Guatemala: former minister, lawmakers face graft probes

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GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — A former economy minister in Guatemala appeared in court to face corruption allegations on Wednesday, a day after leaving office amid a change of government and losing the immunity from prosecution he enjoyed as a Cabinet official.

Acisclo Valladares Urruela wasn't the only one to abruptly find himself in hot water following Tuesday's transition from outgoing President Jimmy Morales to new President Alejandro Giammattei, and the inauguration of a new Congress. Guatemalan authorities also detained a former lawmaker and said four more were wanted on suspicion of graft. Like Valladares, they had previously been shielded from prosecution.

Prosecutors alleged that Valladares took part in a criminal network of bribes for favors. Between 2012 and 2015, lawmakers allegedly received bribes from then-Vice President Roxana Baldetti, prosecutors say, and Valladares, then the legal representative of telecom company TIGO, gave money to Baldetti to relay to lawmakers.

Valladares said Wednesday at the courthouse that he came to “clear up" the situation.

“I submit myself to justice,” he said. “Before I could not because I had immunity as economy minister.”

Baldetti and then-President Otto Pérez Molina were forced to step down from office in 2015 to face fraud and corruption charges. Both remain behind bars.

Earlier Wednesday, p rosecutors said Aracely Chavarría, a lawmaker from the Reformer Movement party, was arrested at her home in the Santa Rosa department, or province, accused of influence trafficking and taken to Guatemala City. Marco Antonio Lemus of the Nation Unity of Hope party was wanted for the same charges.

Others being sought were Estuardo Galdámez, an ex-lawmaker who ran in last year’s presidential election and is accused of illicit association and influence trafficking, and Rodolfo Moisés Castañón, who is accused of influence trafficking. Both are members of the National Convergence Front of former President Jimmy Morales, who also left office Tuesday.

Prosecutors said that between 2012 and 2014 the lawmakers used their position and ties to the then-health minister to set up a criminal network that charged commissions for hospital and clinic construction and repairs. They also allegedly arranged for at least 450 jobs to go to associates.

And Gilmar Othmar Sánchez Herrera, a former representative to the regional Central American Parliament, was accused in a case of corruption involving Guatemala’s Registration of Property. It’s the same case for which Morales’ son and brother were prosecuted and ultimately absolved by a court.

Chavarría had yet to appear in court in the capital, and the whereabouts of the others was not known. There was no immediate comment by any representatives of the ex-lawmakers.

During his inaugural address on Tuesday, new President Alejandro Giammattei announced the creation of a presidential anti-graft commission to continue the work of the now-defunct U.N. commission known as Cicig, which was shut down by Morales after it investigated him, family members and associates.

Eddi Cux, president of Citizens’ Action, a local affiliate of Transparency International, said the arrest warrants are a message that corruption cases will not go unpunished.

“Regrettably these cases did not advance while they were elected officials and they continued to cause harm, but it is also a message that justice can touch these people,' Cux said. “That they have been arrested or declared fugitives gives certainty to the idea that no official is free of responsibilities and they will be prosecuted.”

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