HomeInvestigationsVamos: The Fight to Stay in the Game

Vamos: The Fight to Stay in the Game


The political bloc surrounding the administration of President Alejandro Giammattei (2020-present) is now the dominant power structure in Guatemala. In just a few years, it has achieved something almost unprecedented in the country’s post-war era: the consolidation of power across the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. This centralization of power is not a reflection of Giammattei’s popularity -- in a 2022 poll administered by CID Gallup, the Guatemalan president had a 19% approval rating, the joint lowest in the Americas; and his party, Vamos, has a minor voting bloc in Congress. Rather, it is a sign of the bloc’s ability to leverage executive powers to trade political favors with traditional and emerging elites and, in doing so, position itself as the central node in a horizontal alliance that seeks to perpetuate power across key branches of the state.

The alliance, which took root during the Morales administration when elites shared an interest in ousting the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala - CICIG), has morphed into a systematic campaign to convert the judicial sector into a shield for nefarious actors and a weapon for exacting revenge on those who once fought against impunity. The result has been a period of corruption and graft, gradually spiraling out of control as key branches of the state sink into ungovernability. The question posed by sources who spoke to InSight Crime was not if Vamos has a chance to win the presidency. It was if this loose coalition would remain intact following the elections.

*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.

Executive Power, Congress, and Mayors

The Vamos bloc’s leverage lies in its control of the presidency. The executive branch presides over a near-bottomless trove of state funds via its influence over the national budget and key ministries, which can be distributed within the bloc or used to build alliances in sectors pivotal to potential corruption schemes, namely in Congress and the judicial sector. The bloc’s main negotiator is Giammattei’s one-time chief of staff, Miguel Martínez, according to congressional sources and political analysts interviewed by InSight Crime. Martínez accumulated power and contacts after Giammattei positioned him as director of an opaque presidential commission, known as the Center of Government (Centro de Gobierno), in early 2020. This role allowed Martínez to watch over the entire cabinet and influence the distribution of state funds via key ministries.

How the Executive Branch Divvies up the Pie

Though Martínez is no longer a government official -- the Centro de Gobierno was shut down at the end of 2020 -- he remains an important node for anyone looking to secure public contracts or government jobs at the executive’s disposal, according to multiple sources consulted by InSight Crime. Much of this activity related to the Vamos bloc has centered on the Ministry of Communications, Infrastructure, and Housing (Ministerio de Comunicaciones, Infraestructura y Vivienda - CIV). The CIV and its many directories preside over the country’s biggest and most lucrative infrastructure and telecommunications contracts, which have been awarded to companies close to Giammattei, according to a 2022 investigation by elPeriódico.

Other important ministries include the Guatemalan Social Security Institute (Instituto Guatemalteco de Seguridad Social - IGSS) and the Ministry for Health and Social Assistance (Ministerio de Salud Pública y Asistencia Social - MSPAS). Each year these institutions administer billions of dollars in healthcare and pharmaceutical contracts. Particularly in the case of the IGSS, these have long been leveraged to secure political favors or kickbacks.

Funds assigned to the Ministry of Social Development (Ministerio de Desarrollo Social - MIDES), the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Food (Ministerio de Agricultura, Ganadería y Alimentación - MAGA), the Ministry of Energy and Mines (Ministerio de Energía y Minas - MEM), and the Ministry of Education (Ministerio de Educación - MINEDUC) can also be operationalized by the executive branch. The dynamic is largely the same: the executive branch can distribute poverty relief and food programs, mining permits, and construction contracts for schools, in exchange for political favors and, in some cases, garnering political support in poor areas.

SEE ALSO: Guatemala: An Election Enshrined in Impunity

For others, such as the Ministry of Environmental and Natural Resources (Ministerio de Ambiente y Recursos Naturales - MARN), the system is more backhanded. Since this ministry administers and validates environmental conditions and community approval for mining and hydroelectric projects, it can spin this oversight into payoffs, as well as political and economic leverage.

Congressional Quid Pro Quo

The bloc’s control of state funds has seen congressional representatives flock towards the government, allowing Vamos to transform a Congress bloc counting just 17 representatives (out of 160) into a majority coalition spanning at least 13 parties and around two-thirds of the legislature’s seats: Vamos (17 seats), UNE (34), the National Change Union (Unión del Cambio Nacional - UCN) (12), Valor (9), the National Convergence Front (Frente de Convergencia Nacional - FCN-Nación)(8), Bienestar (8), Humanista (6), Todos (6), Creo (5), Citizen Prosperity (Prosperidad Ciudadana)(3), PAN (2), Unionista (2), Podemos (1).

