Zury Ríos (Valor) is consistently near the top of the polls making her one of the frontrunners in a crowded and unpredictable campaign. Part of her appeal is recognition. She is the daughter of Efraín Ríos Montt, the prominent general who took over Guatemala in a military coup in 1982. He subsequently became president of Congress (1995-1996, 2000-2004). His daughter served as a congresswoman with his political party for the latter term, one of four terms served. Ríos has been an outspoken advocate for women’s rights, among other causes, and effectively worked across the aisle to push her agenda.
But she also has ties to ultraconservative domestic and international religious and civic groups. Among her backers are former military officials with connections to the Illegal Clandestine Security Apparatuses (Cuerpos Ilegales y Aparatos Clandestinos de Seguridad - CIACS), the criminal networks that have long exerted significant influence on the government’s security and intelligence agencies. She has also forged an alliance with the Unionist Party (Partido Unionista - PU), which has its own legacy of CIACS and has controlled Guatemala City and its government-related business for decades. She has secured support from members of former President Jimmy Morales’ administration and has important social and political allies in pro-life sectors of the Catholic and Evangelical churches, as well as connections to Opus Dei. Finally, she has allies in the high courts and a judicial guardian, Ricardo Méndez Ruiz, the head of the Foundation Against Terrorism (FCT), who has been supporting her for years.
Ríos’ coalition depends on three pillars of support, each of which has different business interests that they seek to protect or expand, in addition to varying power bases and goals.
Pillar I: The Old Guard
The first pillar is made up of remnants of her father’s network, many of whom were members of her father's political party, the Guatemalan Republican Front (Frente Republicano Guatemalteco - FRG), at one stage or another. This includes former military officers, congressional representatives, and prominent lawyers. Sources told InSight Crime, for example, that among the former military officers who support Ríos is Gustavo Adolfo Padilla, a former colonel who now helps run a private security firm that has benefitted from government contracts.
Private security is one of the main types of business set up by former military officers, and it is one of the largest lobbies in the capital, since both local and federal government agencies frequently contract these firms for everything from personal bodyguards to camera surveillance to private detective work. It is a business that also puts them at the crossroads of numerous other businesses, thus positioning them for money-making opportunities, where the line between legal and illegal gets fuzzy.
In Padilla’s case, his company, Serseco, has reportedly created “paramilitary structures” to help protect hydroelectric projects from local opposition groups. In 2018, Padilla himself was connected to corruption but never charged. Padilla’s connection to Ríos is direct but not firmly established. His son, Kenneth Müller, runs Valor’s videography department and has made revisionist documentaries about Guatemala’s war. But some sources said he is not well connected with ex-military officials like he once was.
Other parts of the campaign are not from the military but have the right conservative credentials and historical connections. Valor’s communications team, for example, includes the Costa Rican Alfred Kaltschmitt, an influential right-wing columnist, communications specialist, university dean, and owner of Radio Infinita. Kaltschmitt worked with Ríos Montt’s government in 1982-83, as part of the softer side of the counterinsurgency effort in the Ixil Triangle. More recently, Radio Infinita cut ties with Con Criterio, a popular radio program, which has been openly critical of efforts to undermine the justice system. Kaltschmitt reportedly has health problems and may not be as active as he once was.
Yet, even if his current role may be limited by his health, Kaltschmitt has long been an important interlocutor for Zury Ríos. When the Attorney General’s Office prosecuted Ríos Montt for genocide in 2013, Kaltschmitt reportedly got Ríos an audience with numerous traditional economic elites. The meeting began a process that eventually smoothed over some tensions lingering from the FRG government of the early 2000s, during which Ríos Montt’s party had vilified the elites and cut into their business interests.
Some elites later joined Ríos’ efforts to malign the government trial against her father, and Ríos maintains many of those relationships. In fact, some media have asserted she is receiving funding from prominent families with stakes in important companies tied to construction, agro-industrial, and extractive industries, as well as those in the service and food industries. Nonetheless, InSight Crime’s sources say funding efforts may be limited for all candidates after high-profile business elites were investigated for allegedly contributing funds illegally to Morales’ 2015 presidential election campaign.
