U.S. Sanctions Guatemalan Officials in Corruption Crackdown

On Monday, April 26th, the United States (U.S.) imposed sanctions on current and former Guatemalan officials over alleged corruption activity within the country. The sanctions specifically target Felipe Alejos Lorenzana, an elected delegate in Guatemala’s Congress, and Gustavo Adolfo Alejos Cambara, the former Chief of Staff for the Alvaro Colom presidential administration, which held power between 2008 and 2012.

In a press release, the U.S. Department of Treasury said it had blacklisted the two officials over their alleged interference to undermine anti-corruption efforts in Guatemala. Particularly, both Lorenzana and Cambara reportedly sought to influence the judicial selection process for appointing magistrates to Guatemala’s Supreme Court of Justice (CSJ) and Court of Appeals. 

Together, they allegedly facilitated bribes to congressional representatives and judges in an attempt to interfere with the magistrates’ appointments and subsequently secure favourable judicial rulings that would protect Cambara from current and future criminal prosecutions. Currently, Cambara is under house arrest in Guatemala and is the target of multiple corruption-related investigations, including prior accusations of money laundering and bribery.

According to the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, the sanctions block any property, interests, or assets related to the two men that are in the United States or in the possession or control of U.S. citizens. Additionally, any entities that are owned 50 percent or more by either official, both directly or indirectly, are also blocked.

These punitive measures were imposed under authorities of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which targets perpetrators of corruption and serious human rights abuse around the world. The sanctions also reinforce actions taken by the Biden administration that have pressed a number of Central American governments to crack down on graft.

In a statement on Monday, Secretary of Treasury Janet Yellen asserted that the sanctions “serve to shine a light on corruption and promote accountability for those who would seek to thwart the judicial process.” Likewise, in a separate statement, Secretary of State Antony Blinken noted that the penalties “support efforts by the people of Guatemala to end the scourge of corruption, as part of the U.S. government’s commitment to support improvements in governance in Guatemala.”

Led by Vice President Kamala Harris, as well as Special Envoy for the Northern Triangle Ricardo Zuniga, these commitments include reforms that will improve transparency and the rule of law in order to better living conditions in Guatemala, as well as El Salvador and Honduras. In early April, Zuniga announced that the Biden administration is currently considering the creation of an inter-agency task force to help local prosecutors fight corruption in Central America’s Northern Triangle countries.

The sanctions on Lorenzana and Cambara were announced hours before Vice President Harris was due to hold a virtual meeting with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei to discuss solutions to the increase in migration that has led to a humanitarian crisis at the U.S.-Mexican border. Along with poverty and gang violence, U.S. officials recognize corruption as one of the most significant root causes of the high flow of Central American migrants, and they want to ensure that a new $4 billion regional aid package does not fall prey to graft. The assistance initiative, which is planned to be disbursed over four years, aims to address the root causes of migration by aiding economic growth, social welfare, and programs intended to improve the quality of the justice sector, prevent violence, and combat organized crime. 

The United States’ recent efforts to impose tangible and significant consequences on those who engage in corruption or commit serious human rights abuses should be applauded. However, while this is a promising step towards achieving greater stability and accountability in Guatemala, the international community must continue to make a concerted effort to pursue anti-corruption efforts in Central America and beyond.