Why Violence Could Boil Over in Guatemala Elections

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Guatemala has already seen over 20 political murders linked to the 2011 elections. The indications are that violence will continue, if not increase, during what could be Guatemala’s most polarized election in years.

The unsuccessful assassination attempt against a candidate running for mayor, on June 18, is only the latest example of election-related violence in Guatemala. The last week alone saw two mayoral candidates shot and killed, while another candidate announced he would suspend his campaign due to death threats. Last January, the son of a mayoral candidate was killed in the coastal city San Jose, followed by the murder of another mayoral candidate in a border town near El Salvador. A campaign secretary for the current ruling party, National Unity of Hope (Unidad Nacional de Esperanza – UNE) was gunned down in late May.

2007 was another deadly election year, with at least 40 murders involving candidates, party members, campaign aides and their relatives. And as a new report by the think tank International Crisis Group (ICG) points out, there are plenty of reasons why the country may see a repeat of the violence in 2011. If the murders and threats increase, it could be the most visible symptom yet of the reach of organized crime into politics.

One problem highlighted by the ICG report is the weakness of Guatemalan institutions, especially the political parties. Parties put little effort into building their social base and there is little accountability to voters: many candidates end up switching parties after winning their Congress seats. There is little party discipline and even less oversight of corruption. Thanks to poorly enforced campaign finance laws, the candidates most likely to win are those who can best raise the cash to buy their place on the party ticket.

This creates a prime environment for criminal groups looking to build up influence: public officials have little reason to pursue the public good when the system rewards those who can create patron-client relationships. As a result, millions of dollars of campaign contributions from shadowy sources go undisclosed. In 2007, the two main political parties may have spent $15 million more than what was actually reported, according to ICG.

Poorly enforced campaign oversight laws gives politicians reason to seek payments from criminal groups, and the illicit networks in Guatemala have plenty of reasons to buy off certain candidates. Traditional contraband families, like the Leones, Lorenzanas, and Juan Ortiz Lopez, alias “Juan Chamale,” need to sponsor candidates who promise to turn a blind eye to their operations. Nuturing ties with mayors — who have influence with the security forces, and help determine security policy at a local level — is especially important. This could explain why mayoral pre-candidates seem especially vunerable during campaign seasons.

For the most covert of Guatemala’s criminal groups — the networks made up of former military intelligence and death squad officers, known by their Spanish acronym CIACS — the corruption of public officials is vital for protecting their interests. In contrast to the Zetas, who rely on violence and terror to undermine the state, the CIACS’s preferred tactic is corruption. In particular, the CIACS have been known to cultivate loyalty from political leaders willing to pay a portion of funds, embezzled from public works contracts or the municipal budget. These kinds of kickbacks, representing a low-risk, steady stream of cash, are especially attractive for criminal groups like the CIACS, who value bribery as a strategy over violence.

A recent report by national newspaper elPeriodico gives a good indication of just how money from local municipal budgets goes missing. The most corrupt mayorships coincide with those departments identified by the Human Rights Attorney’s Office (Procuraduria de Derechos Humanos – PDR) as the most at risk of political violence in 2011. They are also the departments where criminal groups are the most entrenched: in Huehuetenango, where a cell of the Sinaloa Cartel is believed to operate, 28.6 million quetzales ($3.7 million) are unaccounted for; in Coban, Alta Verapaz, where the government launched a “state of siege” intended to dispel the Zetas, an estimated 14.4 million quetzales ($1.9 million) are believed to have been misappropriated.

Guatemala’s criminal groups may be more intent on winning political capital this year, considering the disruptions that some organizations have suffered. Juan Ortiz Lopez, the former “patron” of San Marcos department, was arrested in March. Shortly afterwards, Waldemar Lorenzana, the patriach of a powerful criminal family believed to control western Guatemala, was captured. The organizations previously controlled by these drug capos are now vulnerable to losing even more ground to their most aggressive competitor, the Zetas. If the Mexican group is looking to solidify its hold over these territories, it may be in its interest to seek more influence in the political arena. Criminal groups looking to hold off the Zetas’ advance may also try to do so by co-opting local authorities.

The current power voids in Guatemala’s underworld raises the stakes for everyone in the September 11 elections. A heated political environment has raised tensions even further. Sandra Torres, the recently divorced wife of current President Alvaro Colom and a top contender for the presidency, is one of the country’s most polarizing public officials. Her main opponent, Otto Perez Molina, once headed the Estado Mayor Presidencial (EMP), the most feared of the military intelligence units that make up the CIACS.

Regionally-elected politicans, however, are much more likely than the national candidates to seek the profits and protection of drug-trafficking organizations. They are also much more likely to continue bearing the brunt of the country’s political violence. And until Guatemala can create the political environment where building public legitimacy is more important than dispensing favors to loyal (and perhaps criminal) followers, corruption will remain prevalent.

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