Guatemalans head to the polls on August 11 in order to cast their votes for two presidential candidates. A recent poll put conservative Alejandro Giammattei of the Vamos party in the lead over his center-left rival Sandra Torres of the National Unity of Hope (UNE) party. While Torres won the first round of elections in June with about 25 percent of the vote, the election remains uncertain and will likely come down to turnout among rural and urban voters.
A number of critical issues are at stake, including how the two candidates look to address the ongoing challenges of corruption, human rights, and the rule of law. The election takes place as the country is on the verge of constitutional crisis precipitated by the current government’s signing of a controversial “safe third country” agreement with Trump administration, which would require Guatemala to house large numbers of asylum seekers.
Here are several important points to better understand what’s at stake in this presidential runoff:
Both candidates have controversial pasts that call into question their commitment to addressing corruption in Guatemala. Giammattei served prison time (and was later exonerated) as a result of a probe into extrajudicial killings while he was head of the prison system. He is presumably linked to shadowy figures, including alleged drug traffickers and ex-military officers who control powerful criminal networks. Torres is under investigation for alleged illicit campaign financing from her 2015 run for president; however, as a current presidential candidate, she is immune from prosecution.
Their problematic pasts are emblematic of how they’ve talked about commitments to anti-corruption efforts, specifically as it relates to the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) whose mandate expires September 3.
Since the commission’s establishment with backing from the United Nations and the Guatemalan government in 2006, it’s been unusually effective in its accomplishments: a corruption probe that resulted in the resignation of the president and vice president in 2015, the identification of over 60 criminal structures, dozens of legal reforms that make criminal investigations more effective, 680 indictments, and the conviction of powerful drug traffickers, to name several examples. The CICIG has also been credited with contributing to a 5 percent average annual drop in homicide rates since 2006. It remains one of the most popular and highly trusted institutions in the country.
Will Guatemala lose the hard-fought progress and momentum it accomplished in anti-corruption efforts? Any regression on this front could have a compounding effect on current migration challenges.
Yet, in a country with deep-rooted corruption, the CICIG has also long faced a heavy backlash from the traditional special interests implicated by its anti-corruption efforts.
Giammattei has indicated no interest in extending the CICIG’s mandate, telling the BBC, “You can’t renew something that’s already expired.” Meanwhile, Torres—accused by Attorney General Office and CICIG investigators of handling $2.4 million in illicit funds for her 2015 presidential campaign— has only spoken vaguely of potential anti-corruption initiatives should she win the presidency. She has criticized the CICIG indirectly through attacks on the special prosecutor’s office that, alongside the CICIG, requested that her immunity from prosecution be lifted (Torres accused the special prosecutor’s office of forming part of a “criminal structure”).
Regardless of who wins on August 11, immediate concerns arise about the future of CICIG-FECI investigations currently before the courts, as well as the security of judges and prosecutors who’ve come under sustained attacks as of late. These urgent concerns reflect a major question at play in this election: Will Guatemala lose the hard-fought progress and momentum it accomplished in anti-corruption efforts? Any regression on this front could have a compounding effect on current migration challenges.
(For further detail on Torres’s and Giammattei’s political background, see WOLA’s previous analysis of the first round of Guatemala’s elections).
As Rep. Norma Torres (D-Ca.) recently stated in a Washington Post op-ed, the winner of Guatemala’s elections “will have the power to enact policies—such as cracking down on government corruption, improving security, and attracting aid and investments—that could prevent more people from seeking refuge in the United States.”
As was the case in 2018, so far this year Guatemala remains the number-one country for unaccompanied children and families apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border. In total, nearly 66,000 Guatemalan children traveling by themselves and over 252,000 Guatemalan family units have been detained by Border Patrol at the southern U.S. border since 2017.
Torres and Giammattei have both said they plan to address migration by tackling poverty and unemployment, with Giammattei focusing on promoting investment along Guatemala’s northern border with Mexico and Torres emphasizing rural social support programs.
Yet, given that Guatemalans have cited “insecurity”—a phenomenon which has driven hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans to seek asylum in Mexico and the United States—as their top campaign issue, it’s notable that neither Giammattei and Torres have pledged a strong commitment to progressive security policies that emphasize anti-corruption efforts, justice and police reform, and human rights. Both have said they would deploy the military to the streets in order to fight crime, even though it’s highly likely this would lead to increased abuses committed against civilians (as evidenced by similar experiences in places like Mexico and Brazil, and even Guatemala itself).
There’s much the U.S. government could be doing to address the root causes of migration in Guatemala and better promote prosperity, security, and rule of law. So far, however, the Trump administration has promoted dangerous and counterproductive policies...
Another key question for the United States is the future of President Trump’s dangerous “safe third country” deal with Guatemala. The deal would force huge numbers of asylum seekers from all over the world to apply for protection in Guatemala, a country with a barely functioning asylum system.
Should Guatemala’s executive branch persists in trying to enforce the “safe third country” agreement, it could push the country into a constitutional crisis, as the Constitutional Court has already ruled the deal can’t become effective without without first gaining majority approval from Congress.
There’s much the U.S. government could be doing to address the root causes of migration in Guatemala and better promote prosperity, security, and rule of law. So far, however, the Trump administration has promoted dangerous and counterproductive policies that undermine anti-corruption initiatives in Guatemala, cut off much-needed aid that could address some of the root causes of migration, and could force Guatemala to act as a “safe third country” for migrants seeking asylum.
Guatemala is facing a precarious human rights situation: according to the UN Human Rights Office, the country saw 884 attacks against human rights defenders, including 39 killings, between 2017 to 2018. Defenders advocating for land and environmental rights, as well as accountability for war-related international crimes, are facing spurious lawsuits and other forms of criminalization of their work.
The pushback against this struggle for justice is already leading to concerning attacks on rule of law.
Regardless of the outcome of Sunday’s election, Guatemalan civil society and the international community have an important role to play in pushing the Guatemalan government to protect defenders and conduct prompt, exhaustive investigations into the killings and attacks. Persistent impunity levels, ongoing attacks against human rights defenders, and the imminent exit of the CICIG leave civil society activists extremely vulnerable to intimidation, repression, and other methods designed to curb their activism.
Under the next administration, Guatemalan civil society and the international community will continue to have an important role to play in terms of monitoring and protecting advances in seeking justice for war crimes. Despite important convictions of war crimes in 2018, the forces of backlash have made significant inroads on this front as well. Congress unsuccessfully made several attempts at passing a bill that would have granted amnesty to accused war criminals, while the Morales administration officials has restricted access to the 80 million files documenting disappearances, illegal detentions, and other abuses in the historic national police archives, to name a few points of concern.
The pushback against this struggle for justice is already leading to concerning attacks on rule of law. After Guatemala’s Constitutional Court ruled that the proposed amnesty bill was unconstitutional and ordered Congress to withdraw it from consideration, several members of Congress began seeking to impeach three judges on the court who voted in favor of the ruling. While the Inter-American Court of Human Rights has also ordered Guatemala to drop the amnesty bill, there is a real concern that the lame-duck Congress, which is in office until January 2020, will attempt to pass it anyway.