Outside Guatemala City are several former FRG caciques. As outlined in the section on the former first lady and presidential candidate Sandra Torres and the UNE bloc, these caciques play a key role in gathering votes on the local level in return for government contracts at the national level. Some of them have already been flagged for corruption. Carlos López, to cite just one example, was once a congressman for FRG and is a congressional candidate for Valor in Quiche. Notably, he was implicated in a case known as Plazas Fantasmas (Ghost Jobs), brought by the CICIG, which alleged congressional representatives were establishing dozens of phantom jobs. In 2022, a judge dropped the case.
Pillar II: Unionistas
Ríos’ second pillar is the Unionist Party. The two parties officially allied in 2022. They are aligned ideologically: They both have conservative, God-fearing, anti-communist platforms. They have a shared CIACS genealogy. An example of this is the lawyer Moisés Galindo, who made his name from his strident defense of some of the most infamous military defendants, among them Ríos Montt during his genocide trial, as well as others, such as Byron Lima, who had strong ties to the former president and longtime mayor of Guatemala City, Álvaro Arzú, and his CIACS.
What’s more, the Unionistas have effectively run Guatemala City for two decades (formerly under the banner of the Partido de Avanzada Nacional - PAN). The Unionista Party has controlled Guatemala City via a combination of grassroots committees, strategic media and business alliances, and el sótano (the basement), the euphemism to describe the elaborate intelligence and counterintelligence apparatus that acted as Arzú's CIACS. But its lock on the city is not guaranteed.
For the PU, the alliance would mean access to the presidency and -- if they can win Guatemala City -- continued control of the city. To be sure, their candidates are natural conduits between city and central government power hubs who understand how politics works. Ríos’ vice-presidential candidate, for example, is Héctor Cifuentes Mendoza, a Unionista who was Arzú’s secretary general in Guatemala City for years and was later implicated in corruption during the Pérez Molina administration in a case called Caja Pandora (Pandora’s Box), according to a 2019 investigation by elPeriódico.
The PU is also trying to position itself better in Congress. One candidate is Álvaro Arzú Escobar, the son of the former president and mayor, Álvaro Arzú, and a longtime congressional representative. In 2017, he helped push through legislation that prohibited the prosecution of lawmakers for illicit campaign financing. He later became president of Congress (2018-2020) and started a “Truth Commission,” during which “victims” of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala - CICIG), a supranational judicial body backed by the United Nations, could testify and was part of a campaign to vilify then Human Rights Ombudsman and anti-corruption crusader, Jordán Rodas.
Pillar III: FCN-Nación
Other important PU congressional candidates include Enrique Degenhart, Sandra Jovel, and Jafeth Ernesto Cabrera Cortez, all three of whom provide a good bridge to the third pillar of the Ríos candidacy: former President Morales’ administration.
Degenhart is the second-in-command of the PU and a former mid-level customs official for former president Álvaro Colom’s administration (2008-2012), where he carved out a reputation for himself as a crime-fighting official. The reality was quite the opposite. The Attorney General’s Office investigated his brother for money laundering, and, as interior minister for Morales, he systematically undermined the CICIG by, among other things, extracting the police from their CICIG-related posts and replacing police commanders working with the CICIG with others who opposed its mission or were at least willing to undermine it.
Like Degenhart, Jovel worked in tandem with the presidency to isolate CICIG. She ensured Colombian Judge and then-CICIG Commissioner Iván Velásquez could not secure re-entry into the country once he had been named persona non-grata by Morales in 2018.
Cabrera Cortez may be the closest link the campaign has with drug trafficking. In 2018, a soon-to-be-extradited drug trafficker, who himself was former military, allegedly testified that Cabrera requested $1 million for his father’s vice-presidential campaign in 2015.
