Central America / Impunity

Witness Accuses Guatemalan President of Funding Campaign with Construction Bribes

Monday, February 14, 2022
José Luis Sanz

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The recording and the identity of the witness are stashed in a safe inside Guatemala’s High-Risk Tribunal D, presided over by Judge Erika Aifán. A former confidant of President Alejandro Giammattei — identified in court documents as “Witness A” — accused him of negotiating the delivery of 20 million quetzales ($2.6 million USD) in bribes from construction companies to finance his campaign in 2019. In exchange, according to the witness, Giammattei promised to keep then-Minister of Communications, Infrastructure, and Housing José Luis Benito in his post for a year in order to allow him to continue operating a multimillion-dollar corruption scheme of infrastructure projects.

The witness says that in July 2019, between the first and second rounds of the presidential elections, he attended a meeting in Guatemala City in which then-candidate Giammattei and Giorgio Bruni — who at the time was secretary of the president’s party, Vamos, and later worked as Private Secretary of the Presidency — spoke by telephone with Benito to confirm the contribution and delivery method. In the presence of Raúl Romero, the current minister of development; Miguel Martínez, one of Giammattei’s closest collaborators; and another person identified only as Jorge, the witness claims to have heard Bruni tell Giammattei that the money would come from an up-front payment by the government to a private company for the development of a highway in the department of San Marcos.

Witness A also says that they planned for police officers to deliver the campaign contribution: “Giorgio Bruni says, on speakerphone, that Alejandro Giammattei was present and listening, and then asks José Luis Benito how the matter is coming along. Benito responds: ‘Everything is ready. We’re coordinating with the minister of governance’ — who at the time was Enrique Degenhart — ‘to make the delivery where you all indicate.’”

The sealed declaration was recorded in a closed hearing in the presence of the judge, two prosecutors, and a defense lawyer on May 18, 2021. It was part of an ongoing investigation opened by the Special Prosecutor’s Office against Impunity (FECI) in October 2020 after finding the equivalent of nearly $16 million USD in cash tucked in suitcases in a house in Antigua Guatemala rented by Benito. The discovery led to accusations of money laundering against Benito, as well as a criminal probe into Bruni’s possible involvement.

Page of the report by the Public Prosecutor
Page of the report by the Public Prosecutor's Office after conducting its October 2020 raid on a home in Antigua Guatemala. During the operation, prosecutors found 22 suitcases of cash totaling more than $16 million USD. Photo: El Faro

Twelve highway construction projects worth more than $191 million USD are allegedly linked to this pact. Official documents show that 11 of them are underway and the last is accepting proposals. According to prosecutors, Benito and Giammattei agreed that the companies would receive advance payments or new contracts in exchange for the campaign contribution.

A second source from Giammattei’s campaign confirmed to El Faro the agreement with Benito and says he attended a meeting in late August 2019 where Bruni, Martínez, and Giammattei, by then president-elect, “said that they involved construction companies through the Ministry of Communications to finance the campaign.”

On various occasions in 2019, this source heard Bruni talk about the promise of including Benito in the incoming Giammattei administration. He says Giammattei himself said once that he “maintained the offer [for Benito] to stay on as minister of communications.” As the inauguration approached, according to the source, discussions were held with Bruni due to Giammattei’s intention to renege on his end of the bargain.

In the end Benito lost the position, but the agreement with the companies allegedly stayed the course. Seven of the infrastructure projects listed by Witness A, valued at more than $83 million USD, were awarded during the first year of the Giammattei administration to construction companies under suspicion of favoritism from the ex-minister. Chief among them is Supervisión, Construcción y Mantenimiento (SCM), owned by businessman Alejandro Matheu Escamilla, a close friend of Benito.

Former minister of communications, infrastructure, and housing in the Morales administration, José Luis Benito, heads to court at Tribunal Towers in Guatemala City on Jan. 28, 2022 for the first hearing in the corruption case known as Libramiento de Chimaltenango. Photo: Simone Dalmasso/El Faro
Former minister of communications, infrastructure, and housing in the Morales administration, José Luis Benito, heads to court at Tribunal Towers in Guatemala City on Jan. 28, 2022 for the first hearing in the corruption case known as Libramiento de Chimaltenango. Photo: Simone Dalmasso/El Faro

El Faro requested a response from President Giammattei to Witness A’s allegations. On his behalf, the Secretary of Social Communication of the Presidency responded in writing that he “categorically rejects every unfounded allegation or supposition looking to tie the president with ex-ministers.” He also deferred any responsibility to Giorgio Bruni: “Everything related to the finances of the party Vamos corresponds to the party’s secretary general during the campaign.”

