Following the unprecedented resignation of President Otto Perez Molina, Guatemala is gearing up for presidential elections this weekend. However, the shady contacts and dark rumors swirling around leading candidates suggest the country’s political elites will need far more than a new round of elections to win back the trust of the people.
In recent months, Guatemala has witnessed an unprecedented unraveling of its political elites as the corruption investigations of the UN-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) reached ever higher up the political chain. On September 2, after Perez Molina was stripped of his immunity in order to face investigations into his involvement in a customs fraud scandal known as “La Linea,” he officially resigned as President. The case has also seen Vice-President Roxana Baldetti arrested and hauled up before a court, exposing Guatemala’s “mafia state.”
Public anger has hit a crescendo. Guatemalans have filled the streets of Guatemala City, marching and calling for the president’s resignation. A protest on August 27 had an estimated turnout of 100,000 people, making it one of the largest public manifestations in Guatemalan history.
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Amid this political crisis, Guatemalans will vote on September 6 for Perez Molina’s successor. But given many in the current field of candidates are dogged by allegations of corruption and criminal ties, the country’s political elites remain a long way from regaining credibility. Below, InSight Crime profiles four top candidates and their links to criminal schemes.
Manuel Baldizon (Lider)
Manuel Baldizon is the current frontrunner, with an estimated 25 percent of voters expressing their support for the Lider party candidate. Baldizon placed second in Guatemala’s 2011 presidential elections, losing in a runoff to Perez Molina.
Rumors of nefarious activity have swirled around Baldizon for years, mostly related to his campaign financing. Guatemala’s weak campaign finance laws enable candidates to conceal the identity of private donors, opening the door for contributions from criminal networks seeking to gain government protection and political favors.
Baldizon used to be a political boss in the northern department of Peten. This region is an important drug transit zone, and an area where one of Guatemala’s traditional crime families, the Mendozas, has held considerable sway — fueling speculation the drug clan helped finance Baldizon’s rise to power.
Additionally, in July, Edgar Baltazar Barquin — Baldizon’s vice-presidential candidate — was implicated in a money laundering and fraud ring. The network, headed by a man identified as Francisco Edgar Morales Guerra, alias “Chico Dolar,” allegedly laundered an estimated $937 million over the past eight years by transferring the money through various foreign bank accounts.
Sandra Torres – National Unity of Hope (UNE)
Currently ranked third in the polls, Sandra Torres is the wife of former President Alvaro Colom (the two divorced in 2011 in a failed attempt to skirt legal restrictions barring Torres from running for president).
Under Colom, Torres’ sister, Gloria Torres — a co-founder of the UNE party — served as a special liaison with Guatemala’s municipal governments. In 2011, Gloria and two of her daughters were charged with embezzlement for stealing funds from three Guatemalan municipalities. One of these daughters, Maria Marta Castañeda Torres, was arrested on September 1. The niece of Sandra Torres had four warrants out for her arrest, and stands accused of tax fraud.
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Gloria has also been linked to drug trafficker Juan Alberto Ortiz Lopez, alias “Juan Chamale.” Also known as Guatemala’s “Heroin King,” Ortiz Lopez ran a major drug smuggling network along Guatemala’s Pacific Coast, and was a key associate of Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel (he was arrested in 2011 and extradited to the United States in 2014). According to a former government investigator and two prosecutors who previously spoke with InSight Crime on the condition of anonymity, Gloria Torres and Ortiz Lopez manipulated mayoral elections in municipalities under Ortiz Lopez’s control. The two also allegedly embezzled money from public works contracts issued to Ortiz Lopez’s companies.
In addition to allegedly tipping off Ortiz Lopez when authorities conducted operations against him, Gloria Torres reportedly received money from the Lorenzanas drug trafficking clan in exchange for alerting them to upcoming security raids.
Mario David Garcia Velasquez (Patriotic Party)
Running as the presidential candidate from Perez Molina’s party, Mario David Garcia Velasquez is an attorney and right-wing radio host. He also ran in Guatemala’s 1985 presidential elections.
In the past, Garcia has been linked to several coup attempts against the Guatemalan government that occurred in the 1980s. Perhaps most notably, however, he was connected to the infamous 2009 Rodrigo Rosenberg suicide-murder case, which was a plot to overthrow the Colom government. Garcia admitted to filming Rosenberg’s famous video testimony, in which he declared, “If you are watching this message, it is because I was murdered by President Alvaro Colom.”
Through an extensive investigation, however, the CICIG discovered that Rosenberg — who was a prominent lawyer — engineered his own assassination in order to destabilize the government.
Jimmy Morales – National Convergence Front (FCN)
Public anger — and perhaps voter desperation — has helped upstart Jimmy Morales — a comedian, TV personality, and newcomer to Guatemalan politics — gain traction as an independent candidate. Various voter polls even place him as possibly facing Baldizon in a two-person runoff on October 25 (no candidate is expected to gain the 50 percent of votes needed to win outright in the first round).
However, a vote for Morales does not necessarily equal a rejection of the status quo, as some commentators have observed. Morales’ FCN is backed by retired General Jose Luis Quilo Ayuso, a former president of the Association of Military Veterans of Guatemala (AVEMILGUA), a right-wing group of former military officers. As recounted by Plaza Publica, the La Linea network was preceded by a group run by corrupt military officers known as the Moreno network. If Morales wins the election, Guatemalans may simply be replacing the interests of one shadowy military group with those of another.
Between a Rock and a Hard Place
Due to the checkered history of these presidential candidates and the ongoing political scandals, many Guatemalans have expressed apathy or contempt for the outcome of the elections: anticipated voter abstention among Guatemala’s 7.5 million voters has risen to an estimated 30 percent. Indeed, public unrest in recent months is likely due in part to the widely held perception that more corrupt politicians will be brought into office.
“The people view the upcoming elections as more of the same… [They see the elections] as another four year sentence of continued corruption,” Manfredo Marroquin, director of the Guatemalan civil society group Accion Ciudadana, told InSight Crime in May.
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Regardless of the outcome, Perez Molina’s replacement will inherit a restless, angry country. Considering the questionable legitimacy of several top candidates, Guatemala’s next president will likely face an uphill battle earning back the public’s confidence in the government.