Guatemala arrests ex-1st lady, presidential runner-up Torres

SONIA PÉREZ D.
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Guatemala Corruption

Former first lady and former presidential candidate Sandra Torres is escorted by police to the Supreme Court in Guatemala City, Monday, Sept. 2, 2019. Authorities arrested Torres at her home on charges of campaign finance violations. (AP Photo/Oliver De Ros)

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — Former Guatemalan first lady and presidential runner-up Sandra Torres was arrested Monday on charges of campaign finance violations, the latest high-profile political figure to face allegations of malfeasance even as a U.N. anti-graft commission is set to shut down.

Investigators searched Torres' Guatemala City home in the morning and transported her to court, handcuffed, with her face obscured by a scarf, a hood and dark glasses. She told journalists she was the victim of a political vendetta.

Prosecutors said she is accused of unregistered electoral financing and illicit association related to the 2015 election and the National Unity of Hope party, of which she was both candidate and general secretary. According to investigators the party did not properly register some $3.6 million in financing for her campaign.

The investigation found that several businesses financed the party through the payment of commissions, diversion of funds and bribes to various public and private institutions.

Torres' vice presidential running mate from 2015, Mario Leal Castillo, is also wanted in the case and is considered a fugitive from justice.

Torres, 63, finished second in both the 2015 and 2019 presidential elections, to Jimmy Morales and Alejandro Giammattei, respectively. Giammattei takes office in January.

"Everything is political, and you should ask Dr. Giammattei why he said he would not rest easy until he put me in prison," Torres said at the court. "Go ask him. It is a political persecution."

The judge set a hearing for Sept. 6, and Torres was sent to a center for provisional detention despite her lawyers' appeal that she go to a private hospital.

"There could be a risk of flight and obstruction of justice," Judge Claudette Domínguez said.

The Mariscal Zavala detention center is located on a military base and has been referred to by some as a VIP prison, with dozens of other former officials, judges and politicians including ex-President Otto Pérez Molina among those in custody.

The National Unity of Hope party also criticized Torres' arrest: "We reject the disproportionate and unnecessary measure taken against Sandra Torres," it said via Twitter. Party official Eduardo Velásquez said she had previously handed over her passport in assurance that she would not leave the country.

The investigation targeting Torres was presented earlier this year by prosecutors and the U.N. commission, known as CICIG for its initials in Spanish.

As a presidential candidate, however, Torres enjoyed immunity from criminal prosecution just as elected officials do. That protection ended once Giammattei's election was officially certified last month.

CICIG, which for 12 years has helped press high-profile graft investigations that ensnared many of Guatemala's powerful and wealthy, ceases operations Tuesday after Morales refused to renew its mandate. The commission had brought cases against the president and some of his family members.

Torres was married to — and later divorced — former President Álvaro Colom, who governed from 2008 to 2012. Colom also ran with National Unity of Hope.

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Associated Press writer Sonny Figueroa in Guatemala City contributed to this report.