As for the alleged agreement with Benito, the spokesperson claimed that “no ex-minister of the prior administration has been part of, nor has at any time been considered for, a position in President Alejandro Giammattei’s administration.” He added that the president “is unaware of any investigation against him by the Public Prosecutor’s Office, nor by any other entity of the same nature.”

Bruni ignored messages and calls made to his personal phone. Ex-minister Benito responded, through an intermediary, that the case of the suitcases of money was sealed by the courts and therefore cannot comment.

Minister of Development Romero, a former legislator with Giammattei’s party, acknowledges that he supported the president’s campaign but denies having attended the meeting described by Witness A. Former minister of governance Degenhart also denied the allegations. “I categorically reject the testimony of that protected witness,” he said. El Faro called and sent written messages to the personal phone of Miguel Martínez but received no reply.

Businessman Alejandro Matheu Escamilla read but did not respond to messages, as well as calls, to his personal phone. El Faro also received no reply to a message at the offices of SCM.

Are You Investigating the President?

The U.S. State Department and FBI have had copies of the testimony for months. El Faro obtained the full recording from a source outside the Public Ministry and the court system. His voice was distorted during the hearing for protection, and this newspaper applied a second voice distortion before publication. El Faro knows the identity of the witness, confirmed his relationship with Giammattei, and verified the authenticity of the recording with three sources.

The New York Times briefly referenced the existence of Witness A last October in an article that revealed that another witness told FECI in July that it had delivered to Giammattei’s house a rug rolled with cash inside. The cash was allegedly part of a bribe by a Russian-backed mining company for the rights to operate part of a Guatemalan port.

It’s unclear which of the two testimonies weighed more in the removal of the head of FECI, Juan Francisco Sandoval on July 23. The same night that he left Guatemala for exile, Sandoval reported in an exclusive interview with El Faro that one of the reasons for his removal was that the investigation of the money found in a house in Antigua led back to Giammattei and to “payments from contractors in order to benefit from some infrastructure project or to finance some political campaign.”

In the ensuing months, Attorney General Consuelo Porras completely dismantled the team of prosecutors in charge of both investigations and has sought to obstruct them. By order of Porras on Aug. 25, the new head of the FECI, José Rafael Curruchiche, sent a memo to his entire office asking them officially “if in your agency the instruction was given and an investigation was developed relating to the delivery of cash money to the constitutional president of the Republic of Guatemala.” Prosecutors declined to respond on the legal grounds that the case was sealed.

Copy of the memo sent by the head of the FECI, Rafael Curruchiche, on Aug. 25, 2021 demanding that his personnel inform him of any investigation into cash payments to President Alejandro Giammattei. Photo: El Faro
Copy of the memo sent by the head of the FECI, Rafael Curruchiche, on Aug. 25, 2021 demanding that his personnel inform him of any investigation into cash payments to President Alejandro Giammattei. Photo: El Faro

Last November, the Public Prosecutor’s Office officially asked Judge Erika Aifán to submit the sealed envelope containing the identity of Witness A to the new prosecutors assigned to the case. The content of the request letter implies that the original prosecutors had refused to reveal the identity, shielded by legal protections for the May 18 hearing.

In a written response, Aifán refused to turn over the information, explaining that the testimony is already part of a judicial process beyond the attorney general’s control, and the recording and the identity of the witness are now evidence in the court’s custody.

Two months later, on Jan. 13, Porras asked the Supreme Court of Justice to remove the immunity from prosecution of Aifán, one of the most widely-recognized anti-corruption and anti-drug trafficking judges in Guatemala. In 2018, she convicted nine construction magnates for participating in a bribery ring. For years has faced constant threats and legal harassment from actors tied to those in power. The current attorney general, who the U.S. State Department included on the Engel List for “a pattern of obstruction of investigations into corruption,” is accusing Aifán of abuse of power and dereliction of duty.

El Faro requested an interview with Attorney General Porras through her chief press officer and sent written questions about advances in the case and efforts to obstruct the investigation. The Public Prosecutor’s Office responded that the sealing of the case prohibited “going into details,” but once again lashed out against the prosecutors who opened the case: “One of the witnesses denounced coercion and pressure to bear testimony on matters of which they had no direct knowledge,” stated Curruchiche, adding that Internal Affairs has an open investigation into the matter.