Votes from allied parties have allowed the government to pass a series of congressional bills that enable corruption, from increases in the national budget to emergency decrees that weaken scrutiny on public tenders. In this regard, the power lies with the president of Congress, who sets the legislative agenda and provides a link between representatives and executive resources. Over the course of its tenure, the Giammattei administration has positioned two top Vamos operators in the role: first, Allan Rodríguez, and more recently, Shirley Rivera.

Rodríguez, head of Congress between 2020 and 2022, allegedly offered bribes to representatives to secure votes for a state of emergency bill, according to the US Treasury Department, which sanctioned Rodríguez over the bill, as well as for awarding “construction grants in exchange for financial kickbacks.” Rivera took over from Rodríguez as president of Congress in 2022 after purportedly gaining the confidence of Giammattei and aligned representatives. She now helps manage government jobs, money, and state contracts among the Vamos bloc and allied parties in Congress, according to a former president of Congress.

The sway now held by actors like Rivera and Rodríguez is a testament to the steadily increasing clout of congressional coalitions, an emerging political class that has consolidated power by leveraging its influence over the distribution of public funds. The evolution of Congress as a hub for corrupt money-making schemes has helped open the playing field to non-traditional elites, with many players in Congress having toiled their way through the drudgery of mid-level bureaucracy before learning how to leverage their positions to help grow companies that can bankroll their political ambitions. Others may have zero experience in the public sector, having instead used capital from commercial activity and land ownership, or in some cases, ill-gotten gains from the criminal underworld, to finance their route into the political arena. These new players appear to be increasingly independent of other powerful players, such as the drug trafficking interests documented below.

Path to Power: Old Mayors, New Allies

Though the Vamos bloc has accumulated extensive political power, its chances of retaining the presidency in the upcoming elections appear slim. The bloc’s presidential candidate, longtime congressional representative Manuel Conde, is far from a household name and has consistently polled below the frontrunners. Seemingly aware of the candidate’s modest popularity, the bloc’s election strategy has centered on recruiting close to 200 mayoral candidates in the hope of securing enough votes for Conde to make the second round against a candidate with a firm ceiling.

The plan appears to center on the bloc’s access to state resources, with mayoral candidates able to trade political support for increased municipal funds and public work projects. The final months of 2022 saw Congress approve one of the largest budgets in recent memory, with significant increases in funds for departmental councils for development (Consejos Departamentales de Desarrollo - CODEDE). The councils are headed by departmental governors, appointed by the executive, who coordinate with mayors and congressional representatives to distribute around Q3.4 billion ($436 million) annually across more than 2,000 public works projects, spanning education, roads, sanitation, and health. Mayors face little scrutiny when it comes to public spending, as they all enjoy political immunity under Guatemalan law.

Recruiting mayors also opens the door to illicit financing from organized crime. Particularly in border areas, drug traffickers maintain close ties to mayors and contribute political funds in exchange for construction contracts used to launder money. Press reports have flagged links between some Vamos municipal candidates and the drug trade, including one mayor, previously linked to a drug ring by Guatemalan authorities, who publicly stated that he was a drug trafficker.

The bloc’s election strategy also relies on positioning key allies in Congress, some linked to the drug trade. Winning even a few seats in Congress would ensure the party’s political survival -- regardless of the results of the presidential election -- by providing a platform to trade votes in exchange for state resources. In this regard, Vamos has absorbed several former representatives of the National Change Union (Unión del Cambio Nacional - UCN), a political party heavily linked to the drug trade. In 2021, the Supreme Electoral Court (TSE) ordered the party to disband for allegedly breaching electoral financing rules. 

SEE ALSO: Guatemala Elites and Organized Crime: The 'Huistas'

Perhaps the most conspicuous UCN deputy to run with Vamos in the upcoming elections is Sofía Hernández, the former vice-president of Congress. Hernández’s family is connected to a Guatemalan drug trafficking group known as the Huistas, based in her home department of Huehuetenango. In early 2021, the Attorney General’s Office arrested one of Hernández’s brothers on charges related to a money-laundering cover-up involving the drug ring. But there are other former UCN candidates with influence in regions pivotal to the drug trade: Carolina Orellana (Zacapa), Napoleón Rojas (Santa Rosa), and Jaime Lucero (Jalapa).

