US authorities have charged a Guatemalan presidential candidate with soliciting campaign funds from Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel and even asking the group to assassinate his rivals, in a case that highlights that politics in Guatemala, despite efforts to clean it up, remains a seriously dirty business.
Prosecutors say Mario Amilcar Estrada Orellana was seeking between $10 million and $12 million from the Sinaloa Cartel in exchange for providing “state-sponsored support” for the group's drug trafficking activities, according to a federal indictment unsealed April 17.
Estrada, a candidate with the center-right National Change Union (Unión del Cambio Nacionalista -- UCN) political party, and another man, Juan Pablo González Mayorga, were both arrested at the Miami Airport on drug trafficking and weapons charges, authorities said. For the past four months, the pair plotted to win the election with drug money provided by two purported Sinaloa Cartel members, who were in fact criminal informants working for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
Estrada pledged “unfettered access” to Guatemala’s airports and ports to transport drugs, and he also offered to appoint members of the powerful drug trafficking organization to “high-ranking government positions” if he were to win the election, according to the indictment.
González also reportedly asked if the informants could “assassinate [at least two] political rivals” using “lots of AK-47 [rifles]” that he would provide to carry out the hits.
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In exchange for facilitating the movement of six cocaine-laden planes through the country en route to the United States, the cartel was to send millions of dollars in drug money via a yacht supplied by Estrada. That way, Estrada told the informants, he could deliver a “sizeable amount of money” to each of Guatemala’s 22 districts, allowing him to secure enough votes to win the upcoming June election, according to the indictment.
Estrada is no stranger to politics or controversy. He was a congressman for many years before creating his UCN party in 2006. He unsuccessfully ran for president in 2007, 2011, 2015 and again in 2019. The United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG) previously investigated Estrada and his party in 2015 for alleged illicit campaign financing and links to drug trafficking.
For its part, the US Embassy in Guatemala branded the UCN a "narco party" in a 2011 WikiLeaks cable. The daughter of Gloria Torres, one of Estrada’s UCN running mates in 2015, is also alleged to have links to Waldemar Lorenzana, the former leader of one of Guatemala’s most notorious drug trafficking clans. Other UCN party members have been linked to convicted drug traffickers like Marllory Chacón Rossell.
If convicted, Estrada and González could both face life in prison in the United States.
InSight Crime Analysis
Estrada's brazen attempt to solicit drug money to win Guatemala's presidential election shines a light on how dirty cash has infiltrated the country's political system.
Though not a frontrunner in the race, Estrada stressed that he “needed funding from a drug cartel to be competitive," which speaks volumes, given that it wasn’t long ago that Mexican criminal groups like the feared Zetas cartel were relying on extreme violence to exert control in Central American countries, including Guatemala.
“I think Estrada’s case confirms the way in which many political parties [in Guatemala] fund their campaigns, and demonstrates the continued co-optation of the state,” Guatemalan journalist Sofía Menchú told InSight Crime.
Allegations of illicit campaign financing and links to organized crime groups have clouded Guatemalan politics for years now.
The CICIG and Attorney General’s Office are currently investigating President Jimmy Morales for alleged illicit financing during his successful 2015 campaign. His predecessor, President Otto Pérez Molina, resigned before authorities arrested him and then-Vice President Roxana Baldetti for allegedly leading a customs fraud scheme that netted the pair millions of dollars in kickbacks. He was also accused of receiving illicit campaign funds.
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Prior to Molina, Álvaro Colom was elected president of Guatemala in 2007 with the help of dubious political operatives who reportedly received critical financial support from organized crime groups in Guatemala and Mexico, including the Zetas.
Led by current President Morales, Guatemala's elites have recently struck back against the anti-corruption drive headed by the CICIG and Attorney General’s Office, effectively causing a constitutional crisis earlier this year after Morales ousted CICIG Commissioner Iván Velásquez and ordered the commission’s agents to leave the country.
"The main interest of the government in power is to roll back or undermine the actors and institutions that have been so key in fighting corruption [in Guatemala]," said Jo-Marie Burt, an associate professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).
The latest revelations also come as the United States sends mixed signals about its commitment to fighting corruption in Central America, specifically in the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
While US anti-drug authorities continue to make high-profile arrests linked to Central American governments, a recently released US government "blacklist" of corrupt Central American government officials failed to name anyone who hadn't been previously sentenced for their crimes.
The current US administration "doesn't really care about corruption in Central America," Burt added. "It's frustrating to see that even with the incredible progress made by the CICIG and Attorney General's Office, these problems haven't been resolved."