A Guatemalan court has ordered that a former vice president be investigated for alleged corruption linked to the "magic solution" which she promised would clean up a polluted lake. The mysterious chemical, bought for millions of dollars from an Israeli company, turned out to be salty water.
Roxana Baldetti is already in jail as a result of the groundbreaking UN-backed investigation into a massive customs scam that also led to the resignation and imprisonment of her former boss, President Otto Pérez Molina, last year.
The latest case, which also has the support of the same special team set up by the UN to help Guatemalan prosecutors go after high-level corruption, is focused on Lake Amatitlán, 17 miles south of Guatemala City.
Amatitlán was once a popular weekend getaway for the wealthy. The lake began slipping into decline in the 1960s thanks to untreated sewage flowing into it from the densely populated outskirts of the capital, as well as industrial waste from factories and sand mines. Locals and environmental campaigners had already spent many years pressuring successive Guatemalan governments to clean it up to no avail. Then Baldetti promised to change all that.
"The water doesn't smell bad," the then vice president told the media on a heavily-promoted visit to the lake last March. Then she said she had a "magic solution" that she claimed would restore Amatitlán to its past glory.
This week a court greenlit a criminal investigation into Baldetti for racketeering, fraud, and influence trafficking due to her alleged role in pushing the Guatemalan government to award a contract for that "solution" to an Israeli company called M. Tarcic Engineering. The contract was signed in December 2014 and was worth 138 million quetzals ($18 million dollars).
"I am innocent," Baldetti told reporters after hearing the court's ruling on Thursday. "I didn't receive any money."
The former vice president insisted that she knew nothing about the scam that she said was greenlighted by then President Molina, and operated by a former aid.
"I have a letter in which he, the president, gives the all clear," she said. "What I do is follow orders and I delegated to Rina Sanchinelli so that she would be responsible."
Even at the time of Baldetti's visit to the lake a year ago, many observers were skeptical about her "magic solution." Officials provided no scientific evidence of its cleaning properties, nor did they reveal what chemicals it contained.
"It was very difficult to think that this magic formula would work especially given the lack of transparency in explaining it," said Alberto Barcenas, a journalist at the local independent news station Pichinchi News. "They said it would only take a few drops to clean the lake."
The story began to unravel soon after Baldetti's visit, due in part to an investigation carried out by Guatemalan national newspaper El Periodico. Scientists from M. Tarcic revealed to the press that the treatment mainly consisted of seawater and would not say what else.
Pressure from environmentalists and opposition from other civil society groups meant that the project was suspended before the "magic solution" was used. They forced the government to order tests that revealed that it was, in fact, just seawater.
The brazenness of the swindle only fueled suspicion of dirty dealings behind the contract.
The newspaper found documents showing that the former vice president pressured officials from the authority responsible for managing the lake, known as AMSA, to sign the contract with M. Tarcic. Baldetti allegedly also installed her brother as de facto chief at AMSA.
Local residents speak with a mixture of anger and disappointment at the fraudulent pledges to clean up the lake — one of the most shameless cases of alleged corruption within the battery of investigations currently underway in Guatemala.
"They didn't do anything in the end, all they did was string us along for a while," said shop attendant Belinda Rosario. She added that the pollution has now got so bad that visitors are advised not to swim in the lake, nor eat the fish that swim in it, and that restaurants there now serve fish from the Río Dulce river, some six hours drive away.
"The government made the lake dirty by pumping all of the waste from the city down here," said boatman Elías Maldonado. "They said they would clean it but nothing has changed."
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