Guatemala's new hero: The anti-corruption crusader who brought down a president

Guatemala's newest celebrity is a tall, stoic, 60-year-old jurist with thinning hair and a gray beard, who can't walk the streets without people approaching to shake his hand or snap a photo with him.

His speeches get standing ovations. Reporters chase him at Sunday Mass at the Metropolitan Cathedral.

Iván Velásquez isn't comfortable with the attention. But he understands. As head of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, CICIG for its Spanish initials, he has taken the biggest swipe at entrenched corruption in the small Central American country, and landed former President Otto Pérez Molina in jail on graft charges.

It's the first time anywhere that a government allowed an independent investigating body into the country, only to see the president brought down.

People say it's harder to get water from a stone than a word from Velásquez. But even he couldn't help react in astonishment when he first saw the sea of protesters his investigations had unleashed.

"I never envisioned this would generate such a movement," Velásquez said after 50,000 people filled the streets in April, just days after he and Guatemala's attorney general blew the lid off a customs fraud scheme that reached the highest levels government.

It was an impressive show of civic might for a country traditionally cowed by fear and resignation in the face of corruption.

"In a society accustomed to justice not working and the privileged being protected by impunity, [now] there is confidence that the institutions will act," Velásquez told the Associated Press.

Arriving in Guatemala in 2013 with a long track record of taking on the powerful in his native Colombia, Velásquez began to scrutinize the country's networks of corruption. Citizens, politicians, lawyers and journalists passed through his office, both seeking and offering information.

He found that smuggling was a big issue, and pulling on the thread of an old CICIG investigation led to the customs ring known as "La Linea," or "The Line," in which officials took kickbacks in exchange for lowering import duties. It was the scandal that brought down not only Pérez Molina but former Vice President Roxana Baldetti, who is also jailed and facing charges. At least 100 people are under investigation.

Since its founding in 2007, CICIG has helped prosecute at least 119 high-profile cases, such as corruption and human rights abuses. Velásquez's team also issued a campaign financing report estimating that at least 25 percent comes from drug money.

To fans, he is incorruptible.

"He's a man of integrity. He's not a man who likes to play politics, he's strictly legal and technical," human rights activist Helen Mack said.

To critics, the crusade is all about ego and personal recognition.

"They seek prominence," Pérez Molina said of Velásquez and his investigators. "We see them making the rounds in the media, and that's not the role of a judge or a prosecutor."

Velásquez first distinguished himself as an attorney in Medellín, Colombia, at a time when several of his colleagues were slain during the bloody reign of cartel kingpin Pablo Escobar. Elected president of the local lawyers' guild, he defended rights activists and opposed a system of using anonymous judges in drug cases.

He became public attorney for Antioquia state and later its chief prosecutor, just as future nemesis and President Alvaro Uribe was elected state governor and began promoting self-defense groups considered the precursors of murderous far-right militias.

As chief investigating magistrate for the Supreme Court for six years beginning in 2006, Velásquez helped put more than 50 Uribe-allied lawmakers in prison for colluding with the paramilitaries, mostly for conspiracy but also other crimes including murder.

Velásquez also played a role in investigating the DAS domestic intelligence agency, which was dismantled in 2011 after it was caught spying on judges, journalists and politicians. Velásquez was one of its targets.

Many believe Velásquez's success and incorruptibility torpedoed his ambitions to become a full judge, and in 2012 he quit the court after being dropped as head of the so-called para-politics investigations. He later said the country lacked the will to tackle corruption as Guatemala has recently.

"The problem is outside interference in investigative bodies," he told El Tiempo magazine, "pressure that keeps them from acting the way they should."

Velásquez loves moody bolero music, lives without air conditioning — he says he's allergic — and visits family in Colombia at least once a month, returning to Guatemala nostalgic but energized to continue his investigations.

He initially planned to stay just two years with CICIG, which has been under attack since its founding in 2007 for going after the political and business establishment that controls the country.

Pérez Molina first wanted to scuttle the commission when he took office in 2012, but knuckled under international pressure. He had little choice again this year, and renewed CICIG's mandate April 23 just seven days after "La Linea" was revealed.

Velásquez now plans to remain in Guatemala until 2017, and he continues to make enemies.

Presidential candidate Manuel Baldizón, who led most pre-election polls and has had at least six party allies investigated by CICIG, hinted that he would seek to replace Velásquez upon taking office.

Amid widespread disgust over corruption, Baldizón appeared to place third in Sunday's vote which would eliminate him from the runoff.

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