GUATEMALA CITY – The Guatemalan government’s clumsy interference with its presidential election has turned a global spotlight on rampant corruption that previously had received only limited international attention.
President Alejandro Giammattei was deeply unpopular at home, but other than occasional reprobation from the United States and Europe, had managed to consolidate his control of the justice system, completely upending a longstanding anti-corruption campaign in the country with little consequence.
The June 25 presidential election may have changed all that. In the days leading up to the vote, it appeared there would be a runoff between a small number of right and extreme right candidates, including Giammattei allies. But with a large number of null votes, many cast in protest, and a campaign that resonated especially with young Guatemalans, progressive candidate Bernardo Arévalo placed second, ensuring his participation in an Aug. 20 runoff.
Suddenly, it seemed there was a real possibility of choice for Guatemalans who want to change the status quo. That stunned the powers that be, who quickly reacted.
“I think that fear clouded him, blinded him,” Katya Salazar, executive director of the Due Process Foundation, said of Giammattei. She added that Arévalo’s surprise support was “a demonstration of the dissatisfaction” in the Central American country.
“I think he (Giammattei) thought that it would be the same as always,” she said.
Late Wednesday, a federal prosecutor announced that Arévalo's party, the Seed Movement, had been suspended for allegedly violating election laws. Prosecutors followed up on Thursday morning by raiding the offices of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal just hours after it certified the election results that put Arévalo in the runoff.
At a news conference on Friday, special anti-corruption prosecutor Rafael Curruchiche defended his investigation as serious, objective and impartial. He said the inquiry had taken a year to complete and it was a coincidence that he announced it on the same day the Supreme Electoral Tribunal certified the election results.
“That idea they have that this case arises from political issues is completely false,” Curruchiche said. “We don't get involved in political issues.”
The prosecutor said his office's raid of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal on Thursday had produced very valuable information, but he did not go into specifics. He did say that the tribunal's own documents showed it was aware that 12 signatures collected by the Seed Movement when it was being established in 2018 were those of dead people, yet still allowed them to be registered.
“They didn't take their responsibility like they should have,” he said.
Earlier Friday, the Attorney General's Office said in a statement that it was carrying out its duty to enforce the country’s laws and not trying to interfere with the second round of voting or keep any candidate from participating in the runoff. Curruchiche said his investigation would continue.
The government's actions have triggered a domestic and international uproar. In addition to statements of concern from the United States, European Union and Organization of American States, criticism came from other Latin American governments as well as Guatemala’s most powerful private business association.
Even Arévalo’s runoff opponent, conservative former first lady Sandra Torres, joined in, announcing that she would suspend her campaign activities because the competition was uneven while authorities pursued the Seed Movement.
Torres' UNE party has been a key force in allowing Giammattei to advance his legislative agenda, but it appeared she felt the attack on the Seed party could undermine her own candidacy.
“We want to demonstrate our solidarity with the voters of the Seed party and also with those who came out to vote,” she said. “As a candidate, I want to compete under equal conditions.”
Not long after that, the Constitutional Court, the country's highest tribunal, provided another blow to the Giammattei administration, granting the Seed Movement’s request for a preliminary injunction against its suspension. That quickly, if temporarily, lowered tensions.
Giammattei, who was barred by law from seeking reelection, kept out of sight. His office issued a statement saying it respects the separation of powers and would not be involved in any judicial processes.
His response had little effect on a population that witnessed how the president had dramatically transformed a nation that until four years ago had hosted an aggressive and productive anti-corruption effort supported by the United Nations. After Giammattei’s predecessor forced out the U.N. mission that supported the fight against graft, the current president systematically forced out prosecutors and judges who were continuing that effort, replacing them with loyalists. Even those who had grown critical of the zealous anti-corruption effort concede the country is much worse off now.
Hundreds protested in front of the Attorney General's Office on Thursday afternoon.
“We are fed up with the corruption in Guatemala,” said Adolfo Grande, a 25-year-old repair technician. “We want them to let us choose and not to impose who they want.”
Dinora Sentes, a 28-year-old sociologist, said she supports the Seed Movement but was protesting in defense of Guatemala.
“It’s not about defending a party but rather an entire country,” she said. “We have so many needs in education, health, urgent necessities to attend to.”
Arévalo thanked the Constitutional Court as well as the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, which promised to defend the will of voters against government interference.
“The corrupt who have tried to steal these elections from the people today find themselves marginalized,” he said. “Today we are starting the first day of the campaign.”
Sherman reported from Mexico City.