A profile from the Guatemalan online news site Plaza Publica of a flamboyant former mayor from north Guatemala, who slashed poverty and protected the environment while allegedly working hand-in-hand with the drug trafficking Mendoza family.
The following is a translation:
In the 1980s, Julian Tesucun could have died installing electricity on the farms of Colombian drug traffickers, or he could have gone to the mountains with the guerrillas. But he did not. Instead, he entered politics in 1993, as mayor of San Jose, Peten, where he has won five consecutive elections. That is how Tesucun became the king of this strange town where things work, there is security and reduced poverty, but where there can be seen a harmonious, almost symbiotic relationship between local institutions and the Mendozas, a family that President Colom has classed among those “narcos that nobody touches.” Tesucun says that they are businessmen, and are his friends (pictured together below). But Tesucun will leave his fiefdom on January 14 to become a congressman representing Peten for the UNE-GANA alliance.
Julian used to run home barefoot through the jungles of Peten. His feet sank into the mud. The howls of the monkeys terrified him so much that he would burst into tears. Julian was 12 years old, and so scared that he swore that one day he would light the streets of his region, this remote place that stretches from Lake Peten Itza to the norther border with Mexico, so that no child would have to suffer from fear of the jungle.
His promise began with small steps. He became one of only 12 electricians in Peten, in the National Electrification Institute (INDE) in the 1980s. His family’s poverty and the inequality that he saw around him raised his awareness, and he became a admirer of leftist ideas and an active union leader.
Tesucun hands an award to Milton Mendoza. Source: Muni de San Jose
But no one could take away his obsession with bringing light to his home region. He made his start as an electrician, and this was one of his priorities when he became mayor, elected in 1993 by the National Action Party (Partido Accion Nacional - PAN), then led by Alvaro Arzu and Oscar Berger. On his second day as mayor he ordered work to begin on public lighting and the expansion of the power grid, a task that took more than 10 years to complete. Thus began the political history of one of the most successful mayors in recent years: He succeeded in reducing both poverty and extreme poverty by half in his municipality, according to reliable statistics from Segeplan; he put schools in every village; convinced communities that, instead of destroying nature, they should conserve and live from it. He took over all the institutions and made them work with loyalty to him, and made them love him. In 18 years he became a king, King Tesucun.
Now he has left his throne to try to become a lord in Congress. His opponents remind him of his close relationship with the Mendoza Matta family, and say that, although there has been no lawsuit or trial against them, they are a serious drug trafficking organization. The mayor’s relationship with the Mendozas is tangible: San Jose is the Peten municipality that has paid the most money to the Mendozas’ companies for public works, and recently Tesucun gave them an award for their contribution to the development of the town, which was publicized on the mayor’s web page.
From narcos’ farms to training revolutionaries
In 1982, Tesucun was an electrician who had learned to install TV satellite dishes. He was one of only 19 people in the north of the country who knew how to do this. One day a group of businessmen appeared, looking for technicians to work in Colombia. They would pay in dollars. Tesucun put his name on the waiting list, but they chose 16 of the applicants, and he was one of the three left out. He begged and begged them to take him to what appeared to be the Colombian dream. He was enraged by his misfortune when he heard that this companions had already left. Only three came back alive. Nothing is known about the others. They went to install equipment on the farms of drug traffickers, and mysteriously disappeared.
In 1983 he joined the INDE workers union. He worked his way up until he became one of the most influential members. It was there that he lost his fear of public speaking, which would later allow him to become a political boss of the region.
That year he was invited, along with 20 colleagues, to the INDE recreation center in Guacalate, Escuintla. They lived there for a month taking a supposed training course, which was actually a revolutionary indoctrination, allegedly taught by Venezuelan trade unionists and sponsored by the Dutch government.
“When I left that place, if someone had asked me to go to the mountains I would have gone,” said Tesucun. The offer came later, but by then he had decided to become a politician, in order to change his town.
A little bit of Amsterdam, Andalusia and Miami in the Jungle
Tesucun likes to show off about his achievements; he says he earned them with sweat and hard work. Although he did take some breaks. In 18 years as mayor (1993-2011) he traveled the world, and just like a businessman he returned with ideas to imitate, in order to modernize his small town of 5,000 inhabitants.
The now former mayor and congressional candidate, who claims to have noble Itza ancestry, describes himself by saying, “I always try to take care of the environment, I’m an environmentalist.”
On a trip to Amsterdam he saw a boardwalk. He fell in love. If his desire to illuminated came from fear, this came from pride. “In 1994 we began the boardwalk. Aside from the beauty, we looked for a way to make sure that the waste from the town would not reach the lake during the rainy season. And we did it.”
Now he is in the last stage of the project; the last 400 meters to cover the central part of the municipality.
It is hard to speak ill of the town, and almost understandable that the former mayor is so conceited. ·San Jose is an oasis in Peten. And perhaps a beauty mark on Guatemala. To find such a clean town would be as difficult as finding a safe neighborhood in Guatemala City. There are garbage cans every 50 meters and five city employees that clean every day from 8 in the morning to 5 in the afternoon.
And if there is anything missing to reinforce the image that San Jose is an extraordinary town, suffice it to say that there is not another plaza like it in any municipality. In its place there is a municipal water park with pools and slides, on the banks of the lake. The idea came after Julian Tesucun visited Miami.
One more medal for King Julian: San Jose is the only town in Central America that has 36 hectares of protected land -- an idea learned on his trip to Cazorla, Andalusia.
