HomeInvestigationsThe Road to 2023: A Peek Into Guatemala’s Criminal Past

The Road to 2023: A Peek Into Guatemala’s Criminal Past


Today’s Guatemalan corrupt-criminal blocs have their origins in the country’s civil war (1960-1996). The military ruled the country during most of the war. Its power culminated in March 1982, when General Efraín Ríos Montt took over the government following a military coup. His dictatorship lasted just 17 months, during which the army killed or displaced thousands of civilians.

By 1985, when the government transitioned back to civilian leadership, the military’s control had spread to nearly every part of the government, including the finance ministry, customs, the government ID office, the penitentiary system, and all matters of intelligence and security. The military also had its own bank, and numerous military officials had usurped land across the country. They were what are often termed bureaucratic elites, many urban and from the middle class. They were influential inside the government while they served and often continued to exert influence once they left government, sometimes via their support of political candidates or parties.

*This article is part of a seven-part series that describes the evolution of organized crime in Guatemalan politics. Read the other chapters of the investigation, the full report, and related coverage on drug trafficking and impunity.

Phase I: The CIACS

These military networks transformed into criminal networks, which were bound by their shared experiences of war, office space, and time at the military academy. The model for these networks was known as La Cofradía, or the Brotherhood. La Cofradía goes as far back as the 1970s, when its members criminalized the customs agency, among other government bodies, having placed it under military rule on the pretext of guarding against arms smuggling into the country. Its name, La Cofradía, which signified a commitment to protect one another, came later following the assassination of one of its founders.

Other corrupt-criminal blocs emerged, including a group associated with Ríos Montt, who would go on to become president of Congress where his daughter, Zury Ríos, would first make her name as a congressional representative. A group led by Gen. Otto Pérez Molina known as El Sindicato (The Union) would eventually win the presidency. There was also a group tied to Álvaro Arzú, the president-turned-perennial Guatemala City mayor, who forged ties with several intelligence officials and other military operatives.

The networks would later be called Illegal Clandestine Security Apparatuses (Cuerpos Ilegales y Aparatos Clandestinos de Seguridad - CIACS). The CIACS were more moniker than reality. They were a useful way to understand how some powerful criminal networks were forged and organized, but they fought amongst themselves, switched sides frequently, and would evolve with changing political circumstances. Still, for a time, these original CIACS seemed to take turns running parts of the government at the highest levels. In the early 1990s, for example, Gen. Luis Francisco Ortega Menaldo, the nominal leader of La Cofradía, became the head of the Presidential Intelligence Service (Estado Mayor Presidencial - EMP). The EMP was the CIACS’ nerve center, and Ortega Menaldo used it to institutionalize his corruption and criminal schemes.

Arzú won the presidency in 1996 and forged a peace accord with the guerrillas that year. While he reduced the size of the military considerably, he also established strong ties with numerous powerful military networks, many of which would serve him for years thereafter. Among Arzú’s allies while in power was Pérez Molina, who became the face of military progressives who worked to advance the peace process.

Pérez Molina also directed a cadre of loyal soldiers who worked closely with the presidential guard and an anti-kidnapping unit created by Arzú. Later, when Arzú became Guatemala City's mayor, some of these military allies established a sophisticated intelligence apparatus in the basement of a municipal building giving rise to its nickname, el sótano. This secretive group helped Arzú establish a virtual lock on the mayor’s office for the next two decades and assisted in many of the related corrupt-criminal schemes in the country’s economic and political hub.

In 2000, Ríos Montt -- who had created a political party, the Guatemalan Republican Front (Frente Republicano Guatemalteco - FRG) -- became president of Congress. Ríos Montt was polemic but popular: the FRG had the largest single voting bloc, and Ríos Montt’s handpicked candidate, Alfonso Portillo, had won the presidency, in part, with financing from Ortega Menaldo’s corruption schemes. This corruption soon spread. Some of Ríos Montt’s closest allies pillaged the military’s pension system. And Ortega Menaldo kept a firm grip on the country’s ports and customs offices, where he and his allies in La Cofradía could continue their various criminal rackets.

