Tens of thousands of Guatemalans took to the streets of the capital and towns around the country on the night of Aug. 20, waving flags, setting off fireworks, singing the national anthem, and dancing to celebrate the upset victory of Bernardo Arévalo as president. The celebrations were as unprecedented as the victory. Only a few months ago, Arévalo was polling at 8 percent. But a groundswell of support pushed him to 60 percent of the vote. His opponent, three-time candidate and former first lady Sandra Torres, won less than 40 percent, mostly from the northern provinces, which were most heavily impacted by the country’s 30-plus years of war, which ended in 1996.
Arévalo won as an anti-corruption campaigner – a theme that has resonated with Guatemalans amid declining living standards and an economy that increasingly depends on remittances – while a cabal of corrupt military and civilian elites and officials, allied with organized crime, have hijacked the institutions of government. Ironically, the spurious efforts of Attorney General (called Ministerio Publico, or MP, in Spanish) Consuelo Porras to delist Arévalo’s party, the Semilla (Seed) Movement, and arrest its leaders seem to have backfired, instead providing name recognition and leading to international demands for respect of the electoral process. Worries about the integrity of the process prompted the recent visit of the Organization of American States Secretary General Luis Almagro and statements from the U.S. and European embassies. In the end, the election itself was uneventful.
But election is only the first step. Now Arévalo and Semilla need to stay alive – literally and figuratively – until he takes office in January.
The “Pact of the Corrupt” Strikes Back
On Aug. 24, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights announced that it had granted emergency protection measures to Arévalo and his vice-president, Karin Herrera, based on death threats and intimidation. According to the Commission’s announcement, the threats included the general climate of persecution against the party, online troll farm threats and harassment, threats from criminal gangs, and a specific assassination plot, code named “plan Colosio” after the killing of a Mexican presidential candidate in 1994, that reportedly involved both State agents and private individuals. In response to the threats Arévalo and Herrera have been using private security and cut back some of their public appearances.
In addition to personal threats against the president and vice-president-elect, attacks continue against their party, and against the electoral process. Torres has still not officially conceded the election despite the lopsided results, and her lawyers filed a request to the courts to annul the process based on “irregularities” (while providing no evidence).
Nonetheless, on Aug. 28 the Supreme Electoral Tribunal – itself under extreme pressure after its members were threatened with criminal investigation – finally acted. In a short announcement at the end of the day, the Tribunal announced that Arévalo and Herrera had been officially elected, even though the electoral law extends the certification period through Oct. 31. Not coincidently, at the same time the Registrar of Voters provisionally suspended Semilla as a political party based on alleged irregularities in its registration papers. Back in June, with the elections ongoing, Judge Fredy Orellana had initially ordered the suspension of Semilla. Soon after, the Constitutional Court halted the suspension during the electoral period, but with elections now declared over, the Registrar argued the suspension should be reinstated. Judge Orellana is one of the judges working with the “pacto de corruptos” (the “pact of the corrupt”), a group of economic elites allied with organized crime elements and predatory military and government officials who have captured State institutions and functions.
It’s not clear what effect, if any, all this will have on Semilla’s elected officials, and suspension is not the same as a permanent shutdown. Though suspended, Semilla can function for up to six months, and president-elect Arévalo quickly indicated that his party will challenge the decision. On Aug. 30, at Porras’ instigation, the leadership body of the current Congress decided to not recognize Semilla’s seven current lawmakers as a political party. The new Congress may well try to exclude newly-elected Semilla lawmakers and designate a “provisional government” until new elections can occur. Another possible scenario involves sectors of the current government and the security forces taking advantage of predictable widespread protests defending the electoral result – and protesting against arbitrary attacks on Semilla and its supporters – to declare a “chaotic” situation and impose a state of emergency and an annulment of the elections.
