Guatemala has made important, hard fought gains for judicial independence and the rule of law. But in an attempt to hold onto power and avoid prosecution, corrupt alliances are whittling away at this progress. New electoral reforms are proving difficult to enforce in a tense political climate and uncertainty looms as candidates with dubious records are printed on ballots. While newcomers fight for a more inclusive Guatemala, violence is a constant threat.
On Sunday, June 16, Guatemalans will head to the polls to elect a new president, vice-president, members of congress, municipal authorities, and representatives to the Central American Parliament. In this general election, all 158 legislative seats and 340 mayorships will be on the ballot. If no presidential candidate wins the first round with more than 50 percent of the vote, a second round will be held on August 11. The elected president and new authorities will assume office on January 14, 2020.
Guatemala’s political institutions have been known for being weak, fragmented and unrepresentative. Political parties are unstable and short-lived, often created as electoral vehicles rather than ongoing associations. Costly election campaigns have further corroded the political system, leaving politicians winning financing from, and finding themselves indebted to criminal interests or powerful business elites looking to gain access to public resources and contracts. According to a 2015 CICIG report, Guatemala’s political parties derive around half of their financing through unreported donations intended to buy influence. Some 25 percent of this illicit financing comes from wealthy elites and businesses, 25 percent from organized crime, and the other 50 percent from state contractors. Politicians from various levels of government rely on quid pro quo relationships with both licit and illicit actors to remain in political power and reap the benefits that follow that power.
Political parties are unstable and short-lived, often created as electoral vehicles rather than ongoing associations.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s investigation and subsequent April 17 arrest of presidential candidate Mario Estrada is illustrative of the extent to which organized crime and special interests have infiltrated the country’s political system. According to the DEA, Estrada offered the Sinaloa cartel access to Guatemala’s ports and airports to import cocaine into the United States.1 In return, Estrada solicited cartel funds to finance a criminal scheme that would ensure him the presidency, that included the assassination of his political rivals.
Estrada had a long political career, serving as a member of Congress and later in the Alfonso Portillo administration (2000-2004). Given this trajectory, Estrada is known to be a part of many political circles. Just days before his arrest, Estrada reportedly took part in a meeting with current President Jimmy Morales and many cabinet members at his farm.
Born out of the 2015 mass mobilizations against corruption, civil society agreed that in order to address some of the major issues within the Guatemalan political system, the Law on Political Parties (Ley Electoral y de Partidos Políticos, LEPP for its Spanish acronym) must be reformed. Facing immense pressure from these mass mobilizations, the Guatemalan Congress ultimately passed many, but not all, of civil society’s suggested reforms to the electoral law. At their core, the reforms hoped to bring broader transparency, representation, and parity of diverse sectors in Guatemala to modern day politics. Ultimately, the new law imposed heightened restrictions on campaign financing, regulated paid publicity of campaigns, and addressed issues of party switching within Congress. 2019 marks the first major election to unfold under these new laws.
Illicitly financed campaigns are central to maintaining the political status quo and are a means to facilitate the quid pro quo bargaining that deprive Guatemalans of their right to representative democracy. Investigations carried out by the public prosecutor’s office and the CICIG unearthed the profound impact that illicit campaign contributions had during the 2015 presidential campaign. Investigators uncovered millions of dollars in undeclared campaign contributions in the form of cash contributions, donations of equipment and vehicles (including helicopters), and in-kind services. The amount of undeclared contributions to the political party Líder totalled more than $2.8 million (Q21 million), and other parties such as UNE and FCN-Nación were also implicated.
As part of the reforms passed in 2016, Guatemalan authorities allow private campaign contributions to political parties so long as these financial backers register with the electoral tribunal (TSE). Registering with the TSE serves two major purposes; 1) it allows for the public to be informed about how much money is raised by a particular party and 2) it allows the public to know what kind of forces are backing each particular party. While both serve to create to a more transparent process, the latter is significant in a country like Guatemala where political campaigns, especially races in the rural parts of the country are sometimes illicitly backed by criminal organizations that wish to continue exerting influence over the region.
