Guatemala Election: Corruption Claims Bring Back Bad Memories

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As Guatemala’s elections approach, allegations of corruption have gathered around the UCN party. Such concerns are particularly worrying in a country awash with criminal groups, which have often enjoyed impunity thanks to their ties with those in power.

The Union of National Change (Union del Cambio Nacional – UCN) has Mario Estrada as its candidate for the presidential election, set to be held in September. Allegations of misdeeds have been swirling around the party; in addition to Estrada’s connections with disgraced former president Alfonso Portillo, a number of the UCN’s candidates have been implicated in corruption scandals.

According to Guatemala’s Siglo XXI, Estrada is a major regional powerbroker in the eastern department of Jalapa, where he served as a legislator for the Guatemalan Republican Front (Frente Republicana Guatemalteca – FRG) from 1999 to 2006. During the second round of the 2007 presidential elections, Estrada’s endorsement was instrumental in drumming up support for current President Alvaro Colom’s campaign. In exchange, Colom appointed people close to Estrada as governors of Jalapa, Chiquimula and neighboring El Progreso departments.

Controversially, Estrada has also been linked to former President Alfonso Portillo, who was recently tried for allegedly embezzling $15 million from the Defense Ministry’s pension fund. Although he was acquitted in May, Portillo is still fighting an extradition order from the United States, where he is wanted on charges of money laundering and embezzlement of charity donations. During Portillo’s time in office, he named Estrada to head the newly-created Secretariat of Social Development, a position that lasted only 10 months before it was closed amid corruption allegations. On top of this, the Guatemalan paper said it had discovered that Estrada owns a number of private corporations that exist only on paper (one of which is co-owned with Portillo); a favored tactic of money launderers.

Estrada is not the only candidate with a questionable record that the Union of National Change (Union del Cambio Nacional – UCN) has backed. In the municipality of Villa Nueva, Salvador Gandara is the UCN mayoral pick, despite the fact that he has been jailed for money laundering charges. Although an electoral court recently banned him from officially registering as a candidate, the UCN has not given up on him, and continues to lobby for his release.

While the UCN is not one of Guatemala’s major political parties (according to a June poll published by Prensa Libre, Estrada has only 2.6 percent of the popular vote), these findings are important in that they highlight a deep and pervasive level of corruption, made worse by the weak state of the country’s institutions. As InSight Crime has reported, the Guatemalan armed forces have admitted that some of their members trained and armed the Zetas, while the justice system is infamously defective.

In a recent interview with Spain’s El Pais, President Colom said that Guatemala was experiencing an “invasion” of foreign drug traffickers, and accused the two previous governments (led by Portillo and Oscar Berger, repectively) of colluding with criminal elements to “hand the country over” to criminals. As proof, Colom said that 12 military outposts in Peten, the embattled region currently being used by the Zetas as a major operations base, had been dismantled by the then-authorities in order to leave the way open for drugs to be transported into Mexico. He also claimed that the impunity enjoyed by the three major crime families in the country was a sign of their influence over Guatemala’s political system.

“Everybody talked about the Lorenzanas, the Mendozas, the Ponces … but nobody touched them. The impunity was total,” said Colom.

Still, Guatemalan authorities have made significant progress against the country’s homegrown criminal groups this year. In March, top drug capo Juan Alberto Ortiz Lopez, alias “Juan Chamale,” was arrested in Quetzaltenango. A month later police captured Waldemar Lorenzana, who headed a criminal dynasty based in the west of the country. These arrests, combined with the rising threat from their Mexican competitors the Zetas, have placed increased pressure on these organizations to attempt to build political clout in the upcoming September 2011 election. As InSight Crime has reported, this campaign season has been stained by at least 20 political murders so far, a figure which is expected to climb as election day approaches.

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