Thelma Aldana & Iván Velásquez

Awarded 2018

Guatemala / Colombia

For their innovative work in exposing abuse of power and prosecuting corruption, thus rebuilding people’s trust in public institutions.

Thelma Aldana and Iván Velásquez are top prosecutors who have been at the forefront of one of the most successful anti-corruption efforts seen anywhere in the world. Through their respective leaderships at the Guatemalan Public Prosecutor’s Office and the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), they have revealed deep-rooted criminal networks that have plagued Guatemala for decades. Combining their forces to root out corruption and ensure accountability, they shaped a defining era in the country’s history. 

The cooperation between them and the institutions they represented resulted in several high-profile and sensitive criminal investigations. The notable corruption case “La Línea” led to 60 prosecutions, including the arrest of then-President Otto Pérez Molina and his Vice-President Roxanna Baldetti. Investigations into illicit election financing seriously implicated former President Jimmy Morales with accusations of failing to report funds relating to his election campaign.

Aldana and Velásquez’s courageous and exemplary work has resulted in the identification of more than 60 criminal structures, more than 310 convictions and 34 proposed legal reforms. As a consequence, they have faced sustained resistance and endured significant personal pressure. Their work has contributed to a remarkable drop in impunity rates in Guatemala while helping to restore people’s faith in the justice system. Massive citizen mobilisations and greater civic engagement for government accountability followed their reform efforts.

The fight against corruption is the fight for a dignified life for all people.

Iván Velásquez, 2018 Laureate

Biography

Showing both courage and determination, Thelma Aldana & Iván Velásquez tackled the deep-seated criminal networks that touched all aspects of Guatemalan society. During their respective mandates as Attorney General and Commissioner of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), this justice duo played a crucial role in holding corrupt individuals accountable, even at the highest levels. Strengthening both the country’s legal system and citizenship, they demonstrated there is a before and an after in the fight against impunity in the history of Guatemala.

Lifetimes of championing justice

Thelma Aldana obtained her degree in law while studying at night and working as a janitor at a local family court during the day. After graduating, she quickly rose through the ranks of the judiciary. In 2009, she became a Magistrate of the Supreme Court and, and in 2011, she was elected President of the court. As the only female justice, she used this position, which she held only for one year, to promote specialised courts for crimes of femicide and other forms of violence against women. Eleven districts created these specialised courts. Aldana was appointed as Attorney General in 2014. In this role, she set out on an ambitious plan to strengthen the Public Prosecutor's Office, investigate institutional corruption and protect women, children and indigenous peoples.

Iván Velásquez is also a lawyer by profession. Having worked as a prosecutor and judge in his native Colombia, he investigated torture, extrajudicial executions and abuses against the civilian population. In 2000, he joined the Colombian Supreme Court of Justice as an Assistant Judge. Between 2006 and 2012, he coordinated the Commission of Investigative Support of the Criminal Chamber, investigating the links between members of the Colombian Congress and paramilitary groups. As a result of these efforts, the Supreme Court ordered the investigation of politicians on charges of crimes against humanity. More than 50 members of Congress were convicted, and more than 130 other members were linked to criminal structures with ties to the so-called "narco-politicians."

In September 2013, Velásquez was appointed as third Commissioner of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), an independent body established by agreement between the Guatemalan government and the United Nations. Its mandate was to support the work of Guatemalan institutions in dismantling clandestine apparatuses and investigating networks that negatively "affect the fundamental human rights of Guatemalan citizens."

Aldana and Velásquez first crossed paths in May 2014, with her being appointed as Attorney General by then-President Otto Perez Molina. As head of the Guatemalan Public Prosecutor's Office, Aldana also prioritised the investigation and prosecution of cases involving assassinations and disappearances perpetrated during the country’s 35-year-long internal armed conflict and dismantling criminal networks deeply entrenched in state institutions. Under Velásquez's leadership, CICIG would provide invaluable investigative resources to assist Aldana in her endeavour.

Targeting corruption at the highest levels

In close coordination with CICIG and under the leadership of Aldana, the Public Prosecutor's Office has been able to go after institutional corruption and demonstrate the involvement of public officials, politicians, members of the private sector and influential individuals with criminal networks, which have used state funds to enrich themselves at the expense of the Guatemalan people.

Through their actions, Aldana and Velásquez have shown that the local legal system can function effectively when free from political or criminal interference. With the support of Velásquez & CICIG, Aldana has proven that Guatemala's own laws and courts can investigate highly sensitive cases and bring justice to those once considered above the law.

Their work is perhaps best exemplified by the “La Línea” corruption case of 2015. It exposed a multi-million dollar customs fraud ring forcing both then-President Pérez Molina and Vice-President Roxana Baldetti to resign and face trial. Widespread public demonstrations calling for the government's resignation also marked this period. These levels of civic engagement would have been unimaginable before the work of Aldana & Velásquez. Citizens once fearful of expressing discontent with their government have taken to the streets in large numbers.

Aldana and Velásquez’s investigations also include exposing environmental crimes. The “2016 Lake Atitlán Clean-up” case led to the arrest of 14 people, ranging from the brother of former Vice-President Baldetti to representatives of an Israeli engineering firm and ex-officials from the Department of the Environment and Natural Resources in Guatemala. In another landmark case, they uncovered widespread government corruption and bribery stretching back a decade, involving the highest levels of the Guatemalan political structure. It was here when Aldana's bravery saw her confronting the very political figures who had appointed her as Attorney General.

Unsurprisingly, Aldana and Velásquez's efforts have earned them many enemies in the country. Despite sustained pressure, both maintained their commitment to accountability and justice.

Progress and setbacks in the fight against impunity

By the end of Aldana's term in May 2018, she had become one of the most well-respected public officials in Guatemala. To succeed her,  then-President Jimmy Morales named a new Attorney General. In August 2018, he announced the end of CICIG's work in the country. Flanked by more than two dozen military officers at a press conference, Morales said that he would not renew the mandate of CICIG beyond its current term. Earlier the same day, more than a dozen military vehicles surrounded CICIG's headquarters. Guatemalan and international civil society widely condemned this use of military presence, which resulted in public demonstrations supporting Velásquez, CICIG and democracy.

A few days later, while being abroad, Morales declared Velásquez 'persona non-grata,' preventing him from returning to the country. Working from Colombia during the last year of his mandate, Velásquez's role as Commissioner ended in September 2019, along with CICIG's existence. Guatemalans thanked CICIG's team for their work and said goodbye with a promise painted on its building: "Justice stays. People won't forget."

Supported by the young political party Semilla, Aldana decided to run in Guatemala’s  2019 presidential elections. However, not only was she banned as a candidate but she was also charged with more than 20 criminal offences, accompanied by two international warrants and a smear campaign. After being alerted of an assassination attempt against her, Aldana was given political asylum in the United States in February 2020, becoming the sixth Guatemalan former prosecutor living in exile in the US.

After the end of his UN mandate, Iván Velásquez resumed his work in Colombia where he continues to pursue human rights cases against the state.

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