The affinity between the Ríos and Morales camps is due, in part, to their shared roots and their shared interests. Morales’ party, the FCN-Nación, was founded by former members of the military, including several who later funded Morales’ candidacy for president and were connected to human rights violations, criminal activity, and corruption.
These former military remain interconnected in personal, social, business, and government affairs. Their interests include controlling the large budgets of the interior ministry, as well as crucial nodes of power in customs and tax offices, among others, so they can fleece private businesses and public officials alike.
For her part, Ríos does not have a reputation for corruption on a personal level, but documents leaked from the State Department said she attended a meeting in which she and her father’s political party, the FRG, personally thanked one of the corrupt donors to Portillo’s presidential campaign. It is also notable that she has long been surrounded by numerous operators and politicians -- including her current husband -- who have pillaged the state or repurposed it for their own ends. In the affairs of justice, however, Ríos has shown a capacity and a willingness to be much more hands-on.
Political Power, Impunity, and Judicial Vengeance
Ríos’ interactions with the judicial system have been centered on securing access to the country’s highest courts, namely the Constitutional Court (Corte de Constitucionalidad - CC), where her allies have benefitted her on a personal and professional level. She also has a powerful ally outside of the judicial system, one that plays the dual role of guard dog of impunity and attack dog for those who feel aggrieved by the efforts of the CICIG and its judicial allies.
Swaying the Postulation Commissions
Ríos has long understood that the judicial system was a fundamental tool of power in Guatemala. In the early 2000s, as part of the most powerful legislative bloc in Congress, she voted to expand participation of members of the country’s bar association in voting for representatives of the so-called postulation commissions. The postulation commissions select the final candidates for attorney general, the country’s high courts, and the Supreme Electoral Court (Tribunal Supremo Electoral - TSE), among others. The bar association selects up to 11 members of each commission, so expanding participation had widespread and immediate consequences in the selection of the attorney general and these judges.
One of the promoters and beneficiaries of this new law was Ríos husband at the time, Roberto López Villatoro. Dubbed “El Rey del Tenis,” or “Tennis Shoe King,” by journalists because of the millions he had earned by selling knock-off tennis shoes imported from abroad, López soon positioned himself as the de facto campaigner and vote-getter for the FRG in the bar association. The result was a historic turn inside the halls of justice in Guatemala. What was once the purview of the country’s traditional economic elites was now a battleground where the FRG, UNE, and other fledgling representatives of the emerging elite like López Villatoro began to supply their own, hand-picked judges and high-level judicial operatives.
Stacking the High Courts
This type of backroom haggling has proven fundamental for Ríos both personally and politically. In 2013, after her father, Ríos Montt, was convicted of genocide by a special Guatemalan court, she and her cohorts turned to the CC. There, she had a strong ally, Roberto Molina Barreto, a magistrate on the court who immediately authored the counterargument that overturned Ríos Montt’s conviction nine days after the historic ruling. Zury Ríos would later choose Molina to be her candidate for vice president during her 2019 presidential campaign. Molina has served as a permanent and substitute magistrate on the CC since 2006.
In addition to Molina, in March 2021, Congress selected Luis Alfonso Rosales Marroquín, a former Valor congressman who also worked on Ríos’ father’s defense team, to be an alternate on the CC. These allies may have played key roles in changing her political fortunes. Although Ríos’ 2019 campaign was halted when the CC ruled that Article 186 of the Guatemalan Constitution prohibited close relatives of coup leaders from the presidency, her 2023 campaign was greenlit by a reshuffled set of CC magistrates.
The courts have also ruled against potential rivals. Thelma Cabrera, the presidential candidate for the left-wing Movement for the Liberation of Peoples (Movimiento para la Liberación de los Pueblos - MLP), who came fourth in the 2019 elections, has been barred from running. The TSE rejected the inscription of MLP vice-presidential candidate and former human rights ombudsman, Jordán Rodas, on technical grounds. The decision automatically excluded Cabrera from running for president. The CSJ and CC then rejected appeals lodged by the MLP.
