This is the first of a seven-chapter report that delineates the evolution of organized crime in Guatemala. The report emphasizes the way organized crime has penetrated the political and judicial systems as the country heads to the polls for general elections on June 25, 2023. It does this by providing historical and present-day context on how organized crime works in the Central American nation, in addition to detailed descriptions of four of the country’s most prominent political power blocs: Vamos, the National Unity of Hope (Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza – UNE), Valor, and Cabal.
These political blocs draw power from their current or former positions in government, in addition to profits from legally registered businesses and sometimes illicit sources of capital. The blocs are by no means exhaustive. Nor are they monolithic or hierarchical. Rather, they are coalitions and include a number of satellite parties.
They have been selected because their activities exemplify broader power dynamics in the political and judicial sectors, and they are the leading power brokers in Guatemala. The blocs also have a strong chance of retaining significant clout or gaining more influence via the elections, illustrating how these patterns are likely to repeat themselves. Control of state institutions also allows these groups to undermine the election process by eliminating candidates that threaten the status quo. The most prominent example of this is the candidacy of Carlos Pineda Sosa of Citizen Prosperity (Prosperidad Ciudadana – PC), who is the subject of our case study. But other candidates have also been excluded by the establishment.
Undergirding these blocs are various types of corrupt-criminal elites, some of whom pre-date the current political configurations dominating the polls and most of whom came together around a single cause in recent years: reversing judicial processes and legal reforms spearheaded by a supranational judicial body known as the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG). These elites wield enormous economic, political, and social capital as a means of establishing and expanding their interests, debilitating their rivals, and securing impunity.
They may form part of or support any or all four of the above-mentioned political blocs, if they feel it is in their interest. Or they may not, choosing to form an alliance or a separate political bloc they can dominate.
These political power blocs, along with these elites, have created a system whereby each can continue to control and expand their interests and ensure impunity. They do this by gaining access to what amounts to a carrousel of power. Each pays-to-play, then takes part in a mutually beneficial arrangement with one or various parts of the government and the political parties that control it. Part of this is the explicit and implicit promise of funding their campaigns and not actively undermining their political power. The system is perpetuated, in part, by the country’s fragmented politics, which precludes any party or caudillo from total power.
Impunity is also ensured by consensus. These blocs have established a virtual monopoly on the institutions that regulate economic and political life and those that police illicit activity. Influence of the judicial system specifically begins with special selection commissions that are infiltrated by political mafias and, at the bidding of corruption networks, choose unqualified and compromised candidates for the top judicial and regulatory posts. Once in office, these judicial and regulatory officials serve corrupt interests. They archive or do not investigate political mafias. They prosecute enemies and rivals, reverse sentences against allies and friends, and fill key posts with their allies to reinforce the status quo and fulfill the wishes of their patrons.
Major Findings of the Report
1. There are four major political power blocs to keep an eye on for this election. All of them have connections to powerful corrupt-criminal interests.
The first bloc, Vamos, revolves around the political party of incumbent President Alejandro Giammattei (2020-present). The president — with the help of his chief aide, Miguel Martínez, and their allies — has presided over a period during which numerous corruption scandals have emerged. Nonetheless, the administration has survived relatively unscathed. This is, in part, because of the near-unprecedented alignment of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. Aligning these three powers has transformed the judicial sector into a tool for protecting graft schemes and persecuting political rivals. Giammattei’s bloc has become the central node of this alliance, born out of a shared interest in reversing the progress made in the judicial sector over the previous decade under the guidance of the CICIG, the aforementioned United Nations-backed judicial body.
The second bloc centers on one of the country’s most enduring political parties, the National Unity of Hope (Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza – UNE), headed by serial presidential candidate and former first lady, Sandra Torres. Torres’ party has not governed for over a decade, but it consistently maintains an outsized coalition in Congress. This allows the bloc to trade votes for access to lucrative state resources, control of important government institutions, and legal protection. Like many parties, UNE’s thirst for government bounty has drawn it into the orbit of the establishment — there are reports of a pact between Torres and Giammattei — reducing opposition to the status quo.
