Elections in a time of exiled judges, activists and journalists: Taking the pulse of authoritarianism’s power at the polls in Guatemala

With a hundred exiles and the rapid erosion of the separation of powers, Sunday’s contest is crucial in Central America, where leaders like Bukele and Ortega are seizing power and restricting rights

Zury Ríos, the right-wing Valor-Unionista coalition candidate, at a campaign rally in Guatemala City on June 6.
Zury Ríos, the right-wing Valor-Unionista coalition candidate, at a campaign rally in Guatemala City on June 6.SANDRA SEBASTIAN (SANDRA SEBASTIAN)

Hundreds of people wearing neon green and white T-shirts and bearing flags gathered late Thursday afternoon on Esplanade 5, at the Old Army Stadium in Guatemala City, to join Zury Ríos, the daughter of dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, as her campaign for Sunday’s elections comes to an end. “Before my father [died], he told me: ‘Zury, if someday God gives you the opportunity to serve Guatemala, do it with love, do it with service, do it with dedication, do it with responsibility and do it with character and courage,’” she shouted. She asked her supporters to stand to end the event. Ríos, one of 22 candidates vying for the Guatemalan presidency in this Sunday’s elections, did not hesitate to lean on the figure of her father —who died at the age of 91 in 2018 while on trial for the genocide of indigenous Maya-Ixiles during the country’s long civil war (1960-1996)— when asking Guatemalans to vote for the conservative Valor-Unionista coalition. In her speech, she also said that she would put “God, family and life” at the center of her government. “The other option is any of the other political parties, which only seek to [pursue] their [own] interests and to go on living with corruption,” she proclaimed before an audience in which there seemed to be more supporters for her party’s candidate for mayor of the capital, Ricardo Quiñonez, than for her.

A little later, a few streets further east in a hotel room with a 1980s air, the Cabal party candidate, Edmond Mulet, connected virtually with his followers around the country. “We already have 37,000 on Facebook and TikTok and they keep joining!” he announced as a member of his team showed him the data about the number of people online. “We are very concerned about the process of degradation that Guatemala is going through,” said Mulet, a center-right diplomat with extensive experience; he served as the head of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti. Like Ríos, Mulet promises to fight corruption and insecurity, two of Guatemalans’ main concerns. His approach is to bring “the army to the streets”; the conservative candidate has also proposed a war on gangs similar to the one Nayib Bukele is waging in El Salvador and reinstating the death penalty.

Edmond Mulet, the Cabal party’s presidential candidate, closes his electoral campaign with a virtual activity in a Guatemala City hotel.
Edmond Mulet, the Cabal party’s presidential candidate, closes his electoral campaign with a virtual activity in a Guatemala City hotel. SANDRA SEBASTIAN (SANDRA SEBASTIAN)

According to the latest poll, published by the newspaper Prensa Libre on Thursday, with the country fed up with corruption and a vote split among 22 options, no candidate will reach the absolute majority needed to win outright in the first round this Sunday. The poll forecasts that Mulet or Ríos (who are running second and third) will advance to the second round of the elections against Sandra Torres, the favorite, who is attempting to win the Presidency for the third time; this Friday, she closed her campaign in La Terminal, the popular market in the Guatemalan metropolis. In a country with one of the region’s lowest tax burdens, but where half the population lives in poverty, the candidate promised to abolish taxes on basic products, fuel and medicines. “Guatemala has had three presidents who have not fulfilled their promises and who have failed you; I tell you, no more Papa Government, now Guatemala will have a Mama Government, I will take care of you, I will protect you, with me you will have more money in your pocket and for those who do not have housing, I will give you your little houses,” she said before hundreds of merchants.

In her first two attempts to win the Presidency, the former first lady—Torres is the widow of the late President Álvaro Colom—showed that she had the solid support of nearly 1.5 million Guatemalans, but she lost in the second round twice, first to Jimmy Morales and then to Alejandro Giammattei, the president under whom the persecution of anti-corruption judges, prosecutors, activists, journalists and human rights defenders has intensified.

This Sunday, much more will be at stake beyond who governs Central America’s most populous country for the next four years. In a region besieged by authoritarianism—Daniel Ortega’s government goes after any critical voice in Nicaragua and Nayib Bukele has made a power grab and fights insecurity by restricting rights and freedoms in El Salvador—whoever wins must decide whether to continue along the authoritarian path of Giammattei’s four-year presidency and the attendant erosion of guaranteed rights or to return institutionality to the State of Guatemala.

An “authoritarian system without caudillos”

“There is an eagerness to control the entire State. In this regard, we are not very different from Nicaragua and El Salvador,” says former Foreign Minister Edgar Gutierrez. But “our interference is different. We don’t have caudillos and charismatic leaders. A sort of corporate dictatorship is governing,” he says. He is alluding to what they refer to in Guatemala as the “Pact of the Corrupt,” which he defines as an informal alliance among politicians, bureaucratic elites and businessmen to protect each other in order to maintain power.

