There are few better illustrations of the battle for control of the Guatemalan state than the candidacy of Carlos Pineda Sosa, who was disqualified from elections weeks after topping the polls. His surge and subsequent snub, and that of his political party, provide a window into the power of emerging elites on the periphery and the ability of certain actors to thwart anyone who does not conform to their rules.
The emergence of Pineda as a presidential frontrunner in the 2023 Guatemala elections took most, including the establishment, by surprise. A political novice and emerging-elite businessman whose popularity derives from his anti-establishment rhetoric and a sizable following on social media, Pineda had no clear ties to the alliance orbiting around the Giammattei administration or to private-sector elites. His sudden arrival sounded the alarm among political blocs that feared his election could disrupt the synchronization of power between key branches of the state. The courts later eliminated him and his party from the elections.
But while Pineda may be an outsider, the same could not be said of his party, Citizen Prosperity (Prosperidad Ciudadana - PC). The PC election roster was stacked with candidates who have questionable ties to corrupt interests and the narcotics underworld. There were also signs that prominent members of the more influential Vamos bloc of President Alejandro Giammattei had a stake in Citizen Prosperity.
Carlos Pineda: A Wild Card
Pineda differed from the other presidential candidates insofar as his candidacy was self-reliant. His campaign was driven by his immense popularity on social media rather than traditional campaigning -- as of the publishing of this report, he had over 1.1 million followers on TikTok, dwarfing all other candidates. Pineda also appeared to be financially self-sufficient thanks to a considerable personal fortune stemming from his family’s business exploits.
His hefty financial capital derives from a regional conglomerate of transport, port logistics, agricultural, and gasoline companies, operated by the Pineda family from its base in northeastern Guatemala. Pineda's fortune was no secret, and it appeared to be part of his appeal. His rise on social media stemmed partly from viral videos documenting his efforts to distribute aid to hurricane victims using a personal helicopter back in 2020.
The origins of the family’s wealth can be traced back to Pineda’s father, Carlos René Pineda Rossell. Pineda Rossell claims to have joined the security detail of a military commander named Carlos Manuel Arana Osorio, who was largely based in the eastern Zacapa province during the Guatemalan civil war. Arana Osorio, who was known as the “Butcher of the East" (Chacal del Oriente) for his brutal exploits during the war, became president in 1970 and appointed Pineda Rossell to the highly prestigious presidential guard.
These wartime connections provided a stepping stone for Pineda Rossell. He founded a freight company -- Transportes Pineda Rossell -- that has long moved bananas and other produce for US fruit exporters, including the United Fruit Company and Del Monte. Today, the family conglomerate has diversified and expanded throughout Central America and Mexico, sustaining the family’s wealth and providing an expansive fleet of trucks capable of moving various types of products throughout the region.
Pineda’s political allies, past and present, raise questions. Prior to becoming the PC’s presidential candidate, Pineda was set to run for president with Cambio, a party formed in 2022 by the sons of former presidential candidate and convicted money launderer, Manuel Baldizón. Cambio also became a vehicle for other suspicious candidates, including Esduin Javier Javier, alias “Tres Kiebres,” a mayor and now congressional candidate who Guatemalan authorities have linked to the drug trade. Pineda left Cambio in January after Baldizón returned to Guatemala and purportedly attempted to stamp his authority on the party.
Notwithstanding his departure from Cambio, Pineda’s PC candidacy could have provided a path to power for actors linked to the drug trade. Like President Alejandro Giammattei's Vamos, a notable contingent of the now-defunct National Change Union (Unión del Cambio Nacional - UCN) -- previously branded a narco-party by the US government -- gravitated towards Citizen Prosperity. The UCN also provided a key pillar of support for Vamos in Congress during the Giammattei administration.
Prominent UCN officials with Citizen Prosperity included Freddy Salazar Flores, a member of Central American Parliament (Parlacen) who was sanctioned in 2022 by the United States for “transporting and storing cocaine” for a Guatemalan drug ring called the Huistas. Salazar’s bid for re-election with Citizen Prosperity was rejected by the TSE. Instead, his mother and wife occupied the two top spots of the PC candidate list for Parlacen. Salazar’s wife, Danury Lizeth Samayoa Montejo, is the daughter of alleged Huistas leader, Aler Samayoa, one the most high-profile, Guatemala-based drug traffickers wanted by the United States. Salazar’s sister, Elisa Judith Mejía Salazar de Rozotto, is reportedly married to another alleged Huistas leader, Juan Bautista Rozotto López, and was running for Congress with Citizen Prosperity.
Other Citizen Prosperity congressional candidates with ties to the party included José Roberto Goubaud, a UCN advisor and former director of Guatemala’s largest commercial shipping port, Puerto Quetzal. There was also Jenner Ernesto Barrios, PC congressional candidate and former advisor to Vivian Preciado Navarijo, a UCN Congress representative whose family is heavily linked to the drug trade on the country’s Pacific coast.
Pineda may also have had ties to the UCN. Prior to the 2019 elections, reports in the Guatemalan press suggested he would run as the party’s vice-presidential candidate. But this was never made official, and Pineda denied the link. During that campaign, the UCN presidential candidate, Mario Estrada, was arrested by US authorities on suspicion of drug trafficking and later pleaded guilty to conspiring with Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel to traffic drugs using Guatemalan state infrastructure. Estrada’s running mate for that campaign, Otto Javier Castillo Valenzuela, also joined Citizen Prosperity as a mayoral candidate for Villa Nueva, one of Guatemala’s largest and most coveted municipalities with a bountiful municipal budget.
Wild Card Meets Status Quo
From the beginning, Pineda’s relative financial and political independence represented a threat to the status quo. Though the precise origins of Pineda’s wealth are hazy, he appeared to have more than enough capital to rebuff private campaign contributions and to avoid backdoor electoral pacts that often compromise presidents once in power.
The tensions were somewhat mitigated by the presence of the PC’s secretary general and congressional candidate, Lilian García Contreras. Prior to joining Citizen Prosperity, García Contreras served as a Congress representative for the National Unity of Hope (Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza - UNE) in Alta Verapaz, which has worked closely with the Vamos bloc in Congress and the presidency.
García Contreras’ proximity to government circles suggested the party’s congressional bloc could remain loyal to the establishment regardless of Pineda’s anti-establishment rhetoric. At first, it seemed like a win-win. PC officials, including García Contreras, appeared to have spotted an opportunity to hitch a ride into power on the Pineda bandwagon. And although Pineda had little control over his congressional candidates, he had a vehicle he could ride to the presidency.
Nonetheless, tensions arose. Although PC was seemingly connected to official circles of power, Pineda remained a wild card. In other words, a Pineda presidency signaled a possible reconfiguration of the status quo, granting a new power bloc control of the executive branch and its many political and financial spoils, while weakening the leverage of the establishment.
In early May, as Pineda was skyrocketing in the polls, Pineda’s former party, Cambio, filed a legal injunction citing irregularities in one of Citizen Prosperity’s pre-election assemblies, held in late 2022, with a view to tanking the party’s campaign. And on May 19, an administrative court provisionally suspended Pineda’s candidacy as well as all the PC candidates. Pineda and Citizen Prosperity lodged separate appeals to the Constitutional Court in the hope of reversing the administrative court’s decision. But just days later, García Contreras withdrew the PC’s appeal, leaving Pineda on his own.
On May 26, the CC denied Pineda’s appeal, officially excluding him from the elections.
*Jody García contributed reporting to this story.