Another practice by which members of Congress hold on to power is through party switching or party crossing, a practice known in Guatemala as transfuguismo. Before the 2016 reforms, party membership meant little, and members of Congress were able to jump from one party to another at any time during their term, without running on a separate party’s ticket during a scheduled election. This often meant that members of Congress would switch to parties where they could wield the most political influence and/or where they would have a better chance for reelection. For example, in the 2015 election, only eleven members of Congress who were registered with FCN-Nacion were elected to Congress. Morales, who was elected president in 2015, was also a member of FCN-Nacion. By November of 2017, 26 members of Congress had defected from other parties and joined the party of President Morales. Many of these members switched over from the Líder party, formerly headed by Manuel Baldizón, a presidential candidate during the 2015 elections who is currently imprisoned in the United States for crimes related to the Obredecht scandal. Another handful of the new FCN-Nacion members came from the Partido Patriota party, headed in 2011 by former President Otto Perez Molina, who is now in prison facing grand corruption charges.
The reforms require members to wait until they are no longer in office before they can officially run under the banner of new party. However, the reform has been ambiguously interpreted by the electoral tribunal, which also complains that it lacks the capacity to fully implement the transfuguismo ban. As a result, various members who had participated in party switching have been allowed to run again, undermining political stability and members’ accountability.
Another significant change to the electoral law deals with the way that campaigns can advertise for their candidates via paid publicity. The reforms intend to provide a fair playing field among parties by equally distributing campaign advertisements. The law requires media outlets to register with the TSE in order to air electoral content. Parties must register with the TSE and the TSE then manages the parties’ political advertisements on these outlets. While groups have criticized this reform as an attack on freedom of expression, the intention is to require complete transparency on the part of the political party as well as the media outlet.
In Guatemala, media ownership is concentrated in the hands of very few media moguls with undue political and commercial influence. One of the most blatant examples of the relationship between power and the media in Guatemala was seen during the 2011 presidential campaign of former president Otto Perez Molina. The Attorney General and CICIG found that owners of media company Albavision allegedly funneled over $23 million in campaign contributions in exchange for 69 percent of government television advertising during Molina’s time in office from 2012 to 2015. An Interpol red alert was issued in 2016 for Alba Lorenzana, legal representative of Albavision and wife of media mogul Angel Gonzalez; she has yet to be captured. Gonzalez currently owns four major television channels in Guatemala and dozens of others around Latin America.
The new communication reform also regulates how much each party spends on advertisement. Each party now has a cap of $3.8 million on its 2019 campaign, which is lower than the authorized cap of $7.6 million the 2015 elections. The official campaign period was shortened to a period of 90 days and candidates must cease paid publicity two days before the election, on June 14, 2019. In this environment, the ability of the TSE to restrict and register political advertising is intended to contribute to an environment of greater transparency.
The 2016 reforms were highly anticipated and provided Guatemalan institutions with the legal power to address some key aspects of corruption in politics. However, the 2019 elections process has raised doubts as to whether the political will and the resources exist to ensure that the reforms are fairly and acutely implemented. Where this could have the most impact is at the local and congressional levels. Article 113 of Guatemala’s Constitution establishes that the electoral authorities must evaluate the eligibility of each candidate, disqualifying candidates with past convictions. But the TSE has ruled inconsistently when vetting candidates. According to a group of local civil society organizations, at least 150 candidates running for Congress have questionable credentials.
Illustrative of the Tribunal’s inconsistency, was its decision to deny the candidacy of former president Alfonso Portillo due to his criminal record, while deciding not to revoke the candidacies of candidates with well-known criminal profiles. For example, Jose Armando Ubico, arrested and sentenced to 46 months in prison for trafficking heroin in 2003, has served in the Guatemalan Congress since 2015 and is running for reelection in his district of Sacatepéquez. The TSE’s inability to properly or impartially vet many local candidates for mayor and Congress may leave space for candidates under investigation or with criminal records to be elected and, once in office, have immunity.
Since the official campaign period kicked off, official bodies have barred at least 4 candidates from the presidential race, including top contenders Zury Rios and Thelma Aldana.
