LSU alumna Claudia Escobar Mejía, a Guatemalan appeals court judge, created an upheaval in her nation’s judicial system last month when she abruptly resigned her position to publicly condemn the judicial selection process as hopelessly corrupt.
Since then, Escobar has been called a whistle-blower, political icon and champion of Guatemalan democracy. But Javier and Guillermo Fernandez, of Baton Rouge, are more apt to refer to her as mom.
The brothers came to Baton Rouge to study at LSU, their parents’ alma mater, but spent the majority of their lives growing up in Guatemala.
“It’s the first time in a while someone (like my mom) stood up,” Guillermo Fernandez said. “They say this is the most corrupt government in Guatemalan history.”
Guillermo Fernandez, 24, graduated from LSU this summer, and Javier Fernandez, 25, is a junior at the university and a photographer for the student newspaper, The Daily Reveille.
Both were born in Louisiana while their parents attended LSU. After Escobar and her husband, Eugenio Fernandez, graduated in 1990, the family returned to her home country, Guatemala.
The Fernandez brothers have witnessed firsthand the crime and corruption in Guatemala.
“I’ve been held up at gunpoint three times in broad daylight in Guatemala,” Javier Fernandez said. “It happens all the time. At some point, something has to change. It has to do with the justice system not working. The whole system is rotten.”
Escobar had sat on a Guatemalan appellate court for one term and was up for reappointment this fall.
Although steps had been taken to reform Guatemala’s judicial system, irregularities in this year’s selection process revealed that problems remain, Escobar said in a phone interview from Guatemala City. Special interest groups, namely the ruling Patriotic Party, still have influence in decision-making.
“While I was a candidate for appellation body judge, I started seeing everything that was going on, and I was very worried about it,” she said.
In Guatemala, a selection commission creates a list of candidates for Supreme Court and appeals court judges. From that list, the Congress picks judges to serve five-year terms.
The commission is supposed to be composed of nonpartisan representatives, such as lawyers and law school deans, in an attempt to make the process more transparent and less political. Special interest groups, however, are influential in the selection process, pressuring the commission to choose certain judges, Escobar said.
“They get the judges who will sentence in the way they need,” she said. “There are a lot of special interest groups, especially in the executive and legislative branches.”
Escobar said she came under pressure from the ruling party during the selection process.
She met with a congressman who promised her reappointment if she approved a petition to allow the vice president to serve as secretary general of the Patriotic Party, she said. In Guatemala, it is unconstitutional for government officials to hold positions within the political parties.
“He said, ‘If you want to be elected, you can be elected, but you need to give us this resolution,’ ” Escobar recalled him saying. “I felt very angry about it. I thought, ‘I won’t be able to do this because this is not right.’ I said no.”
On Sept. 30, the Congress voted to reappoint Escobar to the judiciary. But days later, she decided to make public a recording of her talking to the congressman.
“I decided to make it public, renounce my position and ask them to do the process again,” Escobar said. “I cannot be a judge under this system.”
On Oct. 9, four days after she essentially turned down reappointment, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court suspended the election results. While the country awaits the court’s resolution, the national spotlight has shone on Escobar.
“She’s been on the cover of magazines for three weeks in a row,” Javier Fernandez noted. “She was on every (newspaper) front page.”
“The media’s response has been amazing,” Escobar said. “And from the public, well, many people in different ways are happy I did this because everyone knew, but nobody wanted to talk in public about this.”
The widespread coverage adds a sense of security, Guillermo Fernandez noted, making it difficult for anything to happen to Escobar while the spotlight is shining on her.
Still, their family’s safety remains alarming for both of the brothers because of the high rates of violent crime in Guatemala, and fears of political retribution.
“I’m really worried about them,” Guillermo Fernandez said. “My mom has security, but my siblings don’t have the same protection. Violence there is crazy.”
Escobar and her husband, a tax consultant, have four other children living in Guatemala. She said she has one bodyguard assigned to two of her children in college. Two more bodyguards stay with Escobar, and she’s been given a bulletproof car.
“I’m really having a hard time,” Escobar said. “It’s not only about me. It’s also about my kids. I really (worry) for them. We’re living day by day now.”
Javier Fernandez said his family has a history in politics. Escobar’s mother was a judge in Guatemala, and Escobar said she decided long ago to be a judge, as well.
She received her bachelor’s degree in political science at LSU, her law degree in Guatemala and her doctorate in Barcelona. Escobar also is working on a master’s degree in education while teaching at the Universidad Francisco Marroquin.
In addition to two job titles, Escobar is a mother who wants her children to have the same educational opportunities she had.
“We encouraged our sons to go to LSU because it’s a very good location and they should have the experience,” Escobar said. “Besides that, it’s very important they learn English. And since they were born there, we think they should spend some time (in the U.S.).”
Although she would like her sons to come back to Guatemala one day, she noted they have become attached to Baton Rouge.
“I’ve been here for five years,” said Javier Fernandez, a creative writing major. “I really like it. It’s almost like my second home. It’s like my heart’s divided between Guatemala and here.”
Guillermo Fernandez graduated with a degree in agricultural business. He now lives in Baton Rouge with his wife and two young children.
“I love it here,” he said. “It’s a great place to have a family. The culture is similar to Latin culture.”
As for going back to Guatemala, both brothers agreed that until the justice system improves, it is too dangerous to return.
“Right now, my dreams and hopes of going back are on hold,” Guillermo Fernandez said.