Guatemala will head to the polls on June 16 to elect a new president, a decision that is sure to have profound implications for the nation’s domestic security, as well as regional stability in Latin America.
So far, this year’s campaign season has been marred by controversy and efforts to upend the electoral process.
In April, US prosecutors charged presidential candidate Mario Amilcar Estrada Orellana with soliciting Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel for campaign funds and their services in assassinating his political rivals. Then, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court barred the two candidates widely believed to be the top contenders in the race from running for president.
Zury Ríos — the daughter of the late former army general and dictator Efraín Ríos Montt — was banned from running in May due to an article of the constitution that bans relatives of those who “came to power by coup or force” from running for president. Montt became president after a military coup in 1982.
Former Attorney General Thelma Aldana was ruled ineligible to run for president shortly after Ríos due to trumped up corruption charges. The anti-corruption crusader was thought to be the clear favorite in the election. Her removal paved the way for other candidates to climb up the polls.
Below, InSight Crime looks at the four top contenders for president of Guatemala.
Sandra Torres — UNE
Sandra Torres, the current frontrunner in the polls is running for president for the third time on behalf of the National Unity of Hope (Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza — UNE), one of Guatemala’s oldest political parties and that of her ex-husband, former President Álvaro Colom.
The Attorney General’s Office and International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG) investigated Torres and the UNE in 2015 for alleged illicit campaign financing during her unsuccessful bid for the presidency. She ultimately lost to outgoing President Jimmy Morales, who the CICIG is also probing for allegedly receiving campaign funds from illicit sources.
That said, Torres has vowed to clean house to rid the country’s institutions of the corruption that has overcome them.
SEE ALSO: Illicit Campaign Financing in Guatemala
“From the first day of management … I am going to sweep the government of all the corruption that is embedded today,” Prensa Libre reported her saying in May.
However, Torres hasn’t offered up a solid anti-corruption plan, only going so far as to say that she would focus on an “austerity plan” in order to establish an “open, efficient and transparent” government. She would leave the future of the CICIG up to a public referendum.
Torres’ own alleged corruption links, coupled with her affiliation with one of Guatemala’s most entrenched political parties, suggest that her fight to curtail graft could be more lip service than action. What’s more, an April poll found that nearly half of voters said they would never vote for her, implying that a share of the population doesn’t have faith in established political systems continuing apace.
As for dealing with the country’s gangs and the grip they hold over the prison system, Torres has proposed “comprehensive” prison reform that doesn’t focus on root causes, but instead on isolating prisoners in jails located well outside of the city and blocking cell signals in an effort to hamper communications and criminal activity.
“With these resources we can build [new prisons], take them out of the urban area, isolate them and put an end to extortion,” Torres told Prensa Libre in June. Torres makes no mention, however, of addressing the pervasive prison corruption that allows inmates to carry on committing crimes from behind bars.
The UNE’s presidential candidate has also pledged to increase inter-institutional coordination, and modernize and increase the technological and investigative capacities of a national police force in serious need of an extensive overhaul. She also plans to temporarily militarize sectors of the city with high rates of criminal activity.
Torres is widely believed to be the favorite to win the elections, but her proposals to combat corruption, insecurity and crime suggest that little innovation would come with her as president.
Roberto Arzú — PAN-Podemos
Presidential hopeful Roberto Arzú has little political experience, but he’s cut from the same cloth as Guatemala’s conservative elite class. He is the son of the late former President and Guatemala City Mayor Álvaro Arzú, and will be running with the PAN-Podemos (National Advancement Party — Partido de Avanzada Nacional (PAN) & Podemos) coalition political party.
So far, Arzú has taken a hard line on his plans to improve security and squash the country’s criminal groups, much like his father before him did.
“There are 16,000 soldiers in military bases that cost Guatemala more than 2 billion quetzales [around $260 million], and instead of having them there we are going to take them to the streets to provide security,” Arzú told Publinews in May.
Arzú has also proposed militarizing the country’s prisons, reforming and professionalizing the national police force, and upping the number of officers to 60,000. He argues that this will give criminals captured by authorities two choices: “either surrender or die.”
SEE ALSO: Guatemala News and Profiles
Such strategies are out of touch and show that Arzú doesn’t fully grasp the root causes of some of Guatemala’s security issues. This militarized approach — like others that have failed elsewhere in the region — won’t have any lasting positive impact on insecurity or weaken the control that criminal groups wield. Any short-term gains will almost surely be just that, temporary, and with little long-term impact.
As for anti-corruption efforts, Arzú has stressed that the CICIG will cease to exist after its mandate expires in September 2019, although he’s failed to offer up a concrete plan for when the commission departs. Arzú himself protested against the United Nations-backed anti-graft body and supported President Morales’ decision to oust the commission’s former head, Colombian prosecutor Iván Velásquez.