Zury Rios, daughter of former dictator Efrain Rios Montt (who was convicted of genocide in 2013) was the candidate for the right-wing Valor party. A long-time politician, she served four terms in the Guatemalan Congress. On May 13, the Constitutional Court upheld its ruling barring Rios from running in a 4-3 split decision. According to the court, the Guatemalan constitution prohibits anyone who came to power by force from running for president. The same ban extends to relatives up to fourth degree of consanguinity.
Thelma Aldana is best known for her close collaboration with CICIG in the fight against corruption while at the helm of the attorney general’s office. Of the many cases brought by Aldana as attorney general, one of the most notable investigations led to the arrest of former President Otto Perez Molina. While her work as attorney general has granted Aldana national and international recognition, her bold approach to ensuring justice provoked a strong backlash from corrupt and criminal networks who have sought to bring an end to the corruption investigations.
She launched her campaign earlier this year as the presidential candidate for Movimiento Semilla, a new political party born out of the 2015 popular mobilizations against corruption. Movimiento Semilla prides itself on being a clean, transparent party that reflects the “new political era” in Guatemala.
Like the other leading contenders, Aldana’s candidacy has been challenged in the courts. Aside from defamation campaigns and threats, Aldana has 18 accusations against her, many made by groups and individuals who came under investigation during her time as attorney general, including an accusation made by Congressman Felipe Alejos (implicated by CICIG and the attorney general’s office in a corruption scandal) which was eventually dropped. Shortly after she registered in March, three challenges to her candidacy were brought to the TSE. Ultimately, the tribunal rejected her candidacy, citing an arrest warrant related to allegations involving the improper hiring of a university official for services that were never rendered. She was in El Salvador at the time and has remained outside the country since then out of fear for her life. The Supreme Court denied her request for an injunction and in mid-May the Constitutional Court denied her final appeal on the grounds that she lacked the certification accrediting that she didn’t have any outstanding accounts after having held public office. An arrest warrant was issued the day before her official registration as a candidate and the judge responsible is reportedly now under investigation for allegedly taking a bribe, official security guards, and an armored vehicle in exchange for issuing the warrant.
As previously mentioned, the TSE revoked the candidacy of center-right National Change Union Mario Estrada after his arrest in the United States on drug trafficking charges. And presidential candidate for the FUERZA party Mauricio Radford was also barred for having an ongoing corruption case against him.
The Constitutional Court’s rulings appear to have eliminated the strongest opponents to Former First Lady Sandra Torres. Candidate for Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza (UNE), Torres was married to former president Álvaro Colom Caballeros and focused her duties as first lady on implementing social, educational, and nutritional policies for the Consejo de Cohesión Social (Council of Social Cohesion). Torres ran for president in the 2015 elections coming in second place against current Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales. Due to her political past, Torres has been successful in making inroads with rural parts of Guatemala. However, according to polling, Torres has the highest rejection rates in the presidential running.
The candidacy of Sandra Torres has been highly controversial because of pending allegations of illicit campaign financing from her 2015 presidential run. Once she became a candidate for office in this election, she was granted immunity from prosecution. In February of this year, the Special Prosecutor’s Office against Impunity (Fiscalia Especial contra la Impunidad, FECI), Public Prosecutor’s Office and CICIG sought to have Torres’ immunity from prosecution lifted over a case of millions in alleged illicit campaign financing. According to the investigation, Torres is suspected of receiving around $2.5 million for the 2015 presidential race from businesses, which the party failed to report to the electoral tribunal. The prosecutor’s request came a day after Torres officially registered as a candidate. According to the CICIG, the case had been awaiting the attorney general’s approval since October of 2018. The Supreme Court later denied the request to remove Torres’ immunity arguing that the allegations lacked “sufficient elements of rationality.” FECI and CICIG presented an appeal and on May 17 the Constitutional Court made a provisional ruling on the grounds that they needed more time to resolve other pending appeals relevant to the case. The case is now pending a final ruling by the same Constitutional Court without a deadline in place. Torres responded to the investigation by publicly attacking the FECI, claiming that the institution houses a criminal structure and needs to be investigated itself.2
These rulings eliminating key candidates opened up greater opportunity, not only for Torres, but for several right-wing candidates who had been trailing behind, including:
Alejandro Giammattei is a doctor by profession and is making his fourth attempt at the presidency, this time running with the right-wing VAMOS party. Giammattei was named the head of Guatemala’s prison system in 2006. He was accused in 2010 of being involved in an assassination within the prison while he was the acting director, but was absolved by a high risk court in 2012 due to lack of evidence. Leading the party’s bid for Congress this election season is the son of Francisco Ortega Menaldo, a retired military officer who helped establish an illicit smuggling operation during the civil armed conflict. A recent report by daily news outlet Nomada links Giammattei to the Mendoza family, an organized criminal group based in Guatemala’s northern region of Petén.
