Published December 16, 2015
Miguel Angel Galvez is the judge who jailed a president in this Central American country where the legal system has long been seen as for sale to the rich and powerful.
At the end of a year of unprecedented graft investigations that landed both President Otto Perez Molina and his vice president behind bars, Galvez has helped restore some public confidence in the rule of law and raised hopes Guatemala can get to grips with entrenched corruption.
"People come to me and present complaints. They give me first and last names — that means people are starting to have faith," Galvez said.
Months after one of his fellow magistrates was charged with accepting bribes from defendants in a corruption case she was hearing, Galvez has earned the nickname "the honorable judge."
Peoples hail him on the street and offer a quick embrace of thanks. "My dear judge, you are an example," said a man who approached Galvez while he was sipping coffee in a restaurant.
Even 11-year-olds know him: A classmate of Galvez's son recently asked the judge if he is the one who sends corrupt people to prison.
Galvez, 49, is seen as quiet, patient and discreet, but a judge who runs his courtroom with authority. He often takes hours to explain rulings, saying defendants and society need to understand the judgments clearly.
He rises early, spends long hours at the office and unwinds by taking long bike rides. "It's my way of relieving stress," he says.
In 16 years on the bench, Galvez has heard cases involving drug trafficking, murder, corruption and massacres of indigenous people during Guatemala's 1960-96 civil war. He was the judge who ordered detention for former dictator Efrain Rios Montt, who faces a genocide trial in January, a move that attracted death threats, judicial complaints against him and bribery attempts.
"Justice (in Guatemala) has advanced. Today there is more prestige, better investigation," Galvez said. "I have faith that with all these cases the institutions are going to improve, because society is finally getting involved."
No case has attracted more attention or won Galvez more recognition than the graft scheme known as "The Line," in which suspects allegedly defrauded the state by taking bribes to lower customs duties. Galvez ordered Perez Molina jailed pending trial after he resigned the presidency in disgrace, shocking a country accustomed to seeing the well-connected skirt punishment.
"He put the corrupt ones in jail and that had never been seen before," said Wendy Monterroso, a waitress. "If there were no corruption the country would be richer and there wouldn't be so much poverty."
Galvez lives comfortably but without flamboyant luxury. That stands in stark contrast to a former colleague who was removed from the bench on suspicion of illegal enrichment after prosecutors learned she lived in a mansion covering nearly an entire city block, tough to explain in a country where judges of her rank earn on average about $2,650 a month.
In September, authorities arrested three judges, among them an appeals court justice accused of taking a $1.3 million bribe for favoring a company and a lower court judge who was accused of accepting money for releasing suspects in the customs scandal.
Even Cesar Calderon, Perez Molina's defense lawyer, says Galvez is a straight-shooter, though that doesn't mean he agrees with the ruling that put his client behind bars.
"The most important thing for justice is to have honest judges, and he is one," Calderon said. But he does characterize Galvez as "a jailing judge," saying: "There's no need to fill the prisons when the law allows for bail."
Despite the praise for his work, Galvez has been unsuccessful in bids for promotion to higher posts, which are controlled by a Congress where he has little political support.
"They are not interested in judges like Miguel Angel Galvez," constitutional lawyer Alejandro Balsells said. "You can't say that there is a frontal attack on corruption just because there are some people behind bars. That will happen when the honest judge is respected and is able to rise and take on high positions."
2015 will be remembered for Perez Molina's resignation and numerous anti-corruption protests that erupted after Guatemalan prosecutors and a U.N.-backed investigative commission blew the lid off "The Line" and other scandals.
Prosecutors broke up 21 corruption and organized crime networks this year, and more than 600 people from the business world and all branches of government have been implicated.
In 2016, many of those cases will come to trial and the focus will turn to winning convictions — and, many people hope, scaring corrupt officials straight. Guatemalans will also be watching to see if incoming President Jimmy Morales, who rode the wave of disgust over corruption into office as a relative political outsider, makes good on promises to clean up government.
For his part, Galvez says more resources need to be devoted to improving the judicial system.
"The fundamental thing here is to consolidate the rule of law," he said.