This was one part of a broader effort by Morales and other elites to walk back significant progress the country had made on anti-corruption efforts. While the CICIG helped strengthen the capacity of the Attorney General’s Office, powerful networks of entrenched elites have struck back at them, suggesting that local institutions alone won’t be enough to meaningfully combat corruption. This could be exacerbated with Arzú as president.
“The CICIG was a good project with good intentions, but badly managed by the people who started playing ideological politics and wanted to manipulate the electoral processes, attacking even the rule of law,” Arzú said.
An Arzú presidency would almost certainly mean a significant step back for Guatemala’s anti-graft drive and a continuation of outdated security measures that have proven ineffective in years past.
Alejandro Giammattei — Vamos
A lifelong politician, Alejandro Giammattei is running for president for a fourth time on behalf of the Vamos political party after unsuccessfully campaigning for president in 2007, 2011 and 2015, each time with a different party. He was also a candidate for mayor of the capital Guatemala City in 1999 and 2003, but also came up short.
His 2019 candidacy initially seemed doomed to fail, but the barring of Aldana and Ríos from running has given him a boost that has placed him in second place, according to some recent polls.
Giammattei’s vague security proposals revolve around the recovery of the prison system as a way to combat crime and the country’s criminal groups. The presidential hopeful has also ruled out the continuation of an independent anti-graft body like the CICIG. Over the years, he’s been a dark spot in a political system accused for years of abusing authority and outright corruption.
Indeed, between 2006 and 2008 when Giammattei was the director of Guatemala’s prison system, two of the worst prison massacres to take place in the last decade shocked the country. In September 2006, police forces stormed the Pavón prison in hopes of taking back control but instead executed seven inmates in the process. Giammattei was arrested in 2010 for his role in the events, but he was later acquitted in 2011.
The following year, in February 2007, four policemen accused of murdering three Salvadoran congressmen and their driver that same month were murdered in the El Boquerón prison. Investigations by the CICIG and Attorney General’s Office pointed out that a police death squad had murdered the officers. As the head of Guatemala’s prison system at the time, Giammattei testified in favor of one of the police chiefs prosecuted. He said that the entire investigation had been a “fabrication,” which was never proven to be true.
However, Giammattei’s questionable prison record isn’t the only cause for concern.
Another point that weighs against Giammattei is his relationship with Ingmar Walterio Iten Rodriguez, a shadowy political operator the Attorney General’s Office accuses of managing bribes paid to Guatemala’s tax administration to expedite tax refund payments to private companies. Iten may have also been a partial financier of Giammattei’s 2011 presidential run, according to an investigation by El Periódico.
Edmond Mulet — Humanist Party
Edmond Mulet is a career diplomat and politician. He is running on behalf of the Humanist Party (Partido Humanista) in the upcoming election.
At the start of this decade, Mulet was the Chief of Staff to former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon before he was appointed as the Special Representative and Head of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti in 2011, a position he held until 2015. In the 1990s, Mulet served as Guatemala’s ambassador in Washington, DC, and after that as the Central American nation’s ambassador before the European Union.
Mulet was also a congressman in Guatemala before he served as president of Congress from 1992 to 1993. Before his time as a diplomat and politician, Mulet was alleged to have been part of an illegal adoption network in which foreigners adopted Guatemalan children. As a young lawyer in the 1980s, Mulet is alleged to have “sidestepped legal controls” that guaranteed the protection of minors, according to a Plaza Pública investigation. He was arrested, but the charges — which he denies — were ultimately dropped and he never stood trial.
In Mulet’s proposed government plan, his security strategy accounts for just two of the more than 30 total pages. This is despite his clear recognition of the need for “profound change” in this area.
The presidential hopeful proposes restructuring and elevating the investigative capacity of the national police force in the hopes of being able to better combat the country’s criminal groups, primarily gangs like the MS13 and Barrio 18, which rely heavily on extorting the local population.
In an effort to better combat drug trafficking, Mulet’s is proposing to strengthen the presence of security forces in areas where the state has been “weak or non-existent,” primarily the porous border regions with Mexico to the north and west, and with El Salvador and Honduras to the south and east. Such lawless regions are perfect for drug trafficking, as well as other crimes like the trafficking of prized natural resources and animals.
Mulet also hopes to increase the efficiency of Guatemala’s prison system, in part by building “modern” maximum security prisons in the center of the country to prevent high-profile criminals from escaping.
Overall, Mulet’s platform doesn’t offer much in the way of serious proposals to improve security and combat corruption, both of which are pressing concerns for voters.