GUATEMALA CITY -- Erika Lorena Aifán is used to threats after more than a decade as a judge in Guatemala, but she says the tone has intensified in recent months, such as the text message to her cellphone saying that she and her family “should be dead.”
The woman who has become one of the most-visible faces of Guatemala’s fight against corruption says she won’t be intimidated.
There is an "interest in obstructing my work, in attacking my judicial independence," Aifán told The Associated Press.
The fight against corruption in Guatemala was left in the hands of prosecutors and judges, like Aifán, after a U.N. anti-corruption commission that had helped investigate and prosecute hundreds of corrupt politicians, public officials and businesspeople over 12 years departed the country in September. The commission, known as CICIG, stopped operations after President Jimmy Morales refused to renew its mandate, but not before it launched legal proceedings against three former presidents, including Gen. Otto Pérez Molina, who resigned in 2015.
The commission and Guatemalan prosecutors had tried to lift the immunity from prosecution that Morales enjoys as a sitting president to investigate him for possible illicit electoral financing, though the legislature declined to do so.
They had also brought a case against Morales' son and brother. He denies wrongdoing, and his son and brother were cleared by a Guatemalan court last month.
Anti-corruption activists have expressed concern that politicians and Morales’ government would seek to criminalize the commission’s work and move against anti-corruption judges and prosecutors. In late September, congress created a committee to review, and potentially reverse, work done by the U.N.-backed mission. The committee can file complaints and request personal information from people who worked on the commission.
Aifán speaks softly and uses her words sparingly, appearing shy. But her rulings have been blunt, sometimes threatening the powerful and sending politicians and businesspeople to prison. Local and international organizations have expressed concern for her safety, and a few weeks ago the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights requested that additional measures be taken to guarantee her safety, saying the current ones are not enough.
Since 2006, the judge has been accompanied by a small group of security guards, some armed with AK-47 rifles, wherever she goes. She recently received an armored vehicle to travel in.
“Judge Erika Aifán is one of the main faces of the fight against corruption,” said Adriana Beltrán, director for citizen security the group Washington Office on Latin America. "She has had, in recent years, the highest-level cases."
The regional rights commission says that although the judge receives protection from the judicial system, the pressures on Aifán have “their origins precisely in certain people in state institutions, without an appreciation ... for implementing more concrete measures to reduce the climate of hostility against her, such as publicly reaffirming the legitimacy of her work and demanding respect for her integrity at all times.”
While Aifán has handled many high-profile cases, her emblematic one — and the one many feel is drawing the latest threats — is the “Phoenix” case. The investigation, made public in April, found that businesspeople and others had conspired to launder about $50 million in a huge fraud involving the country’s Social Security Institute.
According to the investigators, the mastermind of the operation was businessman Gustavo Adolfo Herrera Castillo, with the help of his son Sergio Alfredo Herrera Acevedo, among others.
Herrera Castillo, who is a fugitive, is accused of selling land at artificially high prices to the social security system through front companies, allegedly scamming the government of millions. His son was arrested and is being processed in a Guatemalan prison.
Since the “Phoenix” case arrived in her hands for review, the judge said, attacks against her have increased on social media and directly on her phone.
She also said she discovered that two employees of her court had shared confidential information on the case and others with lawyers. She said the employees also removed pages from the “Phoenix” file, adding that this has created the risk that some of those involved, such as Herrera's son, could be released.
Beltrán at the Washington Office on Latin America said the judge is being harassed because of her investigations.
“The intention is to recapture state institutions and maintain the status quo, in order to ensure impunity," she said.
The dozens of files on shelves, tables and the floor swamping Aifán’s small office speak of the challenges she faces and her conviction to continue at her job.
"I'm not leaving the country," she said.
She understands the risks she runs and acknowledged feeling fear at times. For now, she hopes the judicial system and government will comply with the measures granted by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and protect not only her life, but that of her family.
Aifán says there have been times when she felt the doors to her house were being watched. Once a car parked in front of her house for two hours and pulled away when a guard approached it.
“One day they sent me a message that said I should be dead, along with my family,” the judge said.
Aifán said it is clear powerful groups want to block investigations into corruption, but she said she must continue her work because without the rule of law there will be no social peace or harmony.
“I’ve always believed that someone has to do these things. We can’t keep be leaving the country out of fear all our lives,” she said. “That is what the criminal structures want.”
This story has been corrected to spell the judge’s first name as Erika, not Ericka.