Guatemala’s New President Dogged by His Past and Security Challenges

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Alejandro Giammattei assumes Guatemala’s presidency facing various security challenges, including drug trafficking, impunity, institutional weakness and poor law enforcement. And two notorious cases from his tenure as Guatemala’s prison director in the mid-2000s still loom large. 

As prisons director for former President Óscar Berger, Giammattei was overseeing the country’s jails in September 2006, when seven inmates at the Pavón prison were massacred

Giammattei spent ten months in jail in 2010 during the investigation into the Pavón killings, in which he was alleged to have been complicit but was never charged, and a judge dismissed the case for lack of evidence.

The case, however, continues to have repercussions. On November 29, 2019, a Swiss court upheld the conviction and 15-year sentence of Erwin Sperisen, the police director in office when the Pavón massacre occurred. In 2014, Sperisen, who has dual citizenship in Guatemala and Switzerland, was first convicted of complicity in the extrajudicial killings.

Sperisen, who maintains his innocence in the murders, continues to challenge his conviction. His legal proceedings have taken place in Switzerland, where he has lived since 2007, because that country does not extradite its citizens.

Also accused of complicity in the Pavón massacre was Carlos Vielman, the security minister at the time of the incident, who was later acquitted by a Spanish court.

SEE ALSO: Guatemala News and Profiles

Prior to having his sentence upheld in Switzerland, Sperisen spoke to the Guatemalan congress, claiming that he was not responsible for the Pavón massacre.

In his testimony, Sperisen pointed to statements by the mother of one of the inmates killed in the Pavón, who said that she did not blame the ex-police chief for what had transpired, but rather Giammattei.

“My son told me [before he died] that Giammattei had been behind everything. I focused all my anger towards Giammattei… at that time he was the director of the Pavón,” María Vásquez, the mother of the inmate, said in her testimony. 

Guatemala’s new president has denied the Pavón allegations on several occasions, most recently doing so in June of last year during an interview with the EFE Agency, in which he claimed that the accusations are politically motivated

Giammattei was also prisons director in February 2007, when four police officials jailed on accusations of killing three Salvadoran congressmen were shot dead at El Boquerón prison. The police officers were found dead after they made clear they planned to divulge information about who was behind the murder of the Salvadoran officials. 

That murder-coverup of the Salvadoran congressmen, known as Parlacen case, made headlines recently when an inmate shot jailed former Guatemalan congressman Manuel Castillo in the head. Castillo was serving time in El Pavón after he was sentenced to 203 years in prison in 2008 for his role in the murder of the Salvadoran officials. According to the first reports by the Guatemalan penitentiary system, Castillo was killed in front the offices of the jail director. 

InSight Crime Analysis

Giammattei’s connections to Guatemala’s dark past are concerning, given that the country is backtracking on earlier efforts to prosecute high-level corruption and impunity.

Giammattei comes to power after Guatemala’s International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG) — a United Nations-backed judicial body made up of foreign prosecutors — was shut down by his predecessor, Jimmy Morales.

CICIG collaborated with the Attorney General’s Office to investigate several members of the country’s elite, including both Morales and Giammattei.

Giammattei’s bid for the presidency was backed by a battered elite that had seen its political influence decline, largely in response to criminal investigations.   

He will govern without the support of a large political party and will depend, to a large extent, on the support of those same elite groups: businessmen, longtime conservative politicians, and the military leaders that have long influenced the security cabinet. 

SEE ALSO: Kamilo Rivera and the Ghosts of Guatemala’s Death Squads

He takes the reins of a country seemingly at a security crossroads. Homicide rates have been steadily declining for years, but organized crime has gained ground, particularly drug trafficking. According to US officials consulted by InSight Crime, about 98 percent of the cocaine that crosses the Central American corridor moves through Guatemala. 

Giammattei now faces a resurgence of drug trafficking groups — something Guatemala has not experienced since the large local clans, such as the Mendoza, Lorenzana, and Chamalé clans, were dismantled. 

The MS13 and Barrio 18 street gangs, both of which generate violence and public insecurity in the Northern Triangle, have never had the territorial nor the political strength in Guatemala that they have maintained in Honduras and El Salvador. But as they have put down roots in Guatemala, their presence will be yet another challenge for the new president. 

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