Guatemalan prosecutor Virginia Laparra has been imprisoned since February 2022, after initiating an investigation into judge Lesther Castellanos for alleged acts of corruption. The judge had the case thrown out and, in turn, accused Laparra of abuse of power, leading to her arrest and imprisonment. 

After being held in preventive detention, she was sentenced in December 2022 to four years in prison. That sentencing followed the issuance of a further arrest warrant in October, despite the fact that she was already imprisoned, in relation to an additional criminal complaint filed against her by the same judge.

Amnesty International has described the charges against Laparra as "unfounded criminal proceedings riddled with irregularities that violate her human rights" and classify Laparra as "a prisoner of conscience."

"It is clear that the multiple arbitrary actions and irregularities in the case put forward by the prosecution and the judiciary are due to the authorities’ obsession with punishing all the people who have contributed to the fight against corruption and impunity," Americas Director at Amnesty International Erika Guevara-Rosas said in a statement.

Guatemala’s imprisonment of corruption investigators such as Laparra has also been denounced by Transparency International and by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk.

Laparra, 42, will make a court appearance on Thursday in relation to the second case. She will be represented by her lawyers, Claudia González and Flor de María Gálvez Álvarez, who have shared their stories with Global Citizen in their own words below, speaking about the inhumane conditions in which Laparra is being detained.

In My Own Words: Claudia González

I have been a human rights lawyer for 24 years in Guatemala. I worked in the archbishop’s office when I was studying law, and worked with Juan Gerardi [the Guatemalan bishop who was murdered in 1998 after publishing a report accusing the military of carrying out executions of civilians]. I formed part of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), together with Flor.

I was part of CICIG for eight or nine years, working hard. This is a complex role because it means working against acts of corruption carried out, above all, by people with economic and political power. We knew Laparra’s was [going to be] a difficult case, but we didn’t think it was an impossible one. I think there can be a better world where we can work to achieve better things, which is why I participated. But this last year has been difficult because we knew that there would be serious consequences due to our work.

Flor and I met Laparra and other members of the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity (FECI), who are also being criminalized. I am also working on the defense of [former prosecutors who are also detained] Allis Morán and Paola Escobar, people with whom I also worked. They were my colleagues at tribunals and that is an important part of why we are working on these cases, because we know them, and we believe that how they are being treated is unjust. All of our efforts are so that they achieve their freedom, because the accusations against them are unjust. Being incarcerated is no easy ordeal.

It’s not just because we are colleagues, but because we are women, and we are friends. We know that for women things are different, and we feel for them, being far from their children and husbands — and not being able to exercise their profession [as attorneys]. They are bright women whose professional development has been truncated. That hurts and we share that pain. Laparra has two daughters, aged 16 and 14, and she is from Quetzaltenango, which is five hours by road from Guatemala City, where she is imprisoned.

Laparra contacted me in December 2021 to tell me that she was coming to Guatemala City to work on the defense of Leily Santizo, Allis Morán, and Paola Escobar, but then Laparra herself was detained in February 2022. She was very stressed and depressed. We told her we would appeal her detention, but the judge presiding over her case, Sergio Mena, ruled that all the hearings would be behind closed doors, with no press access.

I was allowed in to defend her, following her incarceration, with another lawyer and her brother, in front of the prosecutor general and representatives of the Foundation Against Terrorism — who were two former soldiers and were horrible — and Castellanos, a former judge and the anti-torture commissioner, who demanded we remain silent and insulted us. The hearings were brutal.

At a later hearing in June 2022, we requested that Laparra be freed, but the judge argued that we were giving information to the press and he ruled it was an obstruction of justice, and that she would have to remain in prison.

They moved her to a much stricter prison. Previously, she had been allowed access to visitors, to a doctor, and visitors were allowed to take her food. They sent her to a prison where only eight people could visit, and she does not have access to anything. It’s very restrictive. In the first prison, she was in a cell measuring four meters by four, with a bathroom and one hour per day in the open air, which we managed to extend to three hours.

Women gather outside a court supporting Guatemalan prosecutor Virginia Laparra, as she attends a court hearing in Guatemala City, Tuesday, June 7, 2022.
Image: Moises Castillo/AP

The conditions, the imprisonment, are brutal. She is not a dangerous criminal that needs to be held in a maximum security facility. She is a former prosecutor, but she is being held as if she were a drug trafficker. The conditions and the way she is treated are severe. Now she is in Matamoros in a prison with a bigger cell that she shares with six other women, and she can prepare her own food. But she is inside a military facility and the conditions are still terrible.