“I saw that families can live to take care of the environment. I brought the idea back and it was accepted.”
Recently, Tesucun sold carbon credits to a U.S. company named Global Carbon Group, in an agreement that promised to protect more than 5,000 hectares of forest in the next 20 years for $200,000, initially. He also got Spanish cooperation in creating one of three arts and crafts schools in the country in his municipality
Due to projects such as these, poverty in the municipality of San Jose declined from 64 percent to 33 percent between 1994 and 2010. It was reduced by half, and five years before the target date. He also managed to reduce extreme poverty rate to 7 percent of the total population.
Another medal which he feels quite proud of: he says that it was him that introduced Manuel Baldizon to national politics. He received Baldizon in Peten, asked him to be a candidate for the PAN, and took him to meet with Leonel Lopez Rodas in “area 14” to present him as a possible candidate for Peten representative in 2003. In a profile that Juan Carlos Llorca wrote for elPeriodico in 2005, Baldizon confirmed that it was Lopez Rodas who made the offer. The Peten youth had then a lot of enthusiasm and money for the campaign, and that was enough. What happened next is history.
Bilardo, populism and narcos?
San Jose, as beautiful as it is, is not a wonderland. Some people complain that the city has invested more than 15 million quetzales [$1.9 million] in constructing a new stadium that Tesucun put at the service of the national first division soccer team, the Jaguares de Heredia, who are property of the Mendoza Matta family. The Jaguares are a team so well-nurtured by investments that they made it past the last championship semifinals, where they were defeated by the Comunicaciones. At halftime during the semifinals, Tesucun gave an award to Mendoza.
According to Tesucun, the stadium was built after a visit by Argentine coach Carlos Salvador Bilardo to San Jose. He dealt with the national coach was Benjamin Monterroso. Bilardo stood at the highest point in San Jose and said, “This would be the best stadium in the world: the beauty of the lake would make it special.” Tesucun, excited, took his word for it.
Spending Q15 million on a stadium in a department and country with so many needs was not a trivial matter. There was criticism because Tesucun took money from the municipality to build a stadium that only benefited the soccer team and him, in order to raise his image in the department; the stadium, with an 8,000 spectator capacity, is called Julian Tesucun y Tesucun. The construction of the stadium and the team strengthened Tesucun’s relationship with Mendoza. In an interview with the Spanish daily El Pais, President Alvaro Colom said that in Guatemala in the past everyone knew who the drug traffickers are but no one dared to touch them; pointing straight at the Mendoza and Lorenzana families.
“Everybody talked about the Lorenzanas, the Mendozas, the Ponces ... but nobody touched them. The impunity was total. So much so that the Lorenzanas had seven farms registered in their name in the Mayan Biosphere Reserve. Imagine what kind of power the mafia had gained under previous governments, that drug traffickers could get and illegally put their own name on a natural heritage site recognized by UNESCO,” said President Colom, in an interview that caused the newspaper to ask whether the country was a “narco-state.” It’s worth remembering that Waldemar Lorenzana was captured this year; but against the Mendozas mentioned by the president, there are no lawsuits.
Of all the municipalities of Peten, San Jose is the one where the most money has been paid to companies of this most extreme family for municipal works. In total the sum is Q15,748,730 [$1.9 million] according to Guatecompras. For the construction of Nor-Oriente, owned by Edwin Mendoza, they were paid Q3,753,889 [$485,000], and for the construction of O.M. de Obdulio Mendoza they were paid Q11,994,841 [$1.5 million].
The relationship between Tesucun and Mendoza appears to be more than just a business alliance. The mayor named the new municipal stadium of San Pedro village “Milton Oswaldo Mendoza Matta.” The municipal website explains the naming as follows: “The new stadium carries the name of the businessman ‘Milton Oswaldo Mendoza Matta,’ a well-known person who has contributed to the development of sports in the municipality. The stadium features a modern French drainage system, and a top quality lawn.”
Tesucun says that “the words of the president are those of the president” and that everyone has their own point of view. “I know them as businessmen and I can talk about that. Nothing else.” He knows that his opponents can complicate his arrival in Congress on the grounds of his relationship with drug dealers. However, having achieved the first ballot in the Peten list -- a victory in the stronghold of former friends Sandra and Gloria Torres or of the chief of Gana and the vicepresident of Congress , Manuel Barquin -- he said that on January 14 he will be seated in the legislative chamber.
“I tell you that I will only invest Q800,000 [$100,000] in the campaign. No more. The money comes from my companies and the support of my friends.”
But perhaps some also comes from the municipality. Since February, just when he resigned, his son Juan Carlos Tesucun began selling gas to the municipality of San Jose, via his gas company, for Q732,613.76 [$48,000].
Before, he had not been a supplier to the municipality, and hadn’t sold a cent. Juan Carlos is a candidate for town councilor on the list of UNE, the “family” list in which the mayoral candidate will be Gustavo Tesucun, the nephew of the King of San Jose.
Thus, the king will abdicate his remote 2,252 square kilometer territory -- more than double the size of the municipality of Guatemala City -- but he will leave behind a relative to govern while the prince gains experience to succeed him, and while he ventures into the big leagues of national politics, with all his successes, populism, questionable friends and contradictions in tow.
*Luis Ángel Sas is a senior reporter at Guatemalan online news site Plaza Publica. This article is translated and reprinted with permission from Plaza Publica.