There are also representatives from other parties running for Congress with Vamos in provinces housing drug-smuggling groups, including Boris España (a candidate for Todos in the Chiquimula province) and Thelma Ramírez (a candidate for UNE in Izabal). The candidates’ broad geographical distribution could open the door to potentially game-changing campaign funds. The system is cyclic: state funds accessed by illicit actors are pumped back into election campaigns. Their contributions are then repaid with more contracts, and so on.

Denying Justice, Destroying Enemies

At the heart of the bloc’s efforts has been an orchestrated campaign aimed at undermining the judicial sector from within. By steadily exerting influence over key justice institutions, Giammattei and his allies have seemingly created a shield against prosecution. The bloc’s influence over the judicial sector has also allowed it to expel independent prosecutors and judges that once led the fight against high-level graft, part of a calculated effort to remove counterbalances and reverse rule-of-law efforts made during the CICIG era. Giammattei’s power is far from absolute. Rather, the president has capitalized on an opportune political moment to foster, reinforce, and synchronize mutually beneficial alliances between diverse networks and top operators in the judicial sector.

An Unholy Alliance: The President and the Attorney General’s Office

The path to influencing the judicial sector begins at the top with Attorney General Consuelo Porras. The Attorney General’s Office holds extraordinary leverage, as its prosecutors can obstruct criminal investigations to protect allies or instead slap rivals with criminal charges. Attorney General Porras is also the ultimate authority when it comes to hiring and firing prosecutors and other officials, allowing her to stack the Attorney General’s Office with loyal prosecutors and bureaucrats and, in doing so, possibly manipulate high-profile corruption cases. The Vamos bloc has relied heavily on Porras, whose office has ruled in Giammattei’s and his allies’ favor on multiple occasions. This protection has gone hand-in-hand with a broader campaign to dismantle the leading anti-corruption units within the Attorney General’s Office.

The primary target in this campaign was initially the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity (Fiscalía Especial contra la Impunidad - FECI), which worked side-by-side with the CICIG and took on the commission’s work following its departure in 2019. The unit concentrates the bulk of major corruption cases in Guatemala, and in the wake of CICIG’s exit, continued to ruffle the feathers of elites accused of corruption. It was FECI prosecutors, for example, led by the unit’s former head, Juan Francisco Sandoval, who in 2021 began investigating Giammattei for allegedly taking bribes from Russian businesspeople. In July 2021, Porras fired Sandoval and replaced him with Rafael Curruchiche.

Curruchiche’s appointment flipped FECI’s role on its head. Instead of prosecuting acts of corruption, the unit now appears to be keeping graft cases off the docket. At the same time, Curruchiche has turned FECI’s gaze toward the prosecutors and judges that once worked on high-profile corruption cases. Dozens of anti-impunity operators have been forced into exile or jailed after facing criminal charges enacted by the Attorney General’s Office. Porras has also transferred FECI prosecutors to other units, while others have resigned or fled the country after receiving death threats. Criminal charges levied by the Attorney General’s Office have also succeeded in ousting some of the country’s top judges, including the judge presiding over the bribery case implicating Giammattei.

The crackdown has often seen prosecutors seize upon administrative technicalities as the basis for criminal cases that charge anti-impunity operators with obstruction of justice and abuse of authority. The cases are almost always confidential, making it impossible to scrutinize the allegations. According to an investigation by elPeriódico, Porras’ dismissals and transfers have also weakened other branches of the Attorney General’s Office pivotal to tackling impunity. These include units that deal with general corruption, electoral and administrative crimes, and human rights -- the latter are responsible for prosecuting military veterans accused of crimes against humanity dating back to the civil war. Several prosecutors have been fired without due process. Those who seek to challenge a dismissal via legal channels face a wait of up to five years, Impunity Watch researcher Alejandro Rodríguez told InSight Crime. Prosecutors now face career-ending reprisals for breaking ranks with Porras, greatly reducing incentives to act independently of corrupt interests. On the flip side, the potential rewards for joining the corrupt establishment appear to be significant.