The Ríos Montt-Portillo government (2000-2004) also challenged the country’s traditional economic elites in unprecedented ways. The elites had long run the country like feudal overlords, using their resources from their protected monopolies to exert influence and control of government policy. They channeled these interests through a powerful business association known as the Coordinating Commission of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial and Financial Associations (Comité Coordinador de Asociaciones Agrícolas, Comerciales, Industriales y Financieras - CACIF), which acted as a kind of parallel government, especially in economic matters. Although this was more politics than corruption, the Ríos Montt coalition defied CACIF, opening the door to imports of sugar, chicken feed, and soft drinks, among other products.

The emergence of the Ríos Montt bloc and its associated ilk pushed the CACIF to forge a strong alliance around their own candidate, Óscar Berger, who won the presidency in 2003, defeating Ríos Montt, among others. From the start, Berger’s presidency (2004 - 2008) was a more traditional, elite affair. He delegated Vice President Eduardo Stein, who hailed from a more traditional elite family, to begin talks with the United Nations, former government officials, non-governmental organizations, and prominent judicial reformers to form a new kind of judicial body to deal with the CIACS. The idea, ironically, had begun under the Portillo administration, and Portillo himself was a proponent. But it had been shelved when they ran into political opposition, and the Constitutional Court blocked it.

Meanwhile, a new type of CIACS emerged, this one more tightly connected to the police and Interior Minister Carlos Vielman, who himself was from a prominent family with ties to the economic elites. The new CIACS took extreme measures against suspected members of street gangs, kidnapping groups, and drug traffickers. In 2006, for example, Vielman and his then-director of the penitentiary system, Alejandro Giammattei, entered a prison with a large contingent of police under the pretense there was a riot. Amidst the chaos, police executed seven inmates under mysterious circumstances. In another case, police killed several members of the Central American Parliament (Parlamento Centroamericano - Parlacen) and burned their car, presumably to steal a large bundle of cash the politicians were carrying. Days later, the suspects, who were all police, were assassinated in prison. (Although initially implicated in the prison massacre, Vielman and Giammattei would later be exonerated.)

Phase II: The CICIG

The dramatic cases pushed the Berger administration to act. Behind Stein’s leadership, and with assistance from the United States government following the murder of the Central American parliamentarians, the administration convinced Congress to pass a provision allowing for the creation of an international judicial body. The body, known as the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala - CICIG), would be sponsored by the United Nations and would work closely with the country’s Attorney General’s Office. Its mission, as its founding documents made clear, was to go after the CIACS. Many economic elites saw it as an opportunity to debilitate their emerging rivals. They never expected it would one day go after them, according to a report in elPeriódico.

SEE ALSO: The Legacy of How Guatemala Destroyed its Own Anti-Corruption Crusade

In 2007, the same year the CICIG got its start, Álvaro Colom was elected president, defeating former General Otto Pérez Molina in a tight race. Colom -- a bookish, understated, garment-factory owner -- had forged a different path than other elites. As the first head of the National Fund for Peace (Fondo Nacional para la Paz - Fonapaz), an agency created in the early 1990s to alleviate poverty and inequality, he had worked with the poor and marginalized, mostly in rural areas. In that capacity, he had met his third wife, Sandra Torres, an ambitious, political stalwart in her own right. Together, they had created the National Unity of Hope (Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza - UNE), which remains the only modern-day party to ever win the presidency without winning the popular vote in Guatemala City.

However, other criminal forces were emerging inside the presidential palace and beyond. Colom’s chief of staff was a man named Gustavo Alejos, the CEO of one of the country’s largest pharmaceutical companies, J.I. Cohen, who had also become a political consultant and financier of numerous political parties, including the UNE. Once in office, Alejos solidified an already tight grip on state-provided medicine contracts, among other schemes. Alejos would later establish himself as a CIACS of sorts from outside of government, fostering corruption and malfeasance inside the Pérez Molina administration.

Colom’s presidential guard was headed by Carlos Quintanilla, who was later connected to corruption and drug trafficking by the CICIG and linked to the theft of close to $9 million from the Guatemala City airport. Colom removed Quintanilla after discovering that Quintanilla was spying on him. Quintanilla was later arrested for fraud and coercion, but his legacy remains entrenched in the presidential palace: He had militarized the presidential guard, creating a kind of parallel power reminiscent of the EMP, according to an investigation by elPeriódico.

