Demonstrators during a rally in support of a United Nations-backed anti-corruption body in Guatemala City on January 12, 2019. Photo by ORLANDO ESTRADA, AFP via Getty Images.
GUATEMALA CITY - Police in Guatemala are searching for a former official after investigators discovered more than 20 suitcases stuffed with nearly $16 million dollars worth of cash in a rented house. The authorities have issued an arrest warrant for José Luis Benito Ruiz, a former minister of communication, infrastructure, and housing, for money laundering charges. Luggage tickets on the cases with Benito Ruiz’s name tipped off investigators that the suitcases might be his.
“It was our first clear indication pointing to him,” said Juan Francisco Sandoval, the country’s anti-impunity prosecutor (the unit he heads is known by its Spanish initials FECI), in an interview with the Guatemalan radio broadcaster Emisoras Unidas. The FECI uncovered the 22 suitcases containing 122 million quetzales (the equivalent of nearly $16 million dollars), in a house in the picturesque city of Antigua, which is popular with tourists and 20 miles from Guatemala City. The luggage, found in mid October, was being monitored by hidden cameras installed in lamps in the house. Benito Ruiz’s current whereabouts are unknown. The former minister was one of the closest advisors to former President Jimmy Morales, who was elected in 2015 on an anti-corruption ticket. Highway improvements were one of the key areas the administration focused on in its final year, celebrating the paving of over 1,400 kilometers of roads and the construction of a new highway to alleviate traffic through the municipality of Chimaltenango. But his administration was plagued by accusations of corruption, including the Chimaltenango highway project, which suffered from over-priced cement during construction, as well as flooding. Landslides have happened since the highway opened, suggesting safety measures were swerved or not respected.“This is confirmation of how the structures of corruption are maintained and how during the government of Jimmy Morales these structures were strengthened,” Renzo Rosal, a political analyst and columnist, told VICE News.
But analysts like Rosal believe that the suitcases of cash are just the tip of the iceberg.“The cash is just a small part of all the corrupt transactions that pass through the banks, and the purchase of houses and vehicles,” he said.Benito Ruiz is the sixth minister from the Morales administration to face criminal charges. Another is Acisclo Valladares Urruela, the former economy minister, who is wanted by Interpol for money laundering. Corruption in Guatemala and other countries in the region is endemic. “Effectively we can assume that the money found is related to public works,” Marielos Chang, a political analyst, told VICE News. “The construction sector is generally where one finds the most corruption.”In September, Alejandro Sinibaldi, another former minister of communication, infrastructure, and housing from the administration of Morales’s predecessor Otto Pérez Molina, turned himself in to Guatemalan authorities after four years on the run from corruption charges. Guatemala has made some important steps against graft in recent years. In 2007 it approved the formation of a United Nations-backed anti-corruption body, the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, commonly known as CICIG. The CICIG made history after, in conjunction with the Guatemalan Public Prosecutor’s office, it unearthed a criminal network in the administration of Pérez Molina, leading to his resignation and that of his Vice President Roxana Baldetti, and at least 15 ministers.
But these efforts faced intense pushback from some politicians and from the business community. In 2018, amidst accusations of corruption, the Morales administration took steps to weaken the CICIG with assistance from Republicans in the United States, including Utah Senator Mike Lee and Florida Senator Marco Rubio, all in the name of sovereignty. In September 2019, the commission officially closed its doors after the Morales administration declined to renew its mandate. All pending CICIG investigations were shifted to the FECI. But the FECI too has come under attacks by conservative forces in Guatemala that are against oversight and efforts to root out corruption. “The closing of CICIG permitted the strengthening of the criminal structures,” Rosal said. “These corrupt structures were against the wall, hidden, but now they are coming to life again.”The United States Embassy has stated its support for anti-corruption efforts in Guatemala, with the new U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala, William Popp, announcing the embassy’s continued backing of anti-corruption efforts upon assuming his post in October 2020.