Seen from the outside, the general elections on June 25 in Guatemala meet the formal requirements. There are 22 presidential candidates — a record number since the return to democracy in 1985 — and the ideological spectrum of the candidates ranges from ultra-conservative to social democratic.
But this is not a regular election. Three top candidates have been excluded based on questionable judicial complaints: the left-wing Indigenous leader Thelma Cabrera; Roberto Arzú, right-wing and anti-status quo; and Carlos Pineda, a populist landowner and businessman, unknown until recently, who jumped to the top of the polls by demonizing the regime and mounting an effective campaign via social networks.
The decisions are symptomatic of a more serious problem: The rule of law has been systematically undermined, the application of the rules has become arbitrary, and there is no recourse for those who dissent from the regime.
**This story is a prelude to an in-depth investigation into the politics, corruption, and organized crime surrounding the 2023 Guatemalan elections. InSight Crime will publish a series of articles in the days before Guatemalans head to the polls on June 25.
The End of the Rule of Law
The story begins in 2007, when the Guatemalan government green-lit the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG), a supranational judicial body backed by the United Nations and bankrolled by the international community. Together with the Attorney General’s Office, the CICIG embarked on the most extensive and profound anti-corruption drive in the country’s history.
The balance sheet at the end of 2019, when the CICIG left Guatemala, was impressive: 122 investigations of large-scale corruption operated by 72 criminal structures; and 680 people charged and facing legal proceedings. Of those charged, 200 were public officials — including five former presidents — and around 60 were major shareholders and top executives of powerful business corporations. The courts handed down more than 400 convictions.
The powerful groups who had long controlled Guatemala did not sit idly by. Starting in 2017, they launched an effective counterattack through the media to provoke confusion and division among Guatemalans and, at the same time, induce a crack in the Washington consensus of support in the fight against corruption.
Their lobbyists also read the Trump administration perfectly. If the government worked with the United States to repress migrant flows, they would get a nod from the White House to dismantle the insufferable CICIG. And so it came to pass. Florida Senator Marco Rubio and — ironically — Bill Browder, the Kremlin-critical businessman and promoter of the Magnitsky Act, played key roles in the operation.
In September 2019, CICIG closed its offices, and the so-called Pacto de Corruptos (Corrupt Pact) — an informal alliance of politicians, bureaucratic elites, and businessmen — launched a relentless crusade to reverse course. They first subdued the judicial institutions, including the Attorney General’s Office, which got a new, compliant attorney general, Consuelo Porras, who assumed her role like a Catholic priest during the Spanish Inquisition.
They then persecuted independent prosecutors and judges, critical journalists, and civil society activists. More than a hundred have had to flee into exile, and others, such as former prosecutor Virginia Laparra and journalist José Rubén Zamora, are being subjected to summary trials.
Meanwhile, more than 90 defendants charged with leading or integrating political and economic corruption and crime networks saw their cases dropped, archived, or annulled for technical and other spurious reasons. Porras was eventually sanctioned by the Biden administration. Meanwhile, Porras’ prosecutors have not appealed these decisions, even while the courts undo years of investigative and prosecutorial work.
Deciding Who Gets on the Ballot
In this environment, the elections have gone as expected. The courts have been arbitrarily disqualifying some candidates. Still, they have also been granting permission to others — most notably two of the top candidates, Sandra Torres and Zury Ríos — in spite of some legal hurdles.
Torres is vying for president for the third time. She was jailed in 2019 after she and members of her party, the Unity of Hope (Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza – UNE), were accused by the CICIG and the Attorney General’s Office of misusing campaign funds during her 2015 presidential bid.
The charges barred Torres from running. However, UNE has the largest congressional bloc in the legislature, which it used to support the Alejandro Giammattei administration’s inflated and often opaque budget proposals amid the cloud of the pandemic.
The courts have since made a series of favorable rulings for Torres — first giving her house arrest, then allowing her to campaign, and finally dropping the case altogether — opening the door to her candidacy.
In the case of Ríos, this is her fourth attempt at the presidency. In 2011, she bowed out because she could not raise enough money. In 2015, the courts blocked her from running because of a constitutional clause that vetoes relatives of coup leaders from holding the presidency — her father had led a military coup in 1982. The same article thwarted her again in 2019, when the Constitutional Court (CC) ruled that her candidacy was illegal. In the current elections, those decisions were ignored by all competent bodies, including the CC.
For his part, President Giammattei cannot run, so his party, Vamos, has centered their electoral efforts on recruiting 169 mayors to get out the vote for their moribund presidential candidate or at least their congressional candidates in some six satellite parties affiliated with Vamos.
In all, 22 presidential candidates survived the purge. But according to the polls, there are two who have the best chance to make it to the second round to be held on August 20: Torres and Edmond Mulet. (Ríos was a favorite until April but has apparently fallen from the voters’ graces.)
Mulet, whose participation has sometimes been on the tightrope, is a conservative but institutional politician who has filled his party, Cabal, with people associated with the Pacto de Corruptos.
His boldest move yet was to effectively declare he would remove Attorney General Consuelo Porras should he win. This may have attracted some moderate voters, but it also raised the eyebrows of the Pacto de Corruptos. Notably, he made the announcement after he was already on the ballot.
Furthermore, Guatemala has a weak Supreme Electoral Tribunal (Tribunal Supremo Electoral – TSE), the country’s top election authority, whose recent decisions are generating widespread mistrust.
Without any clear justification, they also replaced up to 90% of the Departmental Electoral Boards, the local entities that validate the results. In their place, they put government employees, candidates’ lawyers, legal representatives, and workers of state contracting firms, many of whom have clear conflicts of interest, among other issues.
Taken together, the conditions illustrate, just how far from democracy Guatemala has strayed.
*Edgar Gutiérrez is a political analyst and a former foreign chancellor of Guatemala.
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