An award-winning Guatemalan journalist jailed on alleged money-laundering charges that government critics have denounced as a pressure tactic has previously had consequences for his work.
In 2003, government agents raided José Rubén Zamora Marroquin’s home and threatened his life after he wrote a column suggesting that former dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt, then president of Congress, was running a parallel government.
Five years later, armed men abducted Zamora in Guatemala’s capital before releasing him 10 hours later outside the city beaten and drugged. No arrests were made, but at the time it was believed to be a response to the paper’s work.
On Friday, plainclothes investigators and police with assault rifles arrested Zamora at his home. His first appearance before a judge was canceled Monday because the case file was apparently unavailable. The hearing was not immediately postponed, meaning Zamora would remain in jail.
It also meant that the details of the charges against Zamora remain a mystery. On Friday, government investigators also raided the offices of El Periodico, holding its staff in place for more than 15 hours.
Zamora founded El Periodico in 1996, and it quickly gained a reputation for exposing government corruption. The newspaper did reporting scoops on the current administration of President Alejandro Giammattei and at least three of his predecessors.
Last year and this year, El Periodico published a series of investigations about the visit of Russian businessmen to Guatemala who met with Giammattei. The newspaper’s investigation accused Giammattei of accepting bribes in exchange for a concession of property in the port of Santo Tomas de Castilla.
Attorney General Consuelo Porras, who was recently reappointed by Giammattei to a new term as the country’s top law enforcement official, has been sanctioned by the United States for pursuing investigations against prosecutors and judges who investigated corruption.
On Monday, authorities searched the home of one of those former targets, former judge Erika Aifán, who had fled to the United States after denouncing corruption.
Porras’ special anti-corruption prosecutor, Rafael Curruchiche, who is handling Zamora’s case, was also sanctioned by the US government as an alleged obstruction to investigating corruption.
Curruchiche has said the case is focused on Zamora’s work as a businessman, not as a journalist, but has not provided any details.
It was difficult for others at El Periodico to reconcile because the government froze the newspaper’s bank accounts.
“The bank accounts were suspended at the request of (prosecutors), with the sole purpose of paralyzing the finances of said media outlet, making it impossible to fulfill its work and contractual obligations,” said Gerson Ortiz, El Periodico’s news director.
Zamora’s son, Ramón Zamora, was more direct. “This is not a case against my father, it is a systematic attack on freedom of expression and democracy,” he said. “They started with the activists, continued to the prosecutor’s office and now they are starting to persecute journalists.”