We have so far attended seven hearings, and in the last one, in November 2022, she had been suffering from vaginal bleeding for 22 days, and she had to plead with the judge to be allowed to go to the bathroom. We’ve seen other cases of drug traffickers, murderers, who have been better treated than her.

Laparra was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment and now we are appealing so that they release her and we can convert the sentence into a fine. She has been imprisoned for 18 months, which is almost half the sentence. So we could pay half of the fine, but they refuse because they want her to remain in prison. She was sentenced in this case in Guatemala City, and we are awaiting the next hearing for an additional case against her, which will be held in Quetzaltenango. We have been arguing since the beginning that revealing confidential information to the press is not the crime she is being punished for. It’s a case of revenge against her on the part of judge Castellanos [currently Rapporteur Chairman of the National Mechanism for the Prevention of Torture], whom Laparra had accused of corruption.

In My Own Words: Flor de María Gálvez Álvarez

I’m a lawyer. I worked for 11 years in the CICIG, from when it was founded until it was closed down in 2019. I worked directly with Virginia Laparra for two years in Quetzaltenango, when she was the head of the Anti-Impunity Prosecutor’s Office (FECI), and I was the CICIG representative. I met and forged a link with Laparra, and I began to support her, alongside Claudia, when she was detained.

I left Guatemala because they linked me to Laparra’s case, and I continue from exile, helping my colleagues with whatever they need. I also worked for an association that assisted girls who were victims of sexual violence and human trafficking, and so I have worked on cases of violence against women, which is my specialization as a lawyer.

The Guatemalan authorities criminalize prosecutors and human rights lawyers. They send those cases to specific prosecutors who file charges against them. They don’t allow access to case files, hearings are held behind closed doors, and information about processes is limited so that the judges actions are unknown.

It’s important to highlight the gender aspect: how this criminalization has been focused on women, and above all women who are mothers. For example, they tell Laparra to admit to the charges against her so that she can be with her daughters again, or so that she will leave prison soon, but they are spurious charges and not founded on criminal law.

Awareness of the case has meant that the judges now accept demands for the prisoners’ health to be attended to, because they know that international organizations are watching Laparra’s case, such as the UN and the Organization of American States. That helps for other cases concerning other women. There are very few witness statements because the witnesses are the same people who are accusing her, and there is no scientific evidence, there is no well-researched investigation. There are no documents to prove guilt.

A woman hangs leaflets supporting Guatemalan prosecutor Virginia Laparra, in Guatemala City, June 7, 2022.
Image: Moises Castillo/AP

But because the case has gained media attention, people are now aware of it, and we also need to talk about the other hundreds of women who are imprisoned in Guatemala, and who are served inadequate and rotten food. Morán and Escobar, who are in prison in Santa Teresa, are in danger because there are female police officers also imprisoned there and who could attack them because they are former prosecutors. The conditions in prison are a form of torture because they are treated in such a way that they will feel forced to admit to the charges brought against them.

Laparra was the head of the FECI, which became an organization that persecuted those who previously worked there. It criminalizes people, instead of carrying out the investigations it was set up for. The anti-corruption office (CICIG) has always existed as a body investigating acts of corruption by politicians, and FECI was created to work alongside the CICIG, but the latter comprised officials who would create impunity for themselves, for their acts.

I think that international support from civil society is very important. I know that letters or petitions expressing concern about the case are very important, but we would also like to see letters expressing concern at the situation in Guatemala overall. People can write individually or as groups or organizations, expressing their concern over what is happening in Guatemala, and call on their own governments to make demands of the government of Guatemala. That is a political action that is very important for us, that they ask their governments to keep a watch on Guatemala, that they demand the Guatemalan government respond concerning the human rights violations taking place.

There have also been sanctions by the United States against Guatemalan officials, and sometimes only by affecting these people economically can they be stopped. Guatemala is losing a lot of credibility for investments, and awareness of this case makes companies realize that there is no legal security within which to set up shop in Guatemala, so this can be another way of applying pressure.

As told to Adam Critchley; this article was edited for clarity and length.

The 2023-2024 In My Own Words series was made possible thanks to funding from the Ford Foundation.

In My Own Words

Demand Equity

A Guatemalan Prosecutor Has Been in Prison for 18 Months for Investigating Corruption. Her Lawyers Are Speaking Out.

By Claudia González  and  Flor de María Gálvez Álvarez