Guatemalan Judge Who Exposed Corruption Flees to US After Citing Fears for His Life

Ruano calls his treatment ‘one of the worst moments for justice’ in his country

(Bloomberg) — A Guatemalan judge facing criminal prosecution for exposing a Supreme Court justice’s attempts to influence him fled the country this week  — the latest challenge to a national judicial system plagued by accusations of corruption and political vengeance.

Carlos Ruano, who last month was featured in a Bloomberg Businessweek investigation about increasing US gun exports to Guatemala, said Thursday he was in Virginia and had been granted asylum by American authorities because of fears for his safety in the face of escalating personal threats in his home country. 

The prosecution against Ruano has been led by the Foundation Against Terrorism, a group founded primarily by ex-military members and their families, particularly those who’d been charged with human rights abuses during the country’s civil war. The leaders of that group — known by its Spanish initials, FCT — have been denounced by the US State Department as being corrupt and undemocratic. But since 2019, the group and its allies have effectively seized control of the Public Ministry, which serves as the country’s main prosecutorial body.

“They forced me to resign from my position, and I’ve been harassed and criminalized,” Ruano said in a statement recorded Wednesday and provided to Bloomberg. “I’m at risk of suffering serious, irreparable harm to my life.” 

Ruano has served as a judge for 14 years. As he recounted in the Businessweek investigation, many of the cases he has adjudicated involved firearms. He has criticized Guatemala’s tolerance of gun diversion: the transfer of legally imported firearms into the hands of criminal and corrupt actors. Ruano complained that in the past few years the Public Ministry has stopped investigating such cases, in effect allowing a black-market trade to thrive.

At the same time, the US has approved a massive increase in firearms to Guatemala, part of a historic surge of US-made semiautomatic gun sales to commercial buyers around the globe.  Since the assault-weapons ban ended in 2004, American semiautomatic exports have totaled 3.7 million — more than doubling in the past six years. Shipments to Guatemala alone have more than doubled just since 2020. During that period, the homicide rate in Guatemala — which had been decreasing for 11 straight years — has risen in each of the past three.

The FCT’s case against Ruano stems from 2016, when he reported that Supreme Court Justice Blanca Stallings approached him seeking leniency for her son, who was accused of money laundering and fraud. Ruano recorded the meeting with her, and that evidence cost the justice her job and led to her being sanctioned by the US government. But she was supported by the FCT and the Public Ministry, and last year she was reinstated to the court. Shortly thereafter, the FCT, acting as lead plaintiff, charged Ruano with illegally recording the conversation. If convicted on all five counts, he faced up to 40 years in prison.

Ruano contended that the judicial process — led by the FCT, the Public Ministry and the Supreme Court — was biased against him. He said he believed that he might become the latest Guatemalan official to denounce corruption and then be imprisoned. Four weeks ago, officials with the Public Ministry arrested and jailed Claudia Gonzalez, a former representative of a United Nations-backed anti-corruption task force that had led numerous cases against ex-military figures charged with human rights abuses and other crimes.

In the past three years, more than 20 prosecutors and judges who had targeted human rights abuses and corruption in Guatemala have been forced into exile in the face of legal persecution. As a former sentencing judge, Ruano faced especially dire prospects if he was imprisoned, because he would likely find himself alongside inmates he had put behind bars.Ruano and the other exiled officials have joined hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens who have fled the country. The US National Security Council says Guatemala’s lawlessness is fueling this wave of migrants. Yet the US Commerce Department has helped American gunmakers take advantage of that instability by matching them with gun dealers and others in order to sell more firearms.

The leaders of the FCT have publicly supported the influx of such guns, stating that they believe the country’s citizens are safer when armed. The group also likens itself in social media posts to a band of sharpshooters, using the legal system to target their enemies. The group’s stated goal in the case of Ruano has been to imprison him or force him to leave the country. When the judge announced his resignation, a lawyer for the group who led the prosecution against Ruano re-posted on social media a picture of his face with a large red ‘X’ over it. On Wednesday, the group’s leaders labeled Ruano a “coward” on social media and suggested he should be extradited. 

On Aug. 20, Bernardo Arevalo — a candidate who has supported Ruano and the other legal figures who have been forced into exile — defied early polls and won the presidential election. However, the Public Ministry and the FCT then accused Arevalo’s party of corruption. Earlier this month, prosecutors from the Public Ministry raided the offices of the country’s electoral authority and seized ballots, presumably to gather evidence that might be used to nullify the election result. Arevalo described the raid as a “flagrant abuse of authority,” and the Organization of American States labeled it “a frontal attack on the integrity of the vote and an affront to the popular will.”

In his statement, Ruano called his treatment “one of the worst moments for justice” in Guatemala. “For a judge to report wrongdoing is not a crime.” 

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