Outside the capital, UNE’s allies included drug traffickers and politicians. One of these was Otoniel Turcios, who had helped finance Colom’s campaign. He was later captured, extradited, and convicted in the United States for drug trafficking. Another was a politician named Manuel Baldizón, a UNE congressman from the northern state of Petén. Baldizón would later create his own political party and, following his own presidential campaigns, serve 28 months in prison in the United States after pleading guilty to money laundering with campaign contributions from drug traffickers.

Phase III: Making Enemies

Meanwhile, the CICIG began helping the Attorney General’s Office go after CIACS old and new. This included Vielman and Giammattei for the alleged massacre of the seven inmates. The case would last for years, spread across two continents, and lead to the temporary imprisonment of Giammattei, the future president. Other cases targeted the Ríos Montt bloc, including Portillo; and parts of La Cofradía (although never Ortega Menaldo, who always managed to escape unscathed). Aside from the Vielman case, which the economic elites took as a direct attack against one of its own, the CICIG was working to debilitate the CIACS but also corruption schemes connected to politicians and emerging elites.

Still, the CIACS returned to power, this time with Otto Pérez Molina, who was elected with a nearly 10-point margin in 2011 over Manuel Baldizón. For years, Pérez Molina had burnished a reputation as a reformer. The former general had, for example, supported the approval of the CICIG and been a proponent of the peace accord with the guerrillas. And after he took office, Pérez Molina left Claudia Paz y Paz, a pro-human rights and pro-CICIG attorney general, in her post. At first, it seemed to play in the president’s favor, as Paz y Paz continued several historic cases against the military, including one against General Ríos Montt for war crimes in the 1980s. The case debilitated a competing CIACS and fortified Pérez Molina’s image, but it also galvanized ex-military officers and hard-right economic elites, some of whom, at the behest of the general’s daughter, Zury Ríos, publicly sided with the embattled former general.

SEE ALSO: Guatemala: An Election Enshrined in Impunity

What’s more, Pérez Molina’s façade as a forward-looking reformer was also starting to crumble. His Patriot Party had, in many ways, created what one crime analyst called “the perfect CIACS.” His vice president, Roxana Baldetti, established a team that oversaw the ports and the customs offices. His interior minister, also a decorated, former military officer, monetized the ministry with kickbacks on everything from toilet paper to security cameras. The minister of the Ministry of Communications, Infrastructure, and Housing (Ministerio de Comunicaciones, Infraestructura y Vivienda - CIV) sold his office’s standard services for a premium. The president of the board of directors of the Guatemalan Institute of Social Security Institute (Instituto Guatemalteco de Seguridad Social - IGSS) -- also a former military officer -- channeled contracts to unqualified candidates for a price and used the IGSS as a petty cash department to rig the voting of high court judges. Like a Mafia don, Pérez Molina collected a fee for all of it.

The CICIG, under its new commissioner, the Colombian judge Iván Velásquez, was watching. Beginning in 2015, about a year after Velásquez’s arrival, the CICIG and its partners at the Attorney General’s Office began to reveal a raft of corruption cases they had been building. To the economic elite’s surprise and dismay, the cases were not just directed at CIACS -- they were also directed at them and their closest allies in some of the largest industrial, agro-industrial, and telecommunications conglomerates in the country, as well as at banks, hotels, and ports. The surge in judicial action was seen as a sign that justice might finally prevail in Guatemala. Velásquez became something of a folk hero, and the expectations around the weekly announcement of the cases something of a game, typified by a #JuevesdeCICIG hashtag.

Some of the cases were stronger than others, but with each new case announced, the commission appeared to be reaching higher into the corrupt-criminal blocs that had long characterized Guatemala’s political landscape. In May 2015, CICIG announced charges against Vice President Baldetti for orchestrating an elaborate corruption scheme in customs houses across the country and asked Congress to lift Pérez Molina’s immunity from prosecution. Even prior to the announcement of charges against Baldetti, protesters were beginning to flood the streets, in particular the plaza in front of the presidential palace. Protests culminated in late August and helped force Congress to strip Pérez Molina of his immunity. Pérez Molina resigned, was charged with corruption, and was imprisoned alongside his vice president. It was the apex of CICIG’s power.