In Exchange for Contracts

“Georgio Bruni receives a call from José Luis Benito, who at the time was minister. I witnessed Bruni place his telephone on the table. He had the contact saved as ‘Benito,’ last name only. After he answers the call, [Bruni] puts it on speakerphone and I recognize [Benito’s] voice,” Witness A testified on May 18. 

Giammattei was seeking the presidency for the fourth time since 2007 and, though conservative Guatemalans’ widespread repudiation of his opponent Sandra Torres played in his favor, she doubled the amount of votes he obtained in the first round of voting. He had called a campaign meeting to, in theory, talk about election fieldwork and the political support of mayors in the lead-up to the second round of voting on Aug. 11. The meeting, according to the testimony, took place in the Milenia apartment complex in the wealthy Colonia Oakland in Zone 10 of Guatemala City.

Minister of Development Romero confirmed to El Faro that he has an apartment in Milenia, but denied that campaign meetings were held there, as prosecutors assert. He also claimed that Benito “has or had” an apartment in the same building.

The witness says that, after confirming that the deal remained on the table and that the Ministry of Governance (which oversees the National Civil Police) would coordinate the delivery of the money, Giammattei turned off the speakerphone and “thanked [Benito], basically, for what he had just said.”

“The call is then disconnected and Alejandro Giammattei asks Giorgio Bruni what basically were the terms of our agreement, the 20 million [quetzales] for the second round. And Bruni answers, ‘yes, you should remember that [the money] comes from an advance payment to the company COAMCO from a contract adjudicated in Guativil - San Marcos,’” states the witness. “Then they emphasize: ‘OK, everything is fine, please coordinate.’”

At 8:30 p.m. on Aug. 11, 2019, Alejandro Giammattei declared victory in the presidential elections.
At 8:30 p.m. on Aug. 11, 2019, Alejandro Giammattei declared victory in the presidential elections. 'Guatemalans said no to the past and no to corruption,' he said in a celebratory speech. In his campaign he promised to take a hard line against delinquency and on a promise to change the fight against corruption, leaving behind the defunct International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). Photo: Carlos Barrera/El Faro

The project was awarded in December 2018 to COAMCO with a budget of $22.6 million USD, though the project would end up costing more than $27.1 million USD. According to the witness, COAMCO provided the money for Giammattei’s campaign, on the condition that in the following years other advance payments and nine new contracts would be allotted to companies involved in Benito’s network of favors.

“Giorgio Bruni reminds the president that the agreement with José Luis Benito was to allow him to stay on for a year as minister of communications in the administration of Alejandro Giammattei,” declared Witness A. “The only reason was to guarantee the payment of contracts under his control (...). The most important and closest to that person [Benito] was the construction magnate Alejandro Matheu Escamilla.”

Six of the contracts that the witness ties to the negotiation between Benito and Giammattei were awarded to the company SCM, owned by Matheu Escamilla. Three of them, totalling $42.5 million USD, were awarded during the current administration. The witness also mentions a construction project that is currently in licitation and that he alleges was promised to SCM.

Of the remaining projects listed by the witness, two worth $12.8 million USD were awarded to JJRM, a company that in 2020 sparked a scandal when the press revealed that its legal representative was the cousin of a top official in the Ministry of Communications responsible for issuing public contracts to JJRM.

Two others for almost $28 million USD were awarded to Prourba, a company named in court statements in 2018 as a contractor that bribed Ministry of Communications officials in exchange for expediting payments.

Witness A claims that both companies actually work for Matheu Escamilla. “It’s common practice for construction companies to rent themselves to a businessman who has more political control at that moment,” he testified, “which is the case for JJRM and Prourba on behalf of Alejandro Matheu. And they operate for a percentage or partial payment of the project.”

The legal representatives of COAMCO, JJRM, and Prourba denied any agreement with President Giammattei or Benito. “It’s completely false. I don’t even know the president,” the representative of COAMCO, Juan Pablo Mansilla, told El Faro. The legal representative of JJRM, Luis Fernando Castro González, also denies any relationship: “There was never any agreement with the people you mention. That is false. It’s slander.” Both deny that their businesses donated to the campaign or have any ties to Alejandro Matheu Escamilla or his businesses. “I don’t even know who that is,” said Castro González.

Before promptly hanging up, owner of Prourba Ricardo Bonilla Miyares told El Faro: “You are totally wrong. Please never call me again.”

