Young prosecutor fighting government corruption in Guatemala forced to flee, granted asylum in the United States

As the efforts to defame me persisted, I planned my escape, afraid for my life. I set out with just my mobile phone and a backpack containing a spare change of clothes. Lacking cash and with a blocked bank account, I felt profoundly helpless.

  • 5 months ago
  • November 19, 2023
A protestor holds a flyer featuring an image of former public prosecutor Juan Sandoval. Juan became the people's champion for battling corruption in the government. | Photo courtesy of Juan Francisco Sandoval Alfaro A protestor holds a flyer featuring an image of former public prosecutor Juan Sandoval. Juan became the people's champion for battling corruption in the government. | Photo courtesy of Juan Francisco Sandoval Alfaro
Journalist’s notes
interview subject
Juan Francisco Sandoval Alfaro is a distinguished former prosecutor from the Public Prosecutor’s Office of Guatemala. Appointed as the head of the Special Prosecutor’s Office against Impunity (FECI) in 2015 by Thelma Aldana, he served in this capacity until 2021, when his tenure was concluded by Consuelo Porras. Sandoval Alfaro holds a Law and Social Sciences degree from the University of San Carlos de Guatemala, where he also completed his Master’s in Criminal Law at the School of Postgraduate Studies. Currently, he resides in exile in Washington, D.C. for his actions against government corruption in Guatemala.
background information
The crisis in Guatemala, which escalated after the 2019 non-renewal of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a United Nations mission, has been marked by the criminalization of Thelma Aldana and the expulsion of Iván Velásquez, the head of the UN mission. The subsequent actions under Attorney General Consuelo Porras against the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity (FECI) have led to the departure of over 40 prominent figures in the anti-corruption movement, sparking widespread protests.

In 2023, as Guatemala faces a pivotal presidential election, the political situation remains volatile. The Public Prosecutor’s Office’s decision to suspend a party in the election’s final round has raised both domestic and international concerns, with Bernardo Arévalo of the Semilla Movement describing it as a “technical coup d’état.” This development has attracted scrutiny from the European Union and the United States, highlighting the fragile state of democracy in Guatemala.

WASHINGTON, United States — When I got hired at the prosecutor’s office in Guatemala, I never imagined the future that awaited me. Discovering a major theft case from the Ministry of Defence, in a country riddled with poverty, propelled me to challenge Guatemala’s systemic corruption.

However, this pursuit of justice soon backfired. In July 2021, my actions led to a retaliatory and defamatory statement from the Public Prosecutor’s Office, triggering a government-led persecution and my subsequent exile.

Just three months ago, on August 22, 2023, while at Arlington University, a pivotal notification arrived: I had been granted asylum status in the United States. Sharing this news with fellow exiles, their applause marked a collective triumph, affirming our shared resilience and commitment to justice.

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Exposing mafia-like control in the government: from a background role to a public figure

Uncovering systemic flaws in my country’s governance quickly became my driving force as a prosecutor in Guatemala. I pursued justice through a group called the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala. Our collective efforts illuminated the depth of institutional corruption, exposing a mafia-like control by elite groups.

My career as a court operator initially revolved around hearings and paperwork, far from the public eye. However, 2015 ushered in a significant shift. I found myself engaging more with the public, attending events, and conducting media interviews. This transition from a background role to a public figure required newfound awareness and adaptability.

Then, an unexpected moment took me by surprise in a mall one afternoon. As I strolled through stores, spontaneous applause from shoppers broke out. This surreal and exhilarating experience marked a profound change in my life. It was a clear indication of public recognition for my work, highlighting the impact of my efforts.

Revelations of government corruption gained traction: They wanted me gone

As my revelations of government corruption gained traction, the implicated powers began their counter-maneuver. By 2018, the groups we unmasked strategically realigned, reshaping the judicial system to their advantage.

May of that year brought a significant change with Maria Consuelo Porras becoming the attorney general. [She has been embroiled in controversy, facing allegations of obstructing corruption investigations. Accusations include her interference in criminal probes and instructing prosecutors to ignore cases based on political bias.]

