Diplomatic row between Guatemala, Colombia deepens over graft probes

Colombia's Defense Minister Ivan Velasquez speaks during an interview with Reuters in Bogota, Colombia October 8, 2022. REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez/File Photo

GUATEMALA CITY/BOGOTA, Jan 17 (Reuters) - A diplomatic spat between Guatemala and Colombia intensified on Tuesday as Guatemala's government accused Colombia's defense chief of crimes related to a high-stakes graft probe he once led as a special prosecutor in Guatemala.

Over the past year, Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei has faced a growing chorus of critics claiming he has slammed the brakes on anti-corruption efforts, as well as forcing some judges and prosecutors to flee the country.

On Tuesday, the minister at the center of the storm - Colombian defense chief Ivan Velasquez - took to Twitter to thank those who have rallied to his side, including President Gustavo Petro, while also touting the need to fight graft.

"We know the monster, we've seen it up close," wrote Velasquez, who was the head from 2013-2019 of a U.N.-backed anti-corruption body that operated in Guatemala.

"The fight against corruption has to be a goal, a collective action," he added.

On Monday, Guatemala insinuated that Velasquez had committed crimes. A Guatemalan prosecutor later clarified that Velasquez is being investigated for "illegal, arbitrary and abusive acts" stemming from his investigation into an alleged bribery scheme involving Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht.

Speaking from the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, Petro defended Velasquez, saying he would not accept any arrest warrant for him.

The spat led both nations to summon their ambassadors for consultations.

On Tuesday, Giammattei told Spanish news agency EFE that Velasquez is simply under investigation and not facing criminal prosecution.

"It would be nice if someone enlightened Mr. Petro on the difference," quipped Giammattei.

In Guatemala, arrest warrants have also been issued for several others as part of the investigation, including former Attorney General Thelma Aldana, who fled the country after her term ended in 2018 following her own anti-corruption investigations.

The probe into Odebrecht's alleged bribery scheme in exchange for public-works contracts led to a sweeping corruption scandal that has rippled across Latin America.

A senior U.S. diplomat also weighed in on Tuesday with a sharp critique of Guatemala's actions.

Brian Nichols, the U.S. State Department's assistant secretary for Western hemisphere affairs, wrote in a post on Twitter that he was "disturbed" arrest warrants were issued "against individuals who worked to ensure accountability for corruption in the Odebrecht case."

Reporting by Sofia Menchu in Guatemala City and Luis Jaime Acosta in Bogota; Additional reporting by Kylie Madry; Editing by Marguerita Choy, Mark Porter and Leslie Adler

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