U.S. pauses some cooperation with Guatemala over ouster of anti-graft fighter


FILE PHOTO: Juan Francisco Sandoval, who was removed by the Guatemala's Attorney General as head of the Special Prosecutor's Office Against Impunity (FECI), speaks during a news conference in Guatemala City, Guatemala July 23, 2021. REUTERS/Luis Echeverria

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The United States said on Tuesday it was pausing some cooperation with Guatemala's criminal prosecutor after last week's ouster of the head of an anti-corruption prosecution unit.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jalina Porter told reporters on Tuesday the change affects "programmatic cooperation with the Public Ministry," which is responsible for the prosecution of criminal cases.

Guatemala's Attorney General Maria Porras removed anti-graft fighter Juan Francisco Sandoval as head of the Special Prosecutor's Office Against Impunity (FECI). The office was originally created to tackle investigations spearheaded by the United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) but was ousted from the country in 2019.

The United States was a vocal supporter of Sandoval's work, which included investigating and litigating cases against former officials, presidents and business leaders in Guatemala. The State Department declared him an "anti-corruption champion" in a February award.

The July 23 decision to remove Sandoval "fits a pattern of behavior that indicates a lack of commitment to the rule of law and independent judicial and prosecutorial processes," Porter said on Tuesday.

"As a result, we have lost confidence in the Attorney General and her intention to cooperate with the U.S. government and fight corruption in good faith," Porter said.

Guatemalan Public Ministry spokesperson Juan Luis Pantaleón said the ministry had learnt about the U.S. suspension in cooperation on social media and had not been notified, but that it would "respect U.S. decisions."

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the U.S. International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) agency aided the ministry, including offering technical help for prosecutors and donating equipment, Pantaleón said. In the ministry offices, printers carry USAID stickers.

The United States has sought to help Central American countries fight impunity for high-level law breakers.

In recent months, Washington has revoked the U.S. visas of two senior judges in Guatemala on graft suspicions and criticized lawmakers' refusal to swear in a corruption-fighting judge.

"We are watching closely for any additional actions that would undermine the rule of law or judicial independence in Guatemala," Porter warned.

(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis, David Brunnstrom and Matt Spetalnick;Additional reporting by Sofia Menchu in Guatemala City; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Richard Chang)

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