Guatemala’s crusading prosecutor exits amid praise, threats

Thelma Aldana
The Associated Press

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — It’s been a long time since it was safe for Thelma Aldana to go out in public alone, and perhaps it never will be again.

As chief prosecutor for Guatemala, Aldana won plaudits at home and abroad as the woman who sent a president to prison and broke up a number of high-level corruption rings. But it came at a cost — her own personal safety — as her crusading angered some of the country’s most powerful and dangerous people, long accustomed to doing as they pleased with little or no consequences.

The biggest trophy on her wall from four years in office: Taking down a network allegedly led by then-President Otto Perez Molina, who is accused of defrauding the state of millions of dollars.

“In the Bible it says you shall know them by their fruits, and I gave my best effort,” Aldana said in a series of interviews with The Associated Press as she prepares to leave office when her term ends this month. “With all modesty, I leave with my head high.”

Those close to her call the 62-year-old Aldana “the boss.” She is described as a strictly punctual person and a voracious reader. Appearing before news cameras to announce the latest corruption ring to fall, she typically appears calm, collected and intrepid. Her facial expression is often tough and inscrutable, making it difficult to guess what she is thinking.

It seems the only one able to crack that demeanor is Toby, her 5-year-old Shih Tzu. Speaking to the AP in a small room at her offices decorated with recognitions where she likes to receive visitors, Aldana broke into a broad smile recalling how when she brings work home, Toby likes to rest in the cardboard box she uses to carry the same documents that could end up putting criminals and politicians behind bars.

Aldana’s long path to becoming Guatemala’s top prosecutor began in 1981 as a low-level judicial counselor and progressed through a number of posts — including Supreme Court president in 2011. She holds a master’s degree in civil law and another pending that is related to women’s rights and gender issues.

Perez Molina tapped her to be chief prosecutor in 2014, replacing Claudia Paz y Paz, who was the first woman to hold the job and who also angered influential interests and received threats for aggressively prosecuting corruption and human rights abuses dating to Guatemala’s 1960-1990 civil war.

Perez Molina, who had been a powerful general in one of the region’s most feared armies during the conflict, likely never imagined that his downfall would come not on the battlefield but in a courtroom and at the hands of a woman he himself selected.

Indeed, at the time many Guatemalans also thought it improbable that Aldana would investigate suspicions of corruption on the part of the man who picked her for the post.

Ivan Velasquez, a Colombian lawyer, heads a U.N.-sponsored anti-corruption commission that has been a key partner with Aldana’s office in investigating corruption cases and bringing them to trial.

Velasquez told the AP that trust did not come immediately between him and Aldana, but over time they developed a close working relationship where they were able to reconcile differences and reach consensus. What cemented his confidence was when she didn’t shy from going after Perez Molina.

Aldana did not hesitate at “a very critical moment,” Velasquez said, praising her strength and valor in the job.

Perez Molina, who denies wrongdoing, is currently behind bars along with his then vice president and others from his inner circle.

In 2017 alone, Aldana’s office won 9,358 convictions. She has also made great strides in clearing what has been a crushing backlog: In 2014 prosecutors had 1,280,378 unresolved cases. Today that has been reduced by over half.

Last year, Time magazine named her one of the world’s most influential people, along with the likes of NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, Academy Award-winning actor Viola Davis and Brazilian soccer star Neymar. She was named a recipient of the U.S. State Department’s 2016 International Women of Courage Award. But her personal favorite among dozens of other recognitions is a wand of authority presented to her by indigenous Guatemalan leaders.

The work has been far from glamorous — more of a slow slog, she says.

“Fighting corruption is a process, and it is not easy,” Aldana said.

Aldana said the last four years had been by far the toughest of the 37 she has spent working in Guatemala’s judicial system.

One of the hardest moments came when current President Jimmy Morales, whom she and Velasquez sought to investigate on suspicion of illegal campaign financing, seemed ready to expel Velasquez from the country. Aldana rallied to her colleague’s defense.

“I announced that if he left, I would resign,” Aldana recalled.

Along the way there have been numerous death threats, harassment and attempts to sully her character. In 2016 government officials confirmed that a criminal group had paid for a hit on Aldana that was never carried out.

Today she lives under protective measures provided by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and has been forced to abandon the routines of daily life.

“I practically do not go to public places and I cannot walk in the street. I always have to be accompanied by a security team,” Aldana said. “My way of life changed drastically. … We have investigated powerful criminal structures, and as a consequence I must behave with great caution.”

She added that she worries about safety after she leaves office, saying, “It will be the responsibility of the Guatemalan state to protect my life, and that of my family.”

Though the law did not bar Aldana from seeking a new term as prosecutor, she said she decided against it for security concerns and because she was convinced Morales would never have agreed for her to continue.

On Thursday, Morales selected career jurist and Constitutional Court alternate magistrate Maria Consuelo Porras to replace Aldana effective May 17. Some civil society groups have expressed concern over Porras’ military ties, but institutions such as the U.N. commission and the Human Rights Prosecutor’s Office asked Guatemalans to give her the benefit of the doubt. At a news conference, Porras promised to work with the U.N. body.

Asked how she wants to be remembered, Aldana expressed pride over spearheading efforts to raise national attention to violence against women and said she hopes she has proved to Guatemalans that an independent prosecutor’s office is possible.

“It is a precious commodity,” she said.

She confessed she feels she owes a debt to her family and hopes to make up for lost time with her two children, ages 21 and 24. In retirement, “the boss” hopes to become a professor, drawing on her career experience to teach a new generation about prosecuting crime and corruption.

For now, Aldana has a more personal wish: To take in, on TV and in real time, the entirety of this summer’s World Cup, something that until now has been impossible due to the demands of office.

“I have always had to watch it at night, delayed. But now I have a desire to watch it live.” she said. “After that I will see what to do with my professional life.”

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