The third bloc, Valor, is led by one-time presidential frontrunner, Zury Ríos, the daughter of an infamous former military dictator. The bloc centers on a recently formed political alliance between two parties — Valor and the Unionist Party (Partido Unionista) — whose collective ranks span far-right military, private sector elites, and religious leaders. These actors leverage their clout in politics, business, and organized crime to undermine state institutions and facilitate licit and illicit business. Among the bloc’s most vocal supporters is a paralegal entity known as the Foundation Against Terrorism (Fundación Contra el Terrorismo – FCT). The FCT is now spearheading efforts to disrupt the judicial sector by persecuting prosecutors, judges, social activists, and journalists that once led the fight against impunity.
The fourth bloc, Cabal, revolves around a newly-formed party led by second-time presidential candidate, Edmond Mulet. A career politician and diplomat, Mulet presents himself as an outsider and anti-corruption crusader, but any ambition to break from the status quo may be compromised by the numerous questionable characters that make up his party’s ranks. These include congressional and mayoral candidates previously affiliated with political parties linked to major corruption schemes. Many of the candidates have themselves faced accusations of corruption and other crimes. If Mulet were to emerge victorious in the elections, he would almost certainly need to negotiate with the other factions outlined in this report to have any kind of clout in Congress and the judicial sector.
Though these blocs hold diverse interests and compete for access to state resources and judicial favors, they are also all part of a broader multi-party, multi-institutional alliance that seeks to perpetuate corruption. Often referred to euphemistically as the Pacto de Corruptos (Corrupt Pact), this is not a formal pact. Still, they have all benefited from the climate of impunity and, regardless of the election outcome, will likely continue working together to avoid upsetting the status quo.
There are few better illustrations of this than the establishment’s cutthroat efforts to oust unwanted candidates from the elections by leveraging the court system, thereby ensuring power remains within the pact. This is explored in a case study of presidential candidate Carlos Pineda Sosa, a non-aligned actor whose rise to the top of the polls threatened to wrestle clout from the current order. A lower court suspended his candidacy and that of his adopted political party. Pineda’s attempts to appeal the decision were shot down by higher courts, which are influenced by the major political blocs.
2. There are five major corrupt-criminal blocs that work in concert with the major political movements and political coalitions.
The political blocs described above house different types of competing elites, some dating back to the country’s civil war (1960-1996), which vie for increased clout and influence over top politicians and judicial officials to ensure their licit and illicit business interests. We have identified five. Three of these types operate in the open, furthering their interests via government institutions, laws, and regulations that permit them to act in relative concert with the country’s judicial and regulatory bodies. Two operate more clandestinely, ignoring, coopting, or subverting judicial and regulatory bodies in their quest for power and economic capital.
In the open sphere are traditional economic elites — some families that leverage business and capital to avoid scrutiny and exert political influence to further their economic interests and debilitate or destroy competition. Various congressional and regional political coalitions are cross-party alliances between mid-level politicians in Congress and city halls that trade votes for access to state contracts and other government bounty. They often include technocrats and well-positioned bureaucrats. Some emerging elites have also leveraged their access to political power to establish and control lucrative businesses in less traditional fields such as the pharmaceutical industry, construction, or telecommunications, much of which is funded or subsidized by the government. They also differ from traditional elites in that they participate more openly in the political process.
In the more clandestine sphere are Illegal Clandestine Security Apparatuses (Cuerpos Ilegales y Aparatos Clandestinos de Seguridad – CIACS). The CIACS are networks of civil-war-era military generals and intelligence officers that have penetrated high office to facilitate impunity for their war crimes and criminal activity, including drug trafficking and contraband smuggling. Over time, they have expanded economic interests into private security, among other industries. CIACS is also increasingly used to describe diverse criminal interests that spread across a wide spectrum of backgrounds but remain encrusted in the state and use the government to further their interests.