Lawyer and diplomat, Edmond Mulet is the presidential candidate and national coordinator for Partido Humanista (Humanist Party). Mulet served as Chief of Staff of the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon between 2015 and 2016 as well as sub-secretary general of the UN in charge of UN Peacekeeping operations from 2007-2010 and 2011-2015. In April 2017, he was appointed as head of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
Mulet attempted to run with the TODOS party in 2015, however, revelations from an ongoing investigation of an adoption scandal undercut Mulet’s campaign. Investigative news outlet, Plaza Pública explains that before his political career, Mulet orchestrated adoptions of Guatemalan children that circumvented legal controls and used connections with politicians to avoid being investigated for his actions. Mulet has denied accusations against him.
Roberto Arzú, son of former president and mayor of Guatemala City Álvaro Arzú, is the presidential nominee for two small parties, PAN and PODEMOS. Most known for his time as the president of Guatemalan soccer club, Comunicaciones, Arzú junior also held a position in the foreign ministry as a special mission ambassador of Guatemala to South America. He recently told EFE that in order to address crime in Guatemala, the army should be deployed in the streets and he supports the death penalty because some of these criminals do not deserve to live. A judge in Florida ordered the detention of Arzú after he failed to appear in court. Known in 2015 as the MR party, Arzú is leading the newly renamed PODEMOS party, home to many of the members of Congress that Alejandro Sinibaldi bribed in 2015 in order to run on the MR’s presidential ticket.
Estuardo Ernesto Galdámez, member of Congress and candidate for FCN-Nacion, the current administration’s party. Galdámez was first elected as representative in the Quiché region in 2011 with the Partido Patriota party. Later disbanded, Galdámez joined FCN-Nación in 2016. Galdámez was a kabil officer, one of the most notorious military units, and has known ties to many former military officials accused and convicted of grave human rights violations. During his congressional run in 2011, the TSE barred Galdámez from running for having received government contracts for his business, Agromec, in 2009 and 2010. However, due to the political influence of the Partido Patriota, he was elected and has served in Congress since under the banner of different political parties. Just last month, the Attorney General and the CICIG presented a case against Galdámez and various other members of Congress for participating in vote-buying at the behest of then Vice-President, Roxana Baldetti. According to the investigation, Baldetti would pay various members a bribe of 50,000 quetzales every other month to ensure that those members would vote for favorable legislation.
Political tensions are rising in Guatemala’s capital as the elections approach. Just four days before the election, Guatemala’s head prosecutor for electoral crimes Óscar Shaad was forced to flee the country with his family in light of tangible threats made against his person. Despite an increased security detail, the DEA warned Shaad that he was the target of death threats in relation to the Mario Estrada investigation.
Meanwhile, groups of military veterans and self-defense patrols have mobilized to demand pensions and other benefits for their service during the internal armed conflict. They have threatened to use bombs and boycott the elections if their demands are not met. Before leaving the country, Shaad confirmed that the office of electoral crimes opened an investigation into this threat. Last week, the agricultural ministry transferred about $5.5 million to a program providing agricultural grants to former members of the armed forces, specifically to members of a group known as ExPAC. Civil society groups have expressed concern that distributing funds so close to the election is an act that would clearly benefit the governing party.