The TSE also revoked the inscription of another potential rival, Roberto Arzú, the wayward son of Álvaro Arzú. Electoral authorities had greenlit Arzú’s participation but then ruled in favor of a petition lodged by members of FCN-Nación aimed at annulling his candidacy on grounds that he had engaged in political campaigning prior to the official start of elections. As in the MLP’s case, the CC rejected appeals against the TSE ruling lodged by Arzú and his party, Podemos.
The CC has also benefited Ríos in her own run for president by rejecting a legal challenge aimed at blocking her candidacy. The challenge centered on the same constitutional prohibition that bars children of former presidents that came to power via a coup d’état (as her father had in 1982) from running for president. The CC also threw out a case against her vice-presidential candidate, Cifuentes, who was facing charges for illegal campaign financing.
Presidential candidate Edmond Mulet of the Cabal party was also put on notice by the TSE after the Attorney General’s Office accused him of interfering in an investigation into a prominent journalist jailed on money laundering charges. It came after Mulet filed the unsuccessful legal challenge aimed at invalidating Ríos’ candidacy.
Mulet appears to have survived the period of injunctions, petitions, and other means by which candidates have been excluded. As of May 25, the deadline for printing ballots, Mulet was officially in the race for president. What’s more, he appears well-positioned to take advantage of the chaos. Recent polls have him making it to the second round, along with Sandra Torres.
Seeking Vengeance From the Outside In
Ríos’ allies outside of the formal justice system may be stronger than those on the inside. In addition to Galindo, Ríos counts on support from other members of her father’s former legal team, which includes Jaime Hernández Zamora. Zamora defended both the general in the genocide case and a current Valor campaign manager, Christian Boussinot, a former congressman who was implicated in the Plazas Fantasmas case. Valor’s executive secretary is Ingrid Bernat Cofiño de Palomo, the daughter-in-law of Francisco Palomo Tejeda. Palomo Tejeda was also on Ríos Montt’s legal team, before being brutally assassinated just blocks from his office in Guatemala City under mysterious circumstances.
For his part, Galindo is one of Ríos’ interlocutors with the non-governmental organization Foundation Against Terrorism (Fundación Contra el Terrorismo - FCT). FCT’s director, Ricardo Méndez Ruiz, also has a military lineage and a long personal history with Ríos, making him more loyal to her than any other candidate, a fact he has made clear on social media platforms. What’s more, the FCT’s core mission -- to defend former military officers accused of human rights abuses -- neatly aligned with those who were trying to undo the justice system’s crackdown on corruption.
Since 2011, Méndez Ruíz, and later the FCT, once it was formalized in 2013, have presented formal complaints to the judicial system. By Guatemalan law, judges can dismiss these complaints, and, for a long time, they uniformly rejected the FCT’s formal complaints. But after the composition of the courts changed and the CICIG left the country in 2019, numerous complaints against judicial operators who worked with the CICIG have been referred to the Attorney General’s Office for investigation.
The system also has legal and social safety valves. On the legal side, anyone who files a complaint that a prosecutor rejects can appeal to a judge, who, after finding cause, can assign the case to another prosecutor. On the social front, the FCT launches sustained campaigns to vilify the accused via social media with its small army of followers. Often, it will signal who is the next person to be targeted with some social media posts. These attacks are personal, persistent, and can have a devastating impact on their own, even if no judicial investigation is opened.
Ríos’ relationship with FCT and Méndez Ruiz could become a problem. Méndez Ruiz, Galindo, and a lawyer with the FCT, Raúl Falla, have all been named on the Engel List. But as long as these actors remain outside of government, she can keep them at arm’s length even while benefitting from Méndez Ruiz’s Twitter-Molotov cocktails and the looming threat of criminal complaints that can target potential rivals.
*Alex Papadovassilakis and Jody García contributed reporting to this story.