José Rubén Zamora Marroquín

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José Rubén Zamora Marroquín, president of the Guatemalan newspaper elPeriódico, was sentenced to six years in prison in June 2023 on money laundering charges that were widely condemned as retaliation for his journalism. An appeals court annulled his sentence in October, and Zamora remains behind bars ahead of a retrial scheduled for 2024. He has been in detention since his arrest in July 2022.

Zamora, one of Guatemala’s most high-profile investigative journalists with a career spanning more than 30 years, has faced repeated threats and attacks for his decades of reporting on corruption and human rights violations. He co-founded multiple news outlets, including daily newspaper Siglo Veintiuno in 1990, and elPeriódico, a Guatemala City-based daily newspaper that covered politics and corruption, in 1996, after he left Siglo Veintiuno.

Zamora received numerous awards for his reporting, including the Maria Moors Cabot Prize from Columbia University and CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award, both in 1995.

Zamora was arrested at his home in Guatemala City on July 29, 2022, on charges including money laundering, blackmail, and influence peddling. In the days between his arrest and his initial hearing, Zamora’s lawyers did not have access to documents detailing his charges. Police also raided elPeriódico’s offices on July 29.

At an August 8, 2022, preliminary court hearing, a Guatemala City judge ordered Zamora to remain in pretrial detention while prosecutors proceeded with a criminal investigation. 

On August 1, as part of their investigation, prosecutors ordered the seizure of elPeriódico’s bank accounts. On August 19, police arrested the publication’s financial manager, Flora Silva, in connection with the money laundering investigation.

The publication’s staff denounced the actions as retaliation for its reporting on allegations of corruption in the administration of President Alejandro Giammattei, as well as reporting on Attorney General Consuelo Porras. 

The case against Zamora comes amid a broader crackdown by the Guatemalan state on prosecutors and anti-corruption investigators, according to reports and human rights organizations

Zamora’s son José Zamora told CPJ by phone in October 2022 that there is a long history of lawsuits and other attempts by officials to intimidate his father and elPeriódico’s reporters, and that he believes the criminal proceedings against his father are retaliation for the outlet’s reporting on Giammattei. Zamora and elPeriódico staff have been the targets of lawsuits and harassment from public officials for years, and Zamora has survived multiple attempts on his life.  

In 2003, a group of heavily armed people who identified themselves as investigators from the public prosecutor’s office entered Zamora’s home and held him and his family hostage at gunpoint, threatened to execute him, and told the family they would kill him if they reported the attack. In 2008, he survived a kidnapping attempt in which he was severely beaten and left unconscious in the town of Chimaltenango, where he was found and taken to the hospital by the local fire department.

Since 2013, multiple officials filed criminal lawsuits against Zamora and his colleagues under Guatemala’s Law Against Femicide and Other Forms of Violence Against Women, alleging elPeriódico’s coverage caused them psychological damage, including then Vice President Roxana Baldetti in 2013, then Foreign Minister Sandra Jovel in 2018, and the daughter of the president of Guatemala’s Constitutional Court in May 2022. As of November 2023, these lawsuits were pending and continued to block the journalists from writing about the lawsuits’ plaintiffs. 

In February 2023, a Guatemalan judge opened a separate investigation into Zamora and eight other elPeriódico journalists and columnists for allegedly obstructing justice related to their coverage of Zamora’s trial. 

In May 2023, under government pressure, elPeriódico ceased online publication and closed operations after 26 years.

A judge in April 2023 issued arrest warrants for three lawyers defending Zamora. Two of them, Francisco Solórzano and Justino Brito, were sentenced in June to two years in prison for obstructing justice. Their sentences were commuted and they were not imprisoned, but they were banned from practicing law in Guatemala for five years. The other lawyer left the country. 

Zamora’s public trial began on May 2, 2023, and concluded on June 14, 2023, when Zamora was convicted of money laundering and acquitted of blackmail and influence peddling. Zamora was sentenced to a six-year prison term and fined 300,000 quetzales (US$38,000 dollars). 

Separately, on June 12, 2023, prosecutors filed another case against Zamora, accusing him of using falsified documents. As of late 2023, Zamora had been formally charged and was under investigation, and the case was pending. 

An appeals court overturned Zamora’s conviction on October 13 and ordered a retrial on the money laundering, blackmail, and influence peddling charges. The retrial is set to begin in February 2024.

Zamora is held in the Mariscal Zavala prison at a military base in northern Guatemala City. He is generally in good health, but family members are concerned for his safety because the prison also houses several individuals accused of corruption that have been the subjects of elPeriodico’s reporting, his son José told CPJ. 

CPJ messaged and called the Guatemalan prosecutor’s office via WhatsApp multiple times in October 2023, but received no replies.