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Meet the Guatemalan judge fighting for democracy at a critical moment for the country

EYDER PERALTA, HOST:

My usual beat includes Central America, so I recently traveled to Guatemala at what is a critical moment for that country's democracy. A runoff election for president is scheduled for August 20. And in a few minutes, we'll talk to a member of a reform party whose offices have been raided by police and its members harassed. Indeed, as Guatemala's democratic space has closed, judges, journalists, rights defenders and tens of thousands of regular people have fled. But we'll start this hour on the top floor of a courthouse in Guatemala City...

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

PERALTA: ...With the story of Yassmin Barrios, a judge who has lived through the most hopeful moments of the country's democracy and has now decided to fight through one of its most difficult.

YASSMIN BARRIOS: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: When I first see Judge Yassmin Barrios, she's in the middle of a judicial nightmare - far from where she was 10 years ago. That's when she handed down one of the most important rulings in Latin American history. She presided over a trial that found Efrain Rios Montt, the former military ruler of Guatemala, guilty of genocide, of ordering the extermination of a Mayan tribe during the civil war in the '80s. It was unprecedented - an untouchable had been held to account. But just 10 days later, that sentence was thrown out. And now she's been relegated to this courthouse, to this trial about a gang running an extortion ring.

BARRIOS: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: And she can't get anywhere. First, authorities at the prison refused to turn on a video link.

BARRIOS: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: She protests. They turn it on. The accused gives the camera a middle finger. And authorities tell her the administrative judge, who has to be present for the hearing to begin, has gone missing. This is the second day of excuses. Clearly, they're obstructing the process. Judge Barrios sighs, shuffles papers, apologizes for the chaos and adjourns.

BARRIOS: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: During a brief period, roughly between 2013 and 2019, Guatemala was hopeful. The country, its people, went on a voracious hunt for justice. There was the Rios Montt genocide trial. Also, huge protests against corruption brought down a sitting president. A U.N.-backed task force, la CICIG, investigated hundreds of people, including a president and vice president. At one point, a think tank found 21% of legislators were being investigated.

LUIS FERNANDO MACK: (Through interpreter) The CICIG lifted the veil on how the powerful dominated Guatemala.

PERALTA: That's Luis Fernando Mack, a political scientist at the University of San Carlos in Guatemala. He says the roots of corruption, however, remained.

MACK: (Through interpreter) All of the progress was based on political will and on high-level negotiations. But the structure still favored the elite.

PERALTA: And when the rich and powerful found themselves going to jail, they struck back. They pressured the president and threw money at lobbying groups in the U.S. to get the international investigators out of the country.

MACK: (Through interpreter) Now, cynically, they're using those same mechanisms to get back at their enemies.

PERALTA: That means, for example, that the special anti-corruption office is being used to jail journalists and political foes. And the Electoral Commission has thrown out popular candidates in this election on flimsy allegations. The fortunes have also turned for people like Judge Yassmin Barrios.

BARRIOS: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: We meet at her house. In the past few years, there have been six assassination attempts against her. In her usual whisper, she tells me nonchalantly that in her last house, someone threw grenades into her living room. She says that when she became a judge, she had no idea how difficult this would be.

BARRIOS: (Through interpreter) I didn't know I'd have to risk my life. I didn't know I had to risk my family. I had no idea the effect my work would have on society.

PERALTA: She calls that guilty verdict against Rios Montt, who is now dead, one of the most beautiful days in Guatemalan history. Even 10 years later, she marvels at the 718-page sentencing document. Some of the testimony still haunts her, like one woman who described her whole village running from soldiers. Her baby was crying, so she covered his mouth with a diaper.

BARRIOS: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: When the mother uncovered the baby's mouth, he was dead.

BARRIOS: (Through interpreter) I felt like this - so small. I said, my God, what great pain these women have been through.

PERALTA: She says that judgment returned a bit of dignity to a people who have suffered so much. That is why she stays, she says.

BARRIOS: (Through interpreter) I believe that Guatemalans have the right to lead a better life.

PERALTA: But in the past few years, more than two dozen judges have fled the country after receiving threats. The day before we spoke, a government witness in what was widely viewed as a sham trial against Guatemala's most prominent journalist claimed without evidence that Judge Barrios had taken bribes. The government has already cut her budget. She buys her own water, her own paper. This was one more threat against one of the few remaining independent judges. I ask her, are you not scared?

BARRIOS: No.

PERALTA: She looks me straight in the eye.

BARRIOS: (Through interpreter) I haven't done anything wrong. People who know me know I'm an honest woman - hardworking, responsible and cogent. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.