Through a combination of luck, persistence, and dubious legal challenges lodged against other candidates, Edmond Mulet and his political party, Cabal, find themselves at the precipice of power. With spurious investigations and questionable court rulings eliminating a series of presidential challengers, the door to the top office is now open for Mulet, the lawyer-turned-politician-turned-diplomat-turned-presidential-frontrunner.
Mulet’s party, however, is less of a bloc and more of an alliance of convenience. Cabal, founded in 2022, houses candidates that come from 21 other parties. Many of the parties have questionable pasts, and many of the candidates have faced accusations of corruption and other crimes. Mulet touts a “new beginning,” but the makeup of his party suggests he will be carrying baggage from Guatemala’s sordid past.
Mulet is often described as a diplomat, but his domestic political career dates back to the 1980s. As a young man, he was a militant in the National Liberation Movement (Movimiento de Liberación Nacional - MLN), a virulent, anti-communist group that was said to refer to itself as “the party of organized violence.” As a political party, the MLN traced its roots to the 1954 overthrow of then-President Jacobo Árbenz. The party co-ruled the government through the late 1970s with the army high command, which maintained power via a series of fraudulent elections.
Mulet was part of a dissident faction of the MLN, which moved towards center-right politics and eventually created a rival party, the National Renovation Party (Partido Nacional Renovador - PNR). The PNR participated in the 1982 elections, with military approval, where Mulet was elected to Congress, but these elections were annulled following a coup led by the military faction of General Efraín Ríos Montt. Thereafter, Mulet drifted further towards the ideological center. He was elected as a congressman for the Union of the National Center (Unión del Centro Nacional - UCN) during Guatemala’s transition back to democracy in 1985.
Mulet secured his re-election in 1990 and became president of Congress in 1991. In 1993, he was named Guatemalan ambassador to Washington by President Jorge Serrano Elías (1991-1993). But just weeks after Mulet’s appointment, Serrano engineered a self-coup, trying to dissolve Congress and concentrate power in his hands. Mulet publicly rebuked the coup, which ultimately failed. The events marked the end of Mulet’s time in Congress. Instead, he embarked on a diplomatic career, serving as ambassador in Belgium, Luxembourg, and the European Union. He later joined the United Nations as the head of the stabilization mission in Haiti in 2006. Mulet remained in the UN until the end of 2016, serving as chief of cabinet to the secretary general and assistant secretary of peacekeeping missions. He was later called to head a panel investigating the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
Mulet returned to Guatemalan politics in 2019, when he ran for president under the banner of the Guatemalan Humanist Party (Partido Humanista de Guatemala - PHG). Although he finished third, he garnered nearly 500,000 votes -- no small feat in Guatemala’s deeply fragmented party system. He did not appear to be among the frontrunners during the early stages of the election but emerged from the pack after a series of rulings and investigations disqualified rival candidates.
Now, he appears well positioned to compete for a place in the second round, in part because of his party’s strong regional caciques, some with past connections to corrupt party politics. What’s more, Mulet himself has had his own legal troubles. Below, we outline some of the more troubling parts of the Cabal bloc, which have led the local press to question whether Mulet can escape Guatemala’s “old politics.”
A Fragile Coalition and Lots of Red Flags
Cabal has cobbled together a robust coalition of candidates throughout the country, though the party’s numerical ranks are stronger in western Guatemala. Many candidates are experienced politicians who have held public office as mayors or in Congress. Some of Cabal’s top candidates also have experience in government, including his running mate, Max Santa Cruz, once chief advisor to former vice president, Eduardo Stein. In the mid-2000s, Stein spearheaded efforts to create the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala - CICIG), the supranational judicial body backed by the UN, which led the fight against impunity for a decade thereafter.
Mulet supported the CICIG during his 2019 election campaign and has deep ties to the United Nations that backed the commission. But he has since changed tack: “CICIG never again in Guatemala,” he tweeted in May, adding “CICIG is the past” in an accompanying video. The shift is intimately related to the way support for the commission is seen in Guatemala. What was once a badge of honor has become a political liability largely due to the near-permanent public relations campaign by the CICIG’s enemies.
But the shift is also part of Mulet’s pragmatic approach to politics and the elections. He seems to understand the trade-offs in Guatemalan politics needed to gain power, something abundantly clear from his party’s candidate list. Cabal is made up of numerous castoffs and suspected criminals from parties with troubling leaderships. Among the more notable parties represented in Cabal’s list of candidates are his presidential rivals: Sandra Torres’ National Unity of Hope (Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza - UNE) (27) and Zury Ríos’ Valor (1). Other parties -- some of which have dissolved or have faced accusations of widespread corruption -- also fill Cabal's candidate ranks, including Vamos (2), PU (4), FCN-Nación (2), Partido Patriota (12), Líder (10), and the FRG (8).
One of his principal advisors was health minister during the Otto Pérez Molina administration, which ended in disgrace when the CICIG and the Attorney General's Office levied corruption allegations against Pérez Molina, and he resigned. Another top congressional candidate was finance minister for then-President Jimmy Morales, who CICIG and the Attorney General's Office said illegally financed his 2015 election. Another congressional candidate was an aide to Allan Rodríguez, the former president of Congress (Vamos) who was sanctioned by the US government.
With so many “old school” parties in the background, it is perhaps not surprising that Cabal’s roster is filled with mayoral and congressional candidates, as well as political advisors, who have faced accusations of corruption and criminality. Some have been jailed, including Mulet. One advisor and a congressional candidate were investigated by the CICIG for a case known as Plazas Fantasmas (Phantom Jobs); another advisor was named in a CICIG investigation into vote-buying in Congress. One Cabal congressional candidate was cited in 2017 for conflict of interest because he had been a beneficiary of a government contract while serving in the legislature for a different party. Several mayoral candidates were investigated for abuse of power, domestic abuse, and other crimes. These cases were mostly dropped, archived, or the defendants exonerated, often in the aftermath of the departure of the CICIG and during the systematic dismantling of the justice system.
Mulet’s case was notably different. He was arrested briefly in the early 1980s for allegedly helping to facilitate illegal adoptions. He was quickly released, and he strenuously denies any wrongdoing. What’s more, he does not appear to be enmeshed in today’s corruption schemes.
His status as an outsider to the system has its advantages and disadvantages. An advantage is that he could try to overturn the system. In an interview, for example, he insinuated that he would remove the controversial attorney general, Consuelo Porras, should he be elected. And while he has eschewed the CICIG, he has made crusading against corruption a centerpiece of his campaign.
The disadvantage is that he will have to make deals with some combination of the other political blocs in order to govern. And, in an interview with Plaza Pública, Mulet admitted as much. “To win votes in Guatemala, we have to recognize that there are caciques, and if a cacique is not with you, they’re with your rival,” he said. “I have had to speak with caciques to ask for their help. If these caciques are not with you, they will go with someone else, and we don’t win the elections.”
Mulet may have had to make similar deals to secure financial support for his campaign. Among his purported financial backers are some of those caciques. Of note is Tomás Córdova, who is running for reelection to Congress with Cabal and whose family owns an array of construction companies and gasoline stations in the Alta Verapaz province. Many have received government contracts in recent years.
Then there is Julio López Villatoro, also running for congressional reelection, and whose brother, Roberto, has long helped engineer postulation commissions and, by extension, the judicial system. But in addition to the support he has gained by recruiting prominent caciques, sources say Mulet is also courting traditional elites who view him as a more viable, ideologically-aligned partner than Sandra Torres, who many believe he will face in the second round.
*Alex Papadovassilakis and Jody García contributed reporting to this story.