When she came into power, she chose her first words to me very carefully and they seemed ominous: “Licenciado, you have great potential. Consider taking a leave to study abroad.” The message was clear yet subtly delivered – they wanted me gone. This veiled suggestion sent a shiver down my spine, hinting at the complex challenges ahead. Despite these looming threats, my team and I continued to make headway, achieving notable success in various cases over the next three years and four months.

The Public Prosecutor’s Office released a defamatory statement about me

On July 23, 2021, what started as a routine day at work abruptly changed by the afternoon. I received a summons to the attorney general’s office and walked in, calm and unsuspecting. However, when I heard they were dismissing me for disciplinary reasons I suddenly felt disoriented. It seemed as if the ground shifted beneath my feet. Stunned, I left the building, struggling to understand what just happened.

Suddenly, my phone rang, piercing through the confusion I felt. The Human Rights Ombudsman was on the line, offering his press room for a conference. His initiative, along with the support of other friends, indicated a growing persecution against me. At that moment, the Public Prosecutor’s Office released a defamatory statement about me.

The situation seemed surreal, almost as if it was happening to someone else. The worried expressions of those around me intensified this feeling. Then, a phone call from my mother brought a startling warning: “Son, don’t go back home. They’ll come looking for you there.” Her words left me feeling even more lost, uncertain of what to do next.

A journey towards asylum: lacking cash and with a blocked bank account, I felt profound helpless

As the efforts to defame me persisted, I planned my escape, afraid for my life. I set out with just my mobile phone and a backpack containing a spare change of clothes. Lacking cash and with a blocked bank account, I felt profoundly helpless. I traveled to El Salvador in the Swedish ambassador’s car, looking at it like a short break. With the Olympic Games underway, I thought I would find some distraction and solace by watching them.

The respite, however, proved to be short-lived. Amidst the turmoil of fleeing my country, I scrolled through social media and confronted echoes of slander and the reality that they issued an international arrest warrant for me. The situation, steeped in injustice, left a bitter taste in my mouth. My heart ached for my homeland. Leaving everything behind left me longing and hurting for Guatemala – a place now filled with peril.

I boarded a plane to San José, Costa Rica then arrived in the United States six days later. Each move felt like a stark reminder of my reality: I was on the run and my government was hot on my heels. Entering the U.S. on special permission, I clung to the fragile hope of finding safety, despite my expired visa.

With significant physical space between me and my country, hope from news struck me deeply. Seeing my face on banners at protests outside the Public Prosecutor’s Office moved me. These images underscored the impact I could still have from afar, because I had the support of the people. In exile, I grappled with conflicting emotions: the drive to fight for my country’s future and my asylum, while wrestling with feelings of betrayal and loss.

The United States grants political asylum, recent elections give Guatemalan exile hope for the future

Recently, I experienced a significant moment. On August 22, 2023, at Arlington University, an email notification arrived and time slowed down for a few seconds. Surrounded by my fellow Guatemalan colleagues in exile, I read the email. It announced that the United States granted me political asylum status. As I shared this news, their applause filled the room. It felt like a victory for our entire exiled community.

Despite achieving asylum, the bitterness of exile lingers. It looms as a constant state of mourning and a reminder of what I’ve left behind, softened only by thoughts of returning home. Engaging in various activities provides me with some solace, but my emotional journey remains a rollercoaster ride of highs and lows.

In quieter moments, the true weight of exile becomes more pronounced. I have come to understand that even if I return to Guatemala, it won’t bring back what I’ve lost. Life moved forward, and so did the people I hold close to my heart. The recent elections in Guatemala brought a wave of hope. President Bernardo Arévalo’s first address, recognizing those of us in exile, touched me profoundly.

I celebrated his victory in the home of other Guatemalan immigrants and even participated in a live interview during the festivities. It gave me some fleeting comfort. Yet, the future of my homeland remains shrouded in uncertainty. While President Arévalo faces challenges, I still have hope. My life has become an intricate blend of personal longing, political turmoil, and love for Guatemala. These feelings fuel my resilience and commitment to justice, even an ocean away.

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