On July 29th, prosecutors and police officers raided the house of José Rubén Zamora, the director of the Guatemalan newspaper El Periodico, as well as El Periodico’s offices. Zamora was arrested following the raid alongside Samari Gómez Díaz, a prosecutor working with the Special Office of Crimes Against Impunity (FECI). The charges against these two, according to the Public Ministry, are related to money laundering and the leaking of information. Zamora is also being charged with blackmail and influence peddling.
The FECI head Rafael Curruchiche, who was recently placed on the U.S State Department’s Engel List of corrupt actors and who ordered the raids under the supervision of Attorney General Consuelo Porras, told reporters investigations are ongoing and may involve additional arrests. Zamora and Gómez are currently being held in pretrial detention.
Zamora’s son, José Carlos Zamora, told CNN that the raid of Zamora’s house was carried out with excessive force by police officers armed with machine guns using twenty patrol cars. Reporters Without Borders reported that the raid occurred when Zamora was at home with his family and that the cell phones and passports of family members were taken by police. The Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Pedro Vaca, tweeted that he was aware of the raids, had been trying to get in contact with Zamora without success, understood people were being held incommunicado, and pointed out that Zamora and El Periodico had been granted protective measures from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
The arrest of Zamora has sparked outrage amongst the international community. Responding to the arrests, Representative Jim McGovern tweeted, “The judiciary is already decimated. Is the free press next?” Brian Nichols, the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, tweeted, “Safeguarding press freedom is essential to democracy. The United States urges full respect of due process under Guatemalan law.” Nichols called for the protection of personal safety for Zamora and prosecutor Samari Gómez. Peter Stano, a spokesperson for the European Union, tweeted that Zamora’s arrest “raises serious concern about press freedom” in Guatemala and called on the government to ensure due process and guarantee Zamora’s and Gómez’s safety. The UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stated that he was concerned about the arrest of Zamora, as well as the legal action the government of Guatemala had taken against its own justice personnel. The Convergence for Human Rights, a coalition of several leading Guatemalan human rights organizations, denounced the actions of the Public Ministry, stating the Ministry had put “itself at the service of the Pact of the Corrupt.” The Convergence for Human Rights demanded the release of José Rubén Zamora and Samari Gómez, that their physical safety is respected, and that the prosecution against dissident voices is brought to an end. The International Federation on Human Rights alongside the Guatemalan human rights group UDEFEGUA stated that “The two years of Alejandro Giammattei's administration have witnessed a worrisome erosion of democratic principles and institutions in Guatemala. The progressive dismantling of the independent judicial system has seriously damaged the rule of law and the separation of powers in the country. At the same time, the criminalization of independent journalists, human rights defenders, and indigenous organizations has contributed to the closure of civic space with systematic violations of the rights of assembly, association, and expression."
The Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei claimed to have had no involvement in the arrest of Zamora. The Public Ministry in a statement argued that Zamora was arrested on suspicion of crimes unrelated to journalism and that Gómez was arrested in connection with those possible crimes. In the months prior to the arrest of Zamora, El Periodico reported on a scheme in which construction companies illegally funded Giammattei’s electoral campaign with advance payments made to the companies by the Guatemalan Ministry of Communications. El Periodico has also covered other cases of corruption involving high-level officials. Attacks on journalists, which are currently on the rise in Guatemala, have led at least five journalists since early 2021 to flee into exile.