Outside of the capital, violence is a real threat for many local candidates in more remote parts of the country or areas with heightened criminal presence. The Mirador Electoral, an electoral observation group comprised of Guatemalan civil society organizations, has identified a high number of municipalities across the country vulnerable to electoral violence during this election season. Some 254 municipalities are in high risk of electoral violence according to the Mirador. A member of the Mirador said in an interview that most high risk areas are concentrated in border zones, where there is a lack of state presence.
As of June 4, ten candidates for public office have been killed. The party with the highest number of assassinations is the People’s Liberation Movement (Movimiento para la Liberación de los Pueblos, MLP). The MLP, created in 2018, is the political arm of the Campesino organization, CODECA. Last year marked an extremely deadly year for indigenous land and human rights defenders in Guatemala and 6 CODECA members have been killed since the beginning of 2018. MLP has a presidential hopeful of their own; Thelma Cabrera seeks to become Guatemala’s first female and indigenous president.
This year’s elections come at a critical time for the country. Over the last ten years, Guatemala made remarkable progress in strengthening the rule of law and tackling impunity. With the help of CICIG, Guatemalan institutions developed investigative techniques that unearthed and ultimately brought down high-level government officials, members of the business elite and criminals formerly thought of as untouchable. These achievements gained the justice system important public trust. While an invigorated public prosecutor’s office and the CICIG proposed key reforms to address the systemic weaknesses that allowed for such widespread corruption, many saw the reforms and anti-corruption measures as a direct threat to their power and have aggressively sought to roll back the rule of law gains and take back control of the system to guarantee their impunity.
The decade of slow but crucial progress made to address corruption has exposed the deep ties between the state and criminal actors.
In the last two years, the Guatemalan government has severely undermined progress in the rule of law and anti-corruption efforts in the country, threatening the hard-fought battles for independence in the justice sector. Despite Constitutional Court rulings, President Morales unilaterally ended the mandate of the CICIG and barred its Commissioner from re-entering the country. He then went after the Constitutional Court magistrates that had ruled against his move, supporting efforts to lift their immunity and have them removed from the bench. The current administration has also removed key reformers from the government. In January 2018, President Morales removed Juan Francisco Solorzano Foppa, the head of the Internal Revenue Service (Superintendencia de Administracion Tributaria, SAT) who had played an important role supporting anti-corruption cases. Shortly after, Morales ousted Interior Minister Francisco Rivas and a month later, the head of the National Civilian Police Nery Ramos and his top advisers. Since assuming office in January 2018, the newly appointed Minister of Interior Enrique Degenhart has, on multiple occasions, removed or relocated senior officers and detectives of the police reportedly without any justification and in violation of the due process guarantees outlined in the police career law. Many of these officers had years of experience and expertise in criminal investigations, anti-narcotics, and other specialized areas. Most had been trained in these highly professional criminal justice skills by the United States.
Meanwhile, blatant attacks against reform minded individuals within the anti-corruption fight persist, including against independent judges and prosecutors, human rights defenders and civil society leaders. These aggressions are carried out on social media, in the streets, and by the authorities alike.
The struggle between the continuity of rule of law efforts and the return of the status quo is at the center of this year’s contested general elections. The decade of slow but crucial progress made to address corruption has exposed the deep ties between the state and criminal actors. According to the latest polls, the CICIG enjoys popular support from over 70 percent of the Guatemalan public. Yet most candidates have skirted the issue of the CICIG or relegated it to the sidelines. Of the few that have addressed the state of the Commission, most refer to a “new” or “reformed” CICIG, without a clear indication of what this would look like. A recent court decision appears to have taken Thelma Aldana, the candidate most closely identified with the drive against corruption, out of the race. Many fear that without any real political opposition, these criminal networks will regain control of Guatemala’s institutions and reinstate a system of impunity. For the majority of Guatemalans, addressing systemic corruption is critical to bringing about effective solutions to promote democracy, improve security conditions, and generate greater economic opportunities and social inclusion.
*Daniela Martínez contributed to the research and analysis that made this piece possible.
**This article was updated on June 13 to account for recent events.