GUATEMALA CITY — Three female judges in Guatemala have emerged as critical figures in the fight for the rule of law in a justice system seen as under attack by powerful interests.
Judges Erika Aifán, Gloria Porras and Yassmín Barrios Aguilar have all decided high-profile cases, drawing harassment, attacks and many attempts to remove them from the bench. The Inter-American Court on Human Rights has ordered special protection for all three.
The work of individual judges has only become more important since the 2019 demise of the United Nations-backed anti-corruption mission that supported the dismantling of major corruption networks and important prosecutions.
On Monday, Erika Aifán, a judge from Guatemala’s High-Risk Criminal Court, was awarded the U.S. State Department’s International Women of Courage Award.
“Despite the strong opposition she has faced throughout her tenure, Judge Aifan has become an icon in Guatemala in the fight against corruption, efforts to increase transparency, and actions to improve independence in the justice sector,” the U.S. government said in a statement.
But it has come at a cost.
Aifán has had complaints filed against her for her decisions 22 times. She decides cases involving powerful businessmen and politicians, corrupt judges, as well drug traffickers.
“I’m a human being and I can make mistakes, but I try to give my best effort and do the best I can because I know that this position represents the voice of many women and that hope for change for a better country,” Aifán said.
One high-profile case in Aifán’s court against businessman and political Gustavo Alejos has drawn constant harassment for the judge. Among other things, he is charged with trying to manipulate the selection of judges for the Supreme Court. Two workers in her court have even been reported for taking or losing pieces of evidence apparently in order to disrupt the proceedings.
But rather than being sanctioned, the two court workers were promoted by the Supreme Court.
Gloria Porras just won re-election for another five-year term on Guatemala’s highest court, the Constitutional Court. She has already served a decade on the court, where she is currently its president. She has had 60 complaints filed against her and has faced 13 requests to lift her immunity so she could be prosecuted.
On Monday, Guatemala’s Supreme Court sent another request to strip Porras of her immunity to the Congress. This time it came from a group of lawyers who receive funding from the Congress. The issue was a verdict that favored Sweden’s ambassador when former President Jimmy Morales tried to expel the ambassador for supporting the U.N. anti-corruption mission.
“In spite of the attempts to damage my independence, I feel free to look for, analyze and resolve the cases,” Porras said. “The decisions taken in a verdict cannot be criminalized.”
Among her decisions, Porras voted to stop a proposal by Congress to reform Guatemala’s national reconciliation law that sought to provide amnesty for crimes against humanity. She also voted to block a proposed law that would have left the prosecutor’s office out of cases and allowed judges to negotiate charges directly with the accused.
The costs to Aifán and Porras go beyond harassment. Both have had to hire lawyers and devote time to defending themselves from attempts to remove them.
Claudia Escobar, a former appellate court judge in Guatemala, knows the sacrifice the judges are making. Without support from the Supreme Court when she was attacked, she had to leave Guatemala in 2015.
“I admire those judge a lot, the personal cost they assume and that they do it with principles,” she said. “The rule of law has been deteriorating.”
In 2001, one day before Barrios was to start the trial of three soldiers accused of the 1998 murder of Bishop Juan José Gerardi, two grenades were tossed at her house. No one was wounded.
More than a decade later, Barrios decided the genocide case of dictator Efraín Ríos Montt. Her ruling lasted 10 days before it was overturned by a higher court that included some magistrates sympathetic to Ríos Montt.
Since that case judicial authorities simply don’t send Barrios cases, even though she is still a judge.
Ovidio Orellana, president of Guatemala’s Bar Association, said these “judges are an example ... they can’t give in to any pressure or attack in the form or way they decide, but rather maintain the calling of a judge and adjust to the legal mandate.”
The judges’ critics suggest they aren’t following the law.
José Quezada, a former president of the Supreme Court, now a lawyer representing corporations, said politics enters their decisions.
“They don’t apply the law as they should and less so the Constitution,” he said of Aifán and Porras, mentioning illegal campaign finance cases that have gone before Aifán.
Escobar, the former judge, said the lives of those three is a sample of what judges go through in Guatemala. “Emotionally, it has a lot of value for them to continue their work despite the attacks,” she said.
“I’m sure that the majority of judges are honest people who want to do their work well, but sometimes it’s easier to look the other way because the risks are there and are evident,” she said.