According to the analyst, while the Guatemalan elections outwardly appear to comply with the formal requirements (22 candidates from different points along the political spectrum are participating), it is not a normal election, because leading candidates have been excluded and, for the first time since the return of democracy in 1985, the electoral body is being called into question. “The Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) is one of the dominos that has fallen, and there are very credible allegations that say that the court has been bribed by President Giammattei’s circle since December 2021,″ he argues. This Friday, two newspaper articles from The New York Times and El Faro and ConCriterio reported the alleged denunciation of a TSE magistrate at the US Embassy, in which she confessed to having received money from the current president.

Candidate Sandra Torres at a rally in Guatemala's La Terminal market.
Candidate Sandra Torres at a rally in Guatemala's La Terminal market.JOHAN ORDONEZ (AFP)

Last February, TSE magistrates refused to allow the registration of one of the parties that has been most critical of the current president, the People’s Liberation Movement (MLP), a leftist organization led by Mayan leader Thelma Cabrera and former human rights attorney Jordán Rodas, who is in exile in Spain. In addition, Roberto Arzú García-Granados, the son of former president Álvaro Arzú, and Carlos Pineda—a farmer without previous political experience who managed to climb to first place in the polls within a few months, largely because of his popularity on social media like TikTok—were withdrawn from a process that they call a “fraud.”

“The Guatemalan regime is [maneuvering] to induce a vote for candidates who reproduce the system they have created. That is what worries me, because it is…a way of falsifying the vote,” Gutiérrez insists from exile in Mexico City. As a columnist for El Periódico—a prestigious Guatemalan newspaper known for its allegations of corruption, which was forced to shut down last May—the former foreign minister decided to leave the country along with seven other journalists from the paper after they were mentioned in the case of José Rubén Zamora, who was sentenced to six years in prison for alleged money laundering this month.

When Gutiérrez’s and the other journalists’ names came up in one of the case’s hearings in connection with an alleged charge of conspiracy to obstruct justice, they decided to leave the country because they did not believe that their rights would be respected if they eventually had to go to court. “With all that has happened over the last few years, we don’t think it’s a question of legality but rather one of political persecution,” he says.

Judges and journalists in exile

The former foreign minister and other sources consulted for this article estimate that there are already around 100 prosecutors, judges, justice workers, activists and journalists in exile. One of them is Flor Gálvez, a lawyer who was part of the International Commission against Impunity (CIGIG), the defunct United Nations body that opened dozens of trials for major corruption cases in the country, including the one that landed President Otto Pérez Molina in jail.

Guatemalan citizens participate in a Zury Ríos rally.
Guatemalan citizens participate in a Zury Ríos rally. SANDRA SEBASTIAN (SANDRA SEBASTIAN)

Although Jimmy Morales’ government expelled the commission in 2019 , Gálvez remained in the country. At that time, threats against judges and prosecutors who had fought corruption began gradually. But Gálvez saw that criminalization increase in February 2022, when several of her colleagues were arrested, including prosecutor Virginia Laparra, whom human rights organizations consider a prisoner of conscience.

After organizing with a group of colleagues to defend each other and seeing the threats against her increase, Galvez decided to leave the country for her personal safety. This week, in a Zoom call with three other exiled justice workers, an activist and a human rights defender, the lawyer nostalgically yet powerlessly recalled her work at CICIG. “There were days when we didn’t sleep [because we were] preparing for trials and everything. I know that we were not perfect, that there could have been some mistakes or some issues in some trials. But [it was] not how they are being treated now,” she said, denouncing the quick investigations and summary trials. “They are doing everything in a very lax way, without any deep investigations; that is why we realize that using penal law to frighten [people] or [against] those of us who were working for justice at some point is a brutal criminalization.”

Faced with this discouraging political landscape, over 9.3 million Guatemalans will go to the polls on Sunday. On the streets of Guatemala City, which are full of ads displaying the candidates’ faces, many say that they feel compelled to support the lesser of two evils. The same goes for those who were forced to leave the country because they felt persecuted. The consensus seems to be that the best option would be Edmond Mulet, a conservative who has publicly defended freedom of expression and judicial independence.

The candidate has implied that, if he becomes president, he will not keep Consuelo Porras as attorney general; she was appointed by Giammattei, despite the fact that the US State Department included her in a list of “corrupt and undemocratic” actors in 2021. “The idea would be to thank her for her service because there is no degree of trust,” the Cabal candidate has said when considering the possible re-appointment of Porras, who is considered a key force in the persecution of judges, prosecutors and critical voices.

If he becomes president, Mulet “will have to make an enormous effort to strike a blow for authority from the start to neutralize the structures of corruption that he will inherit” from the Giammattei government, Gutiérrez notes. But “at least with him, the free market of vendettas will end,” says Helen Mack, a prestigious human rights activist in exile.

Helen Mack in Mexico City on October 27, 2022.
Helen Mack in Mexico City on October 27, 2022. Hector Guerrero

Internationally recognized for her dogged pursuit of justice for the 1990 murder of her sister by a Guatemalan Armed Forces death squad, Mack also emphasizes the international community’s important role in ensuring judicial independence in the country. “I don’t know if the U.S. and Europe have any interest in the region given what we have seen. As I once told a U.S. official, we are going through a second Bay of Pigs,″ she laments, referring to her sense that the situation in Guatemala is being neglected.

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