Phase IV: Backlash

An interim government held the state in place during the tumultuous elections that followed. The three top contenders were the one-time UNE congressman, Manuel Baldizón; Pérez Molina’s CIV minister, Alejandro Sinibaldi; and the former first lady, Sandra Torres. Sinibaldi would soon go on the run because of allegations of corruption; Baldizón would fade, in part because of his close ties to drug trafficking; Torres was strong but had a ceiling. Novelty came in the form of a television comedian-turned-political hopeful whose only other foray into politics had been a failed bid to become mayor of a Guatemala City suburb. It did not matter: In October 2015, Jimmy Morales defeated Sandra Torres in the second round by a margin of more than 30 points.

But if Guatemala was clamoring for something new, what they got was more of the same. Backing Morales was the National Convergence Front (Frente de Convergencia Nacional - FCN-Nación), a party founded and funded by ex-military personnel who themselves appeared to be something resembling a CIACS. Many had connections to Vielman’s network connected to earlier crimes. One of Morales’ closest advisors was General Ricardo Bustamante, who had worked closely with Otto Pérez Molina for years; behind Bustamante was a raft of other current and ex-military officials. What’s more, among Morales’ financiers were prominent members of the CACIF, among other economic elites, some of whom had allegedly channeled money illegally into Morales’ campaign at the last minute.

The CICIG, still riding high from its toppling of the Pérez Molina regime, set its sights on more recent cases. In September 2016, the commission announced it was pursuing a petty corruption case that eventually ensnared Morales’ son and his brother that predated Morales’ time as a presidential candidate. Both were briefly jailed for the case in early 2017. And while the commission could not prosecute the military backers of Morales, it could go after the CACIF elites who financed him during the second round of the elections, as well as the president himself. The case was relatively small in economic terms but mammoth in symbolic terms, especially when -- even after eight of those accused admitted guilt in a dramatic press conference, including some members of the country’s most storied and wealthy families -- the CICIG still charged them with petty electoral financing crimes. In a bid to show that it was prosecuting all political parties, the CICIG also opened up cases against members of Congress, the former UNE president Colom, and Álvaro Arzú, the president-turned-mayor.

By then, a coordinated public relations campaign to undermine the CICIG in the press and on social media had gained significant traction. This campaign was, in part, led by Ricardo Méndez Ruiz, whose father had been interior minister during Ríos Montt’s short stint as president in the early 1980s. Méndez Ruiz was a former businessman who created a non-governmental organization called the Foundation Against Terrorism (Fundación Contra el Terrorismo - FCT) in 2013. The FCT was ostensibly established to defend former military officers facing charges of human rights abuses, but its purview would expand with time. In 2018, a new attorney general, Consuelo Porras, began to disrupt the commission’s cases and marginalize its allies in the Attorney General’s Office. Morales also installed an interior minister, Enrique Degenhart, who had worked with the Arzú administration in Guatemala City and quickly moved to shut down any cooperation with the commission.

The press called these forces the Pacto de Corruptos, but it was less of a pact than a tacit agreement that they had to work in unison to stop the Attorney General’s Office from opening more cases and to shut down the CICIG. Morales declared the Colombian Velásquez persona non grata and began to deny visas for the commission’s investigators. In August 2018, in a fiery speech, the president declared that he would not renew CICIG’s mandate. A little more than a year later, on September 1, 2019, the CICIG packed the last of its boxes and left the country.

The Pacto de Corruptos has since moved from defense to offense. A coalition, which included prominent members of the CIACS, drug traffickers, corrupt politicians, special interest lobbyists, and a small number of business elites rallied behind the once-jailed former director of the penitentiary system, Alejandro Giammattei, to catapult him to the presidency in 2020. By 2021, the political establishment’s efforts to ensure impunity and persecute anyone who had assisted the CICIG began to take shape.

Many others have joined in this campaign, most notably Méndez Ruiz and Attorney General Porras, but also numerous appellate and high court judges, as well as prominent economic elites who discreetly finance lobbying efforts in Washington D.C. What has followed has been a relentless purge of prosecutors and judges, some of whom have fled the country, others of whom are facing criminal charges in Guatemala.

It is in this tumultuous environment that Guatemala is heading toward its 2023 presidential election. Its chief objective fulfilled, the Pacto may divide into factions, since each has its own origins, priorities, and means of continuing to influence the judicial system both in its favor and against its perceived enemies. It is some of these factions that we describe in the next chapters.

**Alex Papadovassilakis, Edgar Gutiérrez, and Jody García contributed reporting to this story.

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