While the Supreme Electoral Tribunal was preparing to announce its decision, the prosecutors’ office also stepped up its attacks on anti-corruption figures. Porras’ office has seemingly decided to use the last six months of current president Alejandro Giammattei’s administration to attack enemies of the “pact of the corrupt,” legal merits be damned. Porras sent agents to the home of exiled former anti-corruption unit (FECI) head Juan Francisco Sandoval, harassing his elderly parents. She also searched the home of his former FECI colleague Eva Sosa and arrested his lawyer, Claudia González. González represents many of the former prosecutors and anti-corruption activists, including jailed FECI attorney Virginia Laparra, who Amnesty International has named as a political prisoner. Jailing González leaves her clients unprotected. González is a former employee of the United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). Even though she was never a Guatemalan public official, the charges against her revolve around “abuse of official authority.” She was dragged off with media cameras rolling, and then told that Jimi Bremer, the judge who issued the arrest order – was “too busy to see her today.” After she protested, she was arraigned and sent to a military base to wait for another hearing, which is currently scheduled for Sept. 6.
It soon became clear that the arrests and harassment are payback for bringing charges against Supreme Court judge Blanca Stalling, who like Porras, Orellana, and Bremer is listed as corrupt and anti-democratic by the U.S. government. When Porras came into office, the influence-peddling charges against Stalling were dropped, and she was reinstated as a judge. The Supreme Court controls the employment of lower court judges, which effectively puts trial judge Bremer in charge of overseeing the charges against his bosses’ former accuser.
Demonstrations led by local and regional indigenous municipal authorities around the country have called for Porras and her deputies to resign given their anti-democratic actions. After a raucous protest outside her offices on Aug. 25, Porras demanded that the Constitutional Court tell the government to prohibit social media comments and demonstrations and protests against her and her office because they interfered with her work. The Court declined to do so. Why raise an argument that transparently violated guarantees of freedom of expression? Again, the idea seems to be to keep the incoming government paralyzed and its supporters off-kilter, to create bargaining chips during the transition period for continued impunity, and perhaps to use a climate of tensions and violence to provoke repressive actions or a suspension of the constitution.
Unfortunately, the public prosecutor is independent of the administration. Porras was reappointed by the current president last year, and her term does not end until 2026, unless she resigns or is convicted of a serious crime. Only significant pressure from inside and outside the country will force her to resign or to back down. Moreover, although Arévalo has promised to bring home the judges and prosecutors that Porras has forced into exile, it will be difficult to reinstate them, at least in the short term as they have formally resigned their positions.
International figures, including Almagro, U.N. Secretary General Antonio Gutierres and high-level U.S. officials including Secretary of State Antony Blinken have condemned the prosecutor’s actions and the attempt to invalidate Semilla. What more could be done? Many of the Porras’ actions have been instigated, reported, and supported by the extreme right “Foundation Against Terrorism” and the association of retired military veterans, known as AVEMILGUA. In turn, the FCT or “Fundaterror” (as it is known in Guatemala) has been linked in the press to powerful families in the ruling elite. The United States could increase pressure on those private sector actors financing the FCT through Magnitsky sanctions, for example, and ask the rest of the private sector (some of which has supported Arévalo) to speak out more forcefully against arbitrary arrests, and in support of democracy and the rule of law.
The Biden administration could also use the threat of losing access to U.S. markets through the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) or the annual quota on sugar imports to make clear to recalcitrant sectors of the elite that there will be a steep price to pay if the will of the voters is not respected. Military aid and sales, already sharply limited by Congress, could be further reduced through changes to Defense Department training and equipment programs, if the military supports efforts to overturn the results.
It’s a long time between now and January, and the attacks on anti-corruption figures and on Semilla leaders and activists will likely only increase. The joy of Arévalo’s victory across Guatemala is now tempered by the knowledge that continued threats of violence and rogue prosecutions will continue, with the ever-present risk of physical violence or of a break in the constitutional order. Friends of Guatemalan democracy will need to be vigilant and forceful for Arévalo and Semilla to reach inauguration day.