Reportage. José Rubén Zamora Marroquín is accused of money laundering and other charges in a sham trial. The former editor of El Periódico brazenly reported on corruption that implicated President Giammattei.

Guatemalan prosecutors want 40 years in prison for investigative journalist ‘Chepe’

Outside the Guatemala City courthouse, someone shouts: “Fuerza Zamora, Fuerza!” The voice came from somewhere behind a cab and disappeared like an echo.

José Rubén Zamora Marroquín, known as Chepe, aged 66, a Guatemalan journalist recognized nationally and internationally for hundreds of investigations against corruption in the country, smiles and tries to look past the cordon of prison guards escorting him, looking for the person who shouted those words of encouragement. His bony hands, locked in a pair of handcuffs, are clutching a folder of documents and the glasses he had put on and taken off countless times as he listened to the prosecutor’s indictment on May 30 that asked for him to be sentenced to 40 years in prison for money laundering to the tune of about €35,000, blackmail and influence peddling, in a hearing before Judge Oly González, head of the Eighth Criminal Sentencing Court of the Guatemalan justice system.

Forty years is the maximum possible sentence for these alleged crimes, in aggravated form due to the addition of a charge of contempt against Rafael Curruchiche, director of the Special Prosecutor’s Office against Impunity (FECI) and in charge of the investigation in Zamora’s case, and Consuelo Porras, attorney general of the same institution – two controversial figures who have been included by the U.S. State Department on the list of foreign persons who “through their significant corruption, efforts to obstruct investigations into corruption, and undermining of democratic processes and institutions, weaken the ability of governments in the region to respond to the needs of their citizens, contributing to irregular migration and destabilizing societies.”

For his part, Zamora denies all charges, stressing that he had nothing to do with the crimes the prosecution is trying to pin on him. He is backed by defense attorney Joel Reyes, who recently took over his defense after the first three attorneys were dismissed for obstruction of justice. “The prosecutor’s demands are crushing,” Zamora said. “I have never laundered money and the evidence is there, it’s just not being taken into account. In this country, they don’t give out 40 years in prison even for serious drug trafficking crimes. This is about a real intention to hit me and destroy me.”

The final sentence will be handed down on June 14, but there’s no doubt that the specter of 40 years in prison is hanging above the future of perhaps the most famous and uncompromising journalist in Guatemala, a country where justice has often given indulgences and concessions to dictators, corrupt politicians and criminal organizations. It would be an extraordinarily long sentence for a crime that, even if it were proven, bears no comparison, for instance, to the crime of genocide for which Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt was sentenced to 50 years in prison in 2013, never served due to the subsequent annulment of the sentence.

But who is Chepe Zamora and why is his court case shaking up not only Guatemala and Central America, but the entire international press world? Jose Ruben Zamora Marroquín is the former editor of ElPeriódico, Guatemala’s second-most-read newspaper – “former” because the newspaper, which has been shining a spotlight on the serious corruption in the country since its beginning in 1996, closed its doors on May 15 due to financial collapse as a result of the seizure of its current accounts by FECI after Zamora’s imprisonment on July 29, 2022, just five days after he published a story focusing on the corruption of Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei.

The paper’s economic demise led to the layoff of almost all staff. In addition, a good part of the editors have had to self-exile abroad after suffering intimidation for their work, while 9 of Zamora’s colleagues now find themselves under investigation for obstruction of justice just for writing about the editor’s court case.

The end of a national newspaper and the attempt by the state to legally destroy its editor – for whom, in addition to 40 years in prison, the prosecution is also requesting that his political rights be suspended, as a moral slap in the face – sounds like an ominous warning to the press ahead of the general elections on June 25. In recent days, many international press bodies have denounced the lack of freedom of expression in Guatemala, and the Association of Guatemalan Journalists (APG) protested in front of the Palace of Justice during the May 31 hearing. “Giammattei’s government is silencing free voices. There have been more than 360 attacks on the media and reporters during his tenure. Through Zamora’s case, an attempt is being made to annihilate the entire profession of journalism.”

In spite of everything, Zamora still manages to make his voice heard. “Without freedom of the press there is no democracy,” he concludes in his last editorial published in ElPeriódico.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Your weekly briefing of progressive news.

You have Successfully Subscribed!