Benito’s Favorite Contractor

The Guatemalan press has widely documented the close relationship between José Luis Benito and Alejandro Matheu Escamilla — who they dubbed “José Luis Benito’s favorite contractor” — and the accumulation of contracts awarded, in many cases on dubious grounds, to Matheu’s companies. In 2016, Matheu financed the presidential campaign of Jimmy Morales. In 2018 and 2019 alone, the two years that Benito ran the Ministry of Communications, SCM received nine contracts worth roughly $104 million USD. In the 11 preceding years, the firm obtained contracts worth $8.5 million USD.

El Faro obtained testimony given by Alejandro Sinibaldi, minister of communications from 2012 to 2014 during the administration of Otto Pérez Molina, saying that he received bribes from Matheu Escamilla. Sinibaldi, accused of multiple corruption charges, fled Guatemala for four years to evade arrest before his imprisonment in August 2020, and has since admitted in court to taking bribes from multiple construction firms.

“I had a relationship with Mr. Alejandro Matheu Escamilla, who delivered bribes to me when I was minister of communications, infrastructure, and housing,” reads the affidavit.

Sinibaldi also claims that at the end of 2020, Matheu Escamilla paid him a surprise visit in prison with two bottles of wine and offered him 4 million quetzales, supposedly to cover Sinibaldi’s attorney costs. “He’s looking to buy my silence,” Sinibaldi testified, adding that Matheu Escamilla offered protection for his family through the private security firm BlackThorne, of which Matheu Escamilla claimed to hold shares. Sinibaldi interpreted the offer as a veiled threat.

The affidavit states that, after a second encounter with Matheu Escamilla in the first quarter of 2021, Sinibaldi alerted the FECI and feigned accepting bribes so that the prosecutors could document it. After Sinibaldi turned over a first delivery of 30,000 quetzales to prosecutors, police officers under the direction of the FECI tailed a deliveryman who, on a motorcycle owned by SCM, proceeded to deliver a new payment in a manila envelope to the home of one of the ex-minister’s lawyers.

Images taken from a police report on surveillance conducted in July 2021 that documented the delivery of money from construction magnate Alejandro Matheu Escamilla to the former Communications Minister Alejandro Sinibaldi. Photo: El Faro
Images taken from a police report on surveillance conducted in July 2021 that documented the delivery of money from construction magnate Alejandro Matheu Escamilla to the former Communications Minister Alejandro Sinibaldi. Photo: El Faro

Sinibaldi’s credibility as a witness has recently eroded because of the widely held suspicion that he reached an agreement with Attorney General Porras for benefits in exchange for making false accusations against the government’s perceived adversaries. El Faro decided to publish his July 2021 declaration because it was given before the removal of Juan Francisco Sandoval, because of its coherence with his past testimony, and because of evidence and secondary testimonies that partially substantiate it.

Sinibaldi’s attorneys told El Faro on his behalf that he does not want to make public statements on the alleged bribes from Matheu Escamilla or on the fact that a corruption scheme like the one that he led extended to successive administrations. “The creators of the system of corruption are the construction firms,” he said while on trial in 2020. “The politicians, the ministers, are just passing through.”

Turning Over Giammattei

The investigation of the corruption scheme reported by Witness A was practically shuttered following Sandoval’s departure from the FECI. “The investigation will get as far as they want it to,” a source from the Public Prosecutor’s Office told El Faro in September, in allusion to the iron grip that the attorney general and her team were exerting on the most damning cases against the Giammattei administration.

Sandoval agrees: “What real room for action does the FECI currently have? None. In Guatemala the prosecutor’s office has been annulled.”

Diverse sources also report that private banks have helped thwart investigations, as if responding to a political machine. “In many cases they provide incomplete information. There are requests for banking information made in June that have yet to receive a reply,” one source told El Faro in November.

Sandoval and a source in the judiciary claim that, since the expulsion of the CICIG in September 2019, most banks started to delay responses or directly ignore requests from the FECI. “Guatemala is such a small and complex country that those who manage information can use it as an instrument of blackmail and power,” Sandoval laments. “Sometimes we asked for banking information for a case and, days later, the person for whom we had requested the information appeared before the Public Prosecutor’s Office because someone had informed them that they were being investigated,” he says. “No investigation can withstand that.”

A source who worked for the CICIG in its final years claims that the international commission had to threaten, on various occasions, to raid banks’ headquarters under a judicial warrant in order for banks to comply with judicial orders to turn over information.

Though prosecutors lacked conclusive evidence that President Giammattei had participated in a crime when Consuelo Porras dismantled the unit in charge of the case, they believe the rapid accumulation of evidence against people in the president’s inner circle would have made possible, in a question of months, a motion for impeachment.

