With Guatemala’s final round of elections looming, organized criminal groups are employing a strategy that ensures victory every time: support all the candidates. Along the way, the government has become but a vehicle for these, and other, special interests.
How we got here can be best understood with a run-through of recent Guatemalan history. Since the return to democracy (1986) and the signing of the peace accords (1996), the bitter war over control of the state has transformed itself into a battle of institutions. Now, the main goal is the conquest of the state using political parties as the Trojan Horse.
The latest stated strategy began in the late 1990s, especially during the second round of voting, which is centered on splitting the votes between the urban and the rural populace. This was most clear in the elections which brought ex-president Alfonso Portillo to power. From then onwards, Guatemala elections are a luck-of-the-draw process, swapping an interchangeable round of faces in the vehicles created mainly to win votes (political parties). The parties exist not to take a stand on issues, but to fight over their spheres of influence within the government.
There are three groups who survive one election season after another: 1) the business elite (traditional and non-traditional), 2) traditional organized crime (bands of lawyers and ex-military men who act as a mafia, looking for ways to enrich themselves while operating in parallel to the state), and 3) non-traditional organized crime (foreign groups, mostly Mexican).
Concerning the first group, it is important to understand that during the 2011 elections, the traditional private sector has bet equally on both parties, the Patritot Party (PP) and the Liberty Democracy Renewal Party (Lider). Don’t let yourself be fooled by the simple analysis of “baddies versus goodies.” It is a simplistic position to assume all the emerging business interests are represented by Baldizon and the traditional oligarchy by Perez Molina. On the contrary: the private sector understands the importance of betting on all proposals with big benefits for business. As such, they know how to create servile governments, even if they disagree with some ideological positions of the president’s party.
Regarding the second group, traditional organized crime, what’s especially relevant are the ideological rifts within the Guatemalan Army. Otto Perez Molina belongs to the “30-70 generation,” the group of young officers who, during the civil war, considered 70 percent of the population “reedemable” and another 30 percent lost (redeemable and lost in terms of their complicity with the rebels).
In this sense, Perez Molina is a counterpoint to the older military generation, and other dark figures like Luis Fransisco Ortega Menaldo, for whom every civilian with “alternative” ideas was an enemy. Oretga Menaldo and his allies knew how to penetrate the state [See InSight Crime’s description of these organizations here]. Over long periods of time, they siphoned money from customs, controlled the airports and other institutions that were reliable profit-makers (to name just a few sources of their cash). Unofficially, other columnists have affirmed (r) General Ortega led the so-cartel “Sleeper” cartel (Cartel de los Durmientes). Reportedly, the appointment of every Defense Minister since 1986 has required his prior approval.
True or not, the actions of the Guatemalan Defense Ministry were decidedly murky in the following scandals: 1) accusations of selling weapons, 2) the disappearance of military arms which later appeared in a Zetas warehouse, and 3) the army’s slow response to the Zetas’ first incursions, circa 2007, in Guatemalan territory.
Manuel Baldizon carries the burden of having been a political boss in the northern state of Peten where the rule of local drug trafficking groups is undeniable. But even if Baldizon forms part of an umbrella of Portillista groups (parties and politicians close to ex-President Alfonso Portillo), an equally strong influence over his Lider party is Napoleon Rojas, Portillo’s former security chief, accused of links to organized crime and embezzling millions from the state. With Napoleon Rojas under house arrest, his son is currently campaigning for a seat in Congress.
Nor can we leave out the Lorenzana and Mendoza clans, or the criminal organization of Juan Ortiz, alias “Chamale.” All have suffered blows from the capture of their most visible leaders. But in the past, they’ve proven quite knowledgeable when it comes to betting on politics. The electoral system, which places no demands for transparent campaign finances, is their natural ally. With their business know-how, it is safe to assume that the Guatemalan cartels would be perfectly happy with whichever outcome of the presidential elections, same as the legitimate businessmen.
Regarding the third category, the “nuovo arrivato” criminals, groups like the Zetas have been accused of financing local campaigns, as well as the campaign of President Alvaro Colom. While such accusations are unproven, what’s certain is that the Zetas cells are spreading across Guatemala, using the former allies of Horst Walther Overdick (the group’s true leader cannot be said to be Heriberto Lazcano, nor is the group even known as the Zetas anymore but as “the 35”). It seems unlikely the group would lack political operators.
There is hardly the space here to paint a comprehensive picture of the problems created by the parallel groups in Guatemala. In the end, Guatemalan democracy is no more than a way to shift clientele groups in and out of power. The system is built to serve special interests (of all kinds) and their families. It knows nothing of citizenry.
*David Martinez-Amador is a university professor and investigator who is currently residing in Canada.