charges.
The standoff between the beleaguered president and popular anti-impunity commission has escalated in recent months. Morales has blocked the Cicig chief, Iván Velásquez, from re-entering Guatemala in defiance of court orders ruling the ban unconstitutional.
Velásquez welcomed Baldetti’s verdict on Twitter: “The fight against corruption and impunity IS possible!”
Baldetti, a former beauty queen, was forced to resign in 2015 after a separate Cicig-backed corruption investigation triggered a social uprising and brought down the government of President Otto Pérez Molina, who remains in Mariscal jail awaiting trial.
Cicig does not make arrests or directly prosecute cases – but its joint investigations with local prosecutors have helped uncover 60 criminal networks and bring charges against 680 people including four former presidents, military officers, judges, drug traffickers and entrepreneurs.
Baldetti, 56, is the highest-ranking politician to be sentenced so far. She was sentenced to 15 years and six months by the high risk court in Guatemala City after the judge ruled that she was the “big chief” of the scam and found her guilty of fraud, illicit association and peddling influence.
Prosecutors said that she conspired to grant an $18m contract to the Israel-based company M Tarcic Engineering Ltd, which claimed it could clean up Lake Amatitlán, a popular weekend spot for wealthy Guatemalans which had been contaminated by huge quantities of sewage from the capital.
The company said it would clean the lake within months, but investigators found that the substance they used was merely saltwater and chlorine.
Nine others were jailed, including Baldetti’s brother Mario, who acted as the intermediary between the company and the government. The case had suffered repeated delays thanks to multiple injunctions and appeals filed by the defendants’ lawyers in a phenomenon condemned by international legal experts as “malicious litigation”.
Baldetti faces multiple corruption charges in three other major Cicig-backed cases, which suggest powerful networks involving political, economic, military and criminal elites had infiltrated institutions across the government for financial gain.
Baldetti also faces cocaine trafficking charges in the United States, but cannot be extradited until after serving her sentences at home.
Gabriel Wer, co-founder of the #JusticiaYa social and political movement which led the mass protests in 2015, said: “Ex-vice-president Baldetti has been sentenced for swindling millions from the state. This is a historic ruling, which would not have been possible without Cicig.”