Page of the report by the Public Prosecutor
Page of the report by the Public Prosecutor's Office after conducting its October 2020 raid on a home in Antigua Guatemala. During the operation, prosecutors found 22 suitcases of cash totaling more than $16 million USD. Photo: El Faro

At the start of 2021, a source in the Giammattei administration tipped off the FECI about suitcases of cash stored, like in Antigua, in the home of Giorgio Bruni. When prosecutors raided the property in February they found no money, but they did find documents that corroborate Witness A’s testimony: dossiers of construction companies, vetting certificates for the company COAMCO, and licitation records from the Ministry of Communications, in some cases with written notes such as “delay.” These documents had no apparent relation to Bruni’s duties as the president’s private secretary.

Prosecutors also found what appears to be a detailed list of campaign expenditures to the tune of $9.96 million USD, far above the legal limit of $3.84 million established by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal. At the end of the document, in an apparent exercise in cynicism, is a line item: “Fine $250k.”

Another seized document reinforces the hypothesis that Bruni managed illegal contributions to Giammattei’s campaign. By hand, the former private secretary wrote: “Contribution to campaign (Régulo, Rafa, Ángelo),” “66,000 USD Cash. Electoral Monitoring System 3,750,000 USD,” and, below, the name of the Mexican company Helicon. Under the line item “Petitions” is a list of ministries to which the company wanted to lend software services. Other requests include: “Construction of Schools,” “Construction of Housing,” “Pavement (Pothole Repair/Carpeting),” and, among others, “Sale of fertilizers to the Ministry of Agriculture.” Guatemalan law prohibits foreign donations to candidates and political parties.

Document seized by the Public Prosecutor
Document seized by the Public Prosecutor's Office in the home of Giorgio Bruni, former private secretary to President Alejandro Giammattei, detailing the alleged illicit campaign donations in return for public contracts. Photo: El Faro

When El Faro contacted the cofounder and CEO of Helicon, Ángelo Raimondi, he initially agreed to give an interview. By the time of publication, however, he hadn’t conceded it.

Witness A testified that the person “exclusively” in charge of the relationship with José Luis Benito and the delivery money to the Giammattei campaign was Bruni. The witness stated: “He solely used the name Alejandro Giammattei Falla, who was fully aware, while making this type of calls and thanking people.”

FECI prosecutors were unable to establish whether the 20 million quetzales (2.6 million USD) promised by Benito were paid, what route they took, and where they ended up. When in a series of meetings they showed Bruni and his attorneys the documents to convince the former secretary of Vamos that they had enough evidence to accuse him of unregistered campaign finance, he initially denied everything, but later offered to collaborate. Bruni offered to “turn over information to go against Alejandro” — to testify against the president.

That never occurred. In early July, the FECI called on Bruni to testify, but at the last moment his attorneys suspended the hearing by claiming that he had symptoms of Covid-19. The next time they spoke, he refused to cooperate.

A Dead-End

Just prior to the removal of Sandoval from the FECI, in an effort to protect the advances of these investigations, prosecutors agreed to focus on tracing international transactions of the implicated people or businesses passing through the U.S. banking system. They wanted to enable U.S. agencies, in the case of a complete stonewalling in Guatemala, to pick up part of the case.

A State Department official confirmed that the Biden administration has been aware for months of the content of Witness A’s testimony against Giammattei, though the source did not reveal whether the Justice Department has acted on the information. A source in Guatemala claims to have submitted a recording of the testimony last year to Ambassador William Popp. Another in the U.S. turned it over to an FBI agent with open investigations in the region.

A source in Washington and a person close to one of the accused claim that construction magnate Alejandro Matheu Escamilla has been cooperating for months with U.S. authorities.

On Jan. 21, Benito turned himself in to Guatemalan authorities after a year on the run, but there is limited trust in the attorney general’s desire to convict him. In the first hearing against Benito on Jan. 28, Judge Silvia de León publicly rebuked the prosecutors handling the case for their lack of preparation and “poor argumentation.”

It’s a portrait of the current justice system in Guatemala. So is the fact that the hearing to take the testimony of Witness A, which should have taken place in Judge Erika Aifán’s office, was discretely transferred to the offices of the FECI, on the fourth floor of the Public Prosecutor’s Office. Aifán has reported for years that her staff spies on her and leaks case information to politicians and criminals.

Nor did the prosecutors inform the attorney general that Witness A’s hearing was taking place. “Is Giammattei involved in acts of corruption? I don’t doubt it,” says Juan Francisco Sandoval, exiled in the United States. “The attorney general protects the president, and it’s evident that if she does so it’s because the president asked her to.”

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