Finally, there are drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) that trade on economic and political power to exert influence over Congress and mayors’ offices. This helps to secure government contracts for laundering illicit proceeds and judicial protection.
|Traditional economic elites||Families that leverage business monopolies to avoid scrutiny and exert political influence to further economic interests and to debilitate or destroy competition.|
|Congressional and regional political coalitions||Cross-party alliances between mid-level congressional representatives and mayors who trade votes for access to state contracts and other government bounty; often accompanied by technocrats and bureaucrats who form part of these networks or are operational specialists.|
|Emerging elites||Prominent businesspeople with extensive political connections who gained prominence by paying commissions to secure state contracts for private companies in the telecommunications, pharmaceutical, and construction sectors, among others.|
|Illegal Clandestine Security Apparatuses (CIACS)||Clandestine networks of civil-war era military generals and intelligence officers that have penetrated high office to facilitate criminal activity, including drug trafficking and contraband smuggling, and who have expanded economic interests into private security and construction, among others, and formed their own political parties|
|Drug trafficking organizations (DTOs)||Criminal organizations who facilitate the movement of illegal drugs and/or precursor chemicals through Guatemala that seek to position allies in state institutions — particularly Congress and mayors’ offices — to secure access to government contracts (used to launder money) and legal protection.|
3. The corrupt-criminal system is like a carrousel: Participants pay-to-play and establish a symbiotic relationship with the parts of the state that are most important to their business interests.
Achieving any kind of harmony between different factions of the corrupt-criminal establishment requires a significant alignment of key state nodes that control government funds, key government appointments, and judicial and regulatory bodies. At the top of this system is the executive branch, which sets the parameters of the debate regarding the national budget, dictates ministerial appointments, and can shift regulatory bodies in meaningful ways. The executive thus steers a massive portion of the state contracts and government jobs, which it can divvy among its allies or anyone willing to pay a sizable commission — a process that has benefitted Vamos considerably in the last three years.
Not all government entities are created equal, and each of these corrupt-criminal elites has different levels of interest in different parts of the government. Traditional elites, for example, seek to access and control tax authorities, patent offices, and banking committees. Congressional and regional political coalitions keep a tight rein on public works. Emerging elites vie for control of the Guatemalan Social Security Institute, the Ministry of Communications, Infrastructure, and Housing, the Ministry of Energy, and the Ministry of the Environment. CIACS seek control of customs offices, the Ministry of the Interior, and intelligence apparatuses across the spectrum. And the DTOs seek to influence public works and local development committees allocating government projects, as well as control over certain parts of the military and police, to launder money and protect their operations, among other interests.
Much of this corruption revolves around contracts awarded to companies in legitimate business sectors: construction, infrastructure, communications, health, agriculture, extractive industries, and security, among others. Companies receiving contracts are often owned (indirectly) by congressional officials or (directly) by other affiliates, from businesspeople to drug traffickers. The executive branch also leverages its resources to build support in the country’s increasingly fragmented Congress, with contracts traded for votes and coalitions forming around control of ministries and government entities critical to each coalition’s economic portfolio.
Political coalitions or specific political parties that wield more control over Congress can negotiate and barter with the executive branch for pieces of the economic pie. Such is the case with UNE, which held 51 of 160 seats in Congress following the 2019 elections. Many representatives have since defected, but those who remain with the party — we estimate around 34 — have voted in support of the incumbent government on key legislation following an apparent rapprochement between Torres and Giammattei. Because of Congress’ extreme fragmentation, parties with even a few seats can also extract state resources by aligning with the status quo. As a result, the ruling coalition is free to legislate in favor of dubious interests without opposition. Examples include assigning increased funds to ministries pivotal to corruption or passing emergency decrees that loosen rules on government procurement.
