The leading candidate in Guatemala’s presidential elections has been eliminated on an administrative technicality in the latest sign of how the country’s deeply entrenched corruption networks leverage the judicial system to crush opponents.
Carlos Pineda Sosa, a political outsider who rose suddenly to the top of the polls in recent weeks, will not appear on the ballot for Guatemala’s June 25 presidential election.
The Central American country’s Constitutional Court on May 26 rejected Pineda’s appeal of a May 21 decision by electoral authorities to suspend his candidacy and all of those running with his party, Citizen Prosperity (Prosperidad Ciudadana).
“Guatemala loses and we are without democracy,” Pineda wrote on Twitter following the decision.
The exclusion of Pineda and his party stemmed from a legal challenge based on allegations that Citizen Prosperity did not meet certain requirements when holding a party assembly late last year.
It comes just weeks after Pineda emerged as the election frontrunner in separate polls conducted by two Guatemalan newspapers. The ban extends to all congressional and mayoral candidates running with Citizen Prosperity in the elections. The party initially appealed the ban but later dropped its challenge.
A businessman with no previous political experience, Pineda’s lead in the polls was driven by his anti-establishment rhetoric and a substantial following on social media, especially TikTok.
Pineda had originally lined up to run with Cambio, a party set up by the sons of Manuel Baldizón, a convicted money launderer and former presidential candidate who recently re-entered the political arena. Pineda left Cambio and joined Citizen Prosperity in late January after Baldizón returned to the party. Cambio’s lawyers lodged the administrative appeal that eventually tanked Pineda’s candidacy.
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The judicial decisions excluding Pineda have a veneer of legality and due process, but the end result is one of many recent examples of political mafias linked to Guatemala’s current government using control of the courts to thwart opponents.
Corrupt networks have steadily co-opted the main branches of Guatemala’s justice system in recent years, tightening their grip over the political and judicial sectors with the aim of maintaining the status quo of corruption and impunity. This includes the courts that rule on electoral participation, from low-level administrative courts to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal and the Constitutional Court.
“The political influence over the courts is so great that in the end there’s no line between the judicial and the political,” Edie Cux, legal director of the Guatemalan chapter of Transparency International, told InSight Crime.
Pineda is one of several candidates in this election that have been excluded based on legal maneuverings.
Court rulings ousted outspoken anti-corruption figure Jordan Rodás of the left-wing People’s Liberation Movement (Movimiento de la Liberación de los Pueblos - MLP) and Roberto Arzú of the We Can (Podemos) party, who had criticized current President Alejandro Giammattei.
Additionally, the Attorney General’s Office -- allied with Giammattei and the high courts -- mounted a legal challenge against long-time politician and presidential candidate for the Cabal party, Edmond Mulet, who remains in the race.
Although there may be some substance to claims of procedural irregularities on the part of Pineda and Citizen Prosperity, Cux said such anomalies are common across Guatemala’s political spectrum, and that they are only enforced against political actors that make powerful elites uncomfortable.
“Any court that pulls back or rules in favor of Pineda would practically ensure that he would win the election, which is something that isn’t politically viable for powerful groups,” Cux said.
The remaining frontrunners in the presidential race appear to pose little threat to the interests of corrupt elites.
Mulet previously supported an internationally backed anti-corruption body called the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala - CICIG), which mounted several major cases before being shuttered in 2019. But he recently said he would not seek to revive the commission if elected, promising to tackle corruption in other ways.
Sandra Torres, another frontrunner, is the ex-wife of the late former President Álvaro Colom. Torres was briefly jailed in 2019 on corruption charges investigated by the CICIG, though the accusations were dropped in late 2022 in time for her to register as a candidate for the upcoming elections.
Another candidate, Zury Ríos, is the daughter of former military dictator Efraín Ríos Montt. Her political platform is supported by individuals linked to long-standing military corruption networks, in addition to economic elites and politicians who led the previous government’s crusade against the CICIG. Ríos has allies on the Constitutional Court, which barred her from the last presidential race in 2019 because of her relationship to her father but allowed her to run this time using a different legal reasoning.
The CICIG’s investigations had fueled hopes that Guatemala was making strides toward cleaning up corruption within its political system. But the exclusion of Pineda represents the culmination of significant backsliding on the anti-corruption front in recent years, Mike Allison, a Central America expert who chairs the political science department at Scranton University, told InSight Crime.
“The instability and the chaos in the political system, and its discrediting, really does serve the purpose of organized crime groups and elites in the country,” Allison said.