In 2021, for example, Porras blocked an arrest warrant against Cinthia Monterroso after former FECI head Sandoval accused her of requesting information on individuals not implicated in investigations. Later, when Curruchiche replaced Sandoval, Monterroso was appointed head of a FECI unit handling many of the office’s most sensitive cases, including the probe into bribes allegedly paid to Giammattei by Russian businesspeople. Almost all of FECI’s major corruption investigations have since stalled under Monterroso, and she has launched investigations into prominent journalists reporting on graft.

The US government has taken note of these developments in the Attorney General’s Office. In 2022, the US State Department sanctioned Porras for obstructing and undermining anti-corruption investigations to protect political allies. A year earlier, the State Department sanctioned Ángel Pineda, one of Porras’ top aides, for obstructing “investigations into acts of corruption by interfering in anticorruption probes” and informing “investigative targets about cases being built against them.”

Still, Porras now has enormous power. And the outcome of the 2023 elections does not affect her second five-year tenure, which began in 2022.

Stacking the High Courts

Since coming to power, the Giammattei administration has also brought the Constitutional Court (Corte de Constitucionalidad - CC) -- the country’s highest legal authority -- back into the orbit of his political interests. The CC has the final word on high-level legal disputes. During the Jimmy Morales administration, it served as a vital counterbalance. As one example, reported by elPeriódico in December 2018, the former president sought to dismantle the CICIG by expelling its top officials, the court blocked these efforts. 

That appeared to change with the election of new magistrates in early 2021. The reshuffle saw candidates -- particularly those put forward by the presidency, the judicial branch (Organismo Judicial - OJ), and the Supreme Court (Corte Suprema de Justicia - CSJ) -- tip the balance of the court in favor of interests seemingly aligned with the multi-party, multi-institutional alliance known as the Pacto de Corruptos, as well as the Giammattei administration and the Attorney General’s Office.  According to Rodríguez, the court is now an “ally of Porras” and wields its authority to uphold the actions of the Attorney General’s Office, as well as pass favorable rulings that have blocked investigations into elites and judicial operators accused of corruption. 

Indeed, the CC’s realignment has been beneficial to Giammattei’s bloc. The CC has, for instance, limited the ability of congressional committees to summon members of the executive for accountability purposes.

The consolidation of power in the judicial sector has also benefited from a successful effort to stall the election of new magistrates to the Supreme Court and appellate courts. Elections for new high court magistrates were due in 2019, but the CC suspended the process after the Attorney General’s Office revealed an alleged plot to stack the high courts with allies. The plot was led by an extensive network of operators that, according to a subsequent FECI investigation, included congressional representatives and CSJ magistrates. Since then, inaction in Congress has prevented the selection process from resuming. 

It has benefited them both. For Congress, which votes on a final list of high court candidates, stalling the elections appears to have helped them maintain their judicial immunity. The current line-up of CSJ magistrates has repeatedly shot down appeals aimed at stripping representatives of the immunity afforded to them by the constitution during their terms in office, including in 2020, when the CSJ shielded 92 representatives who the Attorney General’s Office accused of stalling those same high court elections. Congressional representatives, in turn, have repaid the favor by not voting in new magistrates, despite the current CSJ and appellate court judges having overstayed their constitutional term limit by four years.

The CSJ president is Silvia Patricia Valdés. Numerous court-watchers told InSight Crime that Valdés is close to President Giammattei. Valdés is the most influential figure within the high courts. The CSJ president has access to a series of financial and administrative functions that can be leveraged to secure political favors. For instance, the CSJ president assigns judges to courthouses dealing with high-profile corruption cases, while sending others to remote regions where the courts deal with minor cases. And, as illustrated by the selection process that saw Porras reappointed as attorney general, the president of the CSJ plays a crucial role in determining who occupies other crucial judicial posts.

The CSJ under Valdés has also played a pivotal role in accelerating investigations into top-level, independent judges, some of whom were involved in cases against the president, as well as former military officials accused of human rights violations. In 2022, the CSJ ruled in favor of requests aimed at lifting immunity from two of the country’s most experienced anti-corruption judges: Erika Aifán and Miguel Ángel Gálvez. Aifán’s office handled evidence implicating President Giammattei in alleged corruption, while Gálvez became a target while presiding over a major case into abuses committed by military veterans during the civil war. Both magistrates went into exile after losing their immunity.

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

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