Anti-corruption prosecutor Juan Francisco Sandoval fled Guatemala late Friday, arriving in neighboring El Salvador just hours after he was removed from his post.
Consuelo Porras, Guatemala’s attorney general, had accused the former head of the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity of “abuses” without specifying what they were.
Sandoval said he was fired because of his investigations into top officials in the administration of President Alejandro Giammattei. He said he had fled for his own safety, becoming the fifth law enforcement official in three years to do so.
“Sadly, this has become a situation that many public servants in Guatemala have had to go through simply because we are not useful for the regime,” Sandoval said.
“Wherever I am, I'm going to continue working for the good of the people of Guatemala, but for my own safety, I am not going to be used by people who have made exploiting government funds a way of life," he said.
Sandoval arrived in La Chinamas, a border town in El Salvador, about 75 miles (120 kilometers) southeast of Guatemala City He was accompanied on his trip out of Guatemala by human rights activists, Swedish Ambassador Hans Magnusson, and journalists from The Associated Press.
Julie Chung, the U.S. acting assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs, wrote that Sandoval’s firing “is a step backward for the rule of law” in Guatemala. Chung wrote in her Twitter account that his removal “contributes to the perception that there is a systematic effort in Guatemala to weaken those who fight against corruption.”
Iván Velásquez, the former head of the U.N. anti-corruption commission expelled from Guatemala in 2019 by former president Jimmy Morales called Sandoval's removal “an illegal, arbitrary and criminal act.”
“The international community should protect him immediately,” Velásquez said.
A government statement earlier Friday said Porras had removed Sandoval due to “constant abuses and frequent abuses to the institutionality” of the ministry.
Sandoval was a respected anti-corruption prosecutor with a record of pursuing dozens of criminal networks. Together with the former United Nations anti-corruption mission in Guatemala he helped take down former President Otto Pérez Molina and some members of his cabinet on corruption charges.
Less than two months earlier, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris had stressed the office’s importance amid a growing push against anti-corruption efforts in the country.
In June, Harris visited Guatemala as part of her work to find ways the U.S. can help address the root causes of Central American migration, among them corruption. She told Guatemalan officials that the U.S. wanted to support anti-corruption efforts, but that the participation of the anti-impunity prosecutor’s office and Sandoval would be essential.
Observers had previously expressed concerns that Porras was blocking the work of Sandoval’s office and that his job could be jeopardy.
Porras had blocked attempts by Sandoval’s office to lift the immunity of government officials suspected of crimes or make arrests of powerful individuals investigated for corruption.
On Thursday, Porras removed another prosecutor from the anti-impunity office.