Diplomatic spat erupts between Colombia, Guatemala

Bogota, Jan 17 (EFE).- Colombian President Gustavo Petro warned Tuesday that he will sever relations with Guatemala if prosecutors there persist with legal action against the Andean nation’s defense minister, Ivan Velasquez.

The former head of the United Nations-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (Cicig), an anti-corruption panel that was expelled from the Central American country in January 2019 by then-President Jimmy Morales, Velasquez has been accused by Guatemalan prosecutors of irregularities during the course of that international body’s investigation of the Odebrecht corruption scandal.

Petro, who defended Velasquez on Monday night after being informed of the allegations leveled by the head of Guatemala’s Office of the Special Prosecutor Against Impunity (FECI), Rafael Curruchiche, expressed support for his minister once again upon arrival in Switzerland for the World Economic Forum in Davos.

“We’ll defend him. He’ll continue to be our minister, and if Guatemala insists on (ordering) the capture of honest men then we’ll have nothing to do with Guatemala,” the leftist president told Colombian media Tuesday in Zurich.

Petro, who on Monday summoned Colombia’s ambassador to Guatemala for consultations, said of the accusations against the 67-year-old Colombian jurist and diplomat that “the criminals are striking back.”

“We’re not going to allow … (Velasquez) to be attacked for what he did, to be persecuted for his fight against impunity, to be rounded up by those who exercise that impunity,” he added.

Curruchiche said Monday that his office will pursue legal action against Velasquez for his actions as Cicig chief related to a bribes-for-contracts scandal involving Brazilian engineering giant Odebrecht.

According to Colombian media, Velasquez gave the green light for allegedly irregular agreements that paved the way for three Odebrecht executives to serve as cooperating witnesses.

As part of the sprawling Odebrecht corruption probe, a judge on Monday accepted arrest warrants issued Monday by Curruchiche’s office against ex-officials with FECI and Cicig, including former Cicig investigator David Gaitan.

Curruchiche, however, told Colombian radio station La FM Bogota that same day that no arrest order has yet been issued for Velasquez.

He said Guatemalan authorities also were looking into alleged illegal actions by Colombian attorney Luz Camargo Garzon, who formerly served as investigator of structures of corruption in the Central American country.

Rightist-led Guatemala, meanwhile, said Tuesday it had summoned its ambassador to Colombia for consultations in retaliation for Petro’s move.

Guatemala’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it “laments that Colombia’s government has turned a legal matter into a political issue, making abrupt decisions without taking the appropriate diplomatic steps.”

It recalled that the two countries have had diplomatic relations dating back nearly 200 years.

During Velasquez’s time at the helm of Cicig beween 2013 and 2017, that body carried out an anti-corruption struggle that led to the dismantling of numerous illegal structures operating within government institutions.

The United States last year revoked Curruchiche’s visa and barred him from entering the country, alleging that he had “obstructed investigations into acts of corruption by disrupting high-profile corruption cases against government officials” and “raising apparently spurious claims” against former FECI and Cicig prosecutors and private attorneys.

On Tuesday, the US slammed Guatemala for issuing arrest warrants for ex-officials of FECI and Cicig that had investigated corruption in the Central American country.

“Disturbed by (Guatemala’s) arrest warrants against individuals who worked to ensure accountability for corruption in the Odebrecht case in Guatemala,” Brian Nichols, the US State Department’s assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs, tweeted on Tuesday. “Such actions weaken the rule of law and confidence in Guatemala’s judicial system.”

Transparency International, a Berlin-based international non-governmental organization, on Tuesday also condemned the legal action against “anti-corruption defenders in Guatemala.”

It said in a press release that it “demands Guatemala drop charges against (them) immediately.”

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