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Protests, Scandals, and Drug Money Tarnish Guatemala’s Presidential Election

Among the most prominent candidates in the September 6 election is a nationalist actor who invokes God and the daughter of a former military dictator accused of genocide and crimes against humanity. Protesters want to postpone the vote.
Imagen por Saul Martinez

A new report says that a quarter of politicians in Guatemala receive money from drug cartels, and a leading candidate to be president is a nationalist actor who has been compared to Donald Trump.

This is Guatemala, where the political system is in a state of disarray ahead of a presidential election that takes place in less than 30 days. For some, the only bright spot is an actor names Jimmy Morales, who belongs to a party that has ties to former military officers from the civil war.


Morales, 46, has appeared in films and television shows and stirs up crowds at campaign stumps with themes like God, homeland, family, and honor. He's described himself as a "Nationalist centrist Christian," and is currently tied for second ahead of the voting.

"Ni corrupto, ni ladrón," is his slogan — or "Not Corrupt, Not a Crook."

Presidential candidate Jimmy Morales addresses supporters. (Image via Facebook)

Another candidate is Zury Rios Sosa, daughter of former dictator Efrain Rios Montt. Rios's candidacy, endorsed by her father's party, has sparked controversy since Guatemalan law forbids relatives of dictators from competing in elections.

Rios Sosa fought back, filing and winning an injunction with the country's Supreme Court on July 16, for what she called her right to be a political candidate. Rios Sosa's father has faced a lengthy court battle over charges of genocide and crimes against humanity carried out during his term as a military president during Guatemala's civil war.

Despite being the largest economy in Central America, Guatemala has one of the highest rates of inequality in Latin America.

After the revelation of the massive corruption scandal, which linked several public officials with bribes for illegal tax cuts at the country's customs agency, some Guatemalans are demanding the voting to be delayed in favor of electoral reforms.

But a swell of protest does not appear to be halting the September 6 voting, when more than 7.5 million Guatemalans are expected to cast ballots to replace current president Otto Perez Molina, who is not eligible for reelection.


The president has faced protests and calls for his resignation, but he's said he won't resign amid the expanding corruption probe that has already toppled his vice president.

A recent report by the United Nations International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG, revealed a chronic lack of regulations behind the financing of political parties. Parties in the country get 25 percent of their funding from criminal organizations, CICIG said, and around 50 percent from government contractors, exposing deep collusion between the political class and groups that stand to profit from funding their campaigns.

Drug trafficking organizations have been able to penetrate all levels of government, said Ivan Velasquez, the UN commissioner who supervised the report.

Related: Guatemala's President Says He Won't Resign After Massive Anti-Corruption Demonstration

Manuel Baldizon, presidential candidate for the party 'LIDER,' during a campaign event in Guatemala City. (Photo by Saul Martinez)

Amid the scandal, vice president Roxana Baldetti resigned on May 8, after being accused of covering up for Juan Carlos Monzon, her private secretary who is accused of being the operator of the customs fraud network. More than 24 government officials and businessmen have been arrested for acts of corruption.

"In these conditions, we don't want elections," has become a popular chant in the streets during protests against corruption. Despite being the largest economy in Central America, Guatemala has one of the highest rates of inequality in Latin America.


Perez Molina's conservative ticket, known as the Patriotic Party, is supporting the candidacy of Mario David Garcia, a former media mogul with connections to Guatemala's military intelligence. But the front runners are former First Lady Sandra Torres and Dr. Manuel Baldizon — who lost to Otto Perez Molina in the 2012 election.

Baldizon, a wealthy businessman and former governor of the northern department of Peten, is widely viewed as the frontrunner. He has reportedly paid mayoral candidates $65,000 to switch to his party, the Libertad Democratica Renovada, or LIDER party. Candidates for LIDER, including Baldizon, have been plagued by similar accusations of corruption.

In a report on illicit financing of campaigns, CICIG accused LIDER and other large parties of being financed by drug traffickers, foreign and national companies, and other illicit groups.

Yet the party appears confident. Some of its first billboards depicted a man in a black suit with a red tie wearing the Guatemalan presidential sash — a symbol of the office — with the text "Le Toca," or "It's His Time."

Besides being a violation of Guatemala's campaign laws, the billboard sparked widespread protests from civil society, and generated another popular chant during the anti-corruption protests: "It's not your time."

Related: Video Shows Guatemalan Soldiers Slapping, Punching, Drop-Kicking Two Teen Boys

Zury Rios Sosa, candidate for president, is daughter of former dictator Efrain Rios Montt. (Photo by Saul Martinez)

On July 22, several thousands of Baldizon's supporters held a vigil outside the CICIG, protesting what they viewed as a witch-hunt against their party. Observers noticed the irony behind the protest against an anti-corruption organization, organized by a party that has been accused of the same thing.


Other political rallies have turned violent.

On August 6, supporters from LIDER attacked a group of young people who had gathered to protest against the party and corruption in the small town of San Juan Comalapa, two hours northwest of Guatemala City. Video from the rally shows supporters violently snatching signs from the hands of protesters.

In another incident in the municipality of Nebaj, Quiche, supporters of LIDER threatened Miguel Ceto, a member of the local indigenous authority, when he arrived at a rally wearing a T-shirt with the legend "There was a Genocide."

People in Guatemala have traditionally looked upon elections with a sense of cynicism — and with good reason. This is summed up in the common belief that whoever lost the previous presidential election will win the next one, with recent elections adhering to this pattern.

Molina, current president, was runner-up in the 2007 election, and ended up winning in 2012. The same goes for his predecessor, Alvaro Colom, who lost the 2004 presidential election but was elected in 2007.

Related: Former Dictator of Guatemala Ruled Mentally Unfit to Face Retrial for War Crimes

Follow Jeff Abbott on Twitter: @palabrasdeabajo