The system is cyclic and reinforced by the atomized political party system: Government contracts and jobs are handed to companies and individuals linked to representatives and political parties in Congress, among them congressional coalitions, mayors or interests connected to them, emerging elites, and drug traffickers; these actors then pump funds back into political campaigns supporting the re-election of congressional and mayoral candidates. Presidents have traditionally come into power with weak mandates and small voting blocs in Congress. Thus, the heads of major voting coalitions in Congress have become powerful actors capable of extracting further resources by controlling corruption networks in other branches of the state and, as we detail in the next section, by ensuring impunity.
4. Impunity is the oil that keeps the motor running.
To sustain and protect their money-making schemes, the blocs need access to and control of key nodes within the judicial sector and state regulatory bodies. They obtain this by corrupting the system from its onset. The country’s laws established a mechanism whereby “postulation commissions” create short lists of vetted and qualified candidates for the top judicial and regulatory positions before Congress or the president makes the final selections. Ostensibly, the commissions are independent, since many commission members are not part of the government.
But these power blocs have, for more than two decades, configured ways to subvert these postulation commissions, infiltrating them through a combination of overt and covert tactics. Candidates who survive the vetting process are often both unqualified and compromised. This includes not only candidates for the office of the attorney general and high court judges but also those for the office of the Supreme Electoral Court (Tribunal Supremo Electoral – TSE). These compromises can last for years and even be renewed, as illustrated by Congress’ decision not to proceed with elections for new Supreme Court (Corte Suprema de Justicia – CSJ) and appellate court magistrates, despite the current crop of judges having long outstayed their five-year, constitutionally-mandated term, which should have ended in 2019.
The Attorney General’s Office is the most important institution among these judicial and regulatory entities ensuring impunity. The office can block investigations into high-ranking politicians, launch aggressive crackdowns on non-aligned prosecutors and judges — as they have in recent years — and target outside actors such as journalists and civil society leaders. The attorney general can determine which cases get prosecuted and which cases get archived; transfer meddlesome prosecutors to get them away from sensitive investigations; and place less scrupulous and more loyal staff in key posts, often in violation of due process. Loyal staff then execute even more nefarious schemes, including fashioning crime-fighting units into weapons for persecuting political rivals and vaults where corruption and criminal cases implicating corrupt-criminal elites get archived for life.
Co-opting Guatemala’s court system is also a key objective for diverse corruption networks. It is an incentives-based system, with different networks of court magistrates and their backers responding to political or financial favors offered by different power groups seeking impunity. This is most notable with the country’s Constitutional Court (Corte de Constitucionalidad – CC), the ultimate authority for settling legal disputes. The CC previously served as a pivotal counterbalance to corruption but has now become a shield for elites following the election of new magistrates in 2021, many hand-picked by the executive, Congress, and the Supreme Court.
Controlling the Supreme Court of Justice (Corte Suprema de Justicia – CSJ) and appellate courts is also pivotal to impunity, as these bodies can block investigations into government officials or overrule convictions for corruption. The current CSJ was selected by Congress from a list made by a postulation commission in 2014. Two architects of that list went to prison — one in the United States and another in Guatemala — while a third is in exile in Nicaragua. Yet, as noted, the term of that CSJ has been extended because of inaction in Congress. The magistrates have subsequently blocked investigations into congressional officials and other political operators. This has created a backstop for suspect officials, who have little incentive to shake things up and expose themselves to scrutiny.
Just as it is on the front end of this process whereby outside actors play a key role in the postulation commissions that set into motion the system of impunity, so it is at the backend, where outsiders can play a role in filing criminal and civil complaints and stirring up judicial intrigue that services the political power blocs. Such is the case with the aforementioned FCT. The FCT lodges accusations against anti-impunity operators, nearly all of whom worked with or had some connection to cases brought by the UN-backed judicial body. Judges and prosecutors have seized on the FCT’s accusations to enact formal legal charges against judges, prosecutors, and journalists, many of whom have fled the country or are facing charges in Guatemala.
**Jody García contributed reporting to this investigation.
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