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Comedian Leading Guatemalan Presidential Race Accused of Being Front for the Military

Jimmy Morales has become the runaway favourite to win elections on October 25 thanks to his image as a political outsider, but critics say his party is steeped in Guatemala's military past.

by Jeff Abbott
Oct 17 2015, 2:20pm

Photo by Luis Soto/AP

Jimmy Morales once played a campesino who accidentally became president during the TV comedy career that made him famous. Now he is the runaway favourite to win Guatemala's presidential elections next weekend.

Morales surprised observers by coming out of nowhere to win the first round of the poll on September 6 and sail through to the runoff second round against former first lady Sandra Torres on October 25.

The former comedian's success is based on his claim to be a political outsider, untainted by a seemingly endless string of corruption scandals associated with most of Guatemala's established political class. Those scandals include a major customs scam that days before the first round poll forced President Otto Pérez Molina out of office and into prison where he is now awaiting trial.

"I have a simple solution to the problem that kidnaps most of our opportunities to achieve well being," Morales, 46, said in a speech last month. "That solution has a name. It is a full on fight against corruption."

Morales had no previous political experience before running for the mayor of the town of Mixco, just outside of Guatemala City, in 2011, and did nothing politically noteworthy between then and suddenly emerging as a presidential candidate. But with Morales leading Torres by as much as 40 percent in some polls, some charge that the former comedian is just as tied to Guatemala's unsavoury political history as any traditional politician.

Related: The Corruption Crackdown in Guatemala Is Making Mexico Jealous

The allegation is centered around the military roots of his National Convergence Front - Nation party.

FCN-Nation was founded in 2004 by retired generals, including Luis Felipe Miranda Trejo and José Luis Quilo Ayuso from the Association of Military Veterans (Avemilgua), in order to protect military interests in the wake of the 1996 peace accords that ended the country's 36-year civil war. 

Both Miranda and Quilo played prominent roles within military intelligence during the conflict against left wing rebels in which more than 200,000 people were killed or disappeared, many of them in army massacres of civilians in rural indigenous communities. Miranda has been accused by human rights groups of direct involvement in forced disappearances in the Alta Verapaz region at the height of the war in the early 1980s.

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

Representatives from the Morales campaign have told reporters that Trejo and Quilo are no longer part of the party that they founded. However, it is widely reported in Guatemala that Quilo remains a financial backer of FCN-Nation.

"Morales was a fresh, new, TV savvy face that [the former military officials] could use as the means to their own power," Orlando Pérez, an expert on the military and politics in Central America, told VICE News. Getting Morales on board was, he added, "a marriage of opportunity."

Morales was approached to join the party in 2012 by Edgar Justino Ovalle Maldonado, a retired General and member of the FCN Executive Committee, according to a report by Guatemala's Independent Media Center. The report cites declassified US documents linking Ovalle, who is now a member of congress for the party, to special counterinsurgency operations in the Ixil Triangle which many, including a United Nations backed truth commission, have referred to as genocide.

Former members of the Civilian Self Defense Patrols have also been supporting Morales, according to a report in the news website Nómada. The Patrols, set up by the military in rural indigenous communities during war to "protect" them against the insurgents, committed multiple human rights abuses.

Former Captain Byron Lima Oliva, who was convicted of crimes related the 1998 assassination of Bishop Juan José Gerardi and is currently on trial for leading a criminal network in prison, appeared to confirm the army's sympathies for Morales.

"Guatemala spoke, and spoke with an intelligent vote," Lima said in a filmed interview in which he celebrated the candidate's first round victory and looked forward to the runoff. "All of the family of the army, all of the family of the civil patrols, the family of the military commissioners, the students and all the people who are fed up with what is going on, are going to vote for Jimmy Morales."

Related: Jailed Former President of Guatemala Wants a TV

Morales's campaign did not respond to VICE News' requests for comment. He has, however, denied association with the military in other interviews.

"There is is no link [to former military officers]," he told the digital news site Soy502 in August. "I have nothing against them, but there is no link."

In the same interview, however, he did express views that resonate with the long held nationalist sentiment within the military that Belize really belongs to Guatemala. Losing Belize in 1962, he said, was "the most deplorable act in Guatemalan history," but also one that could be rectified.

"We still have the possibility to go to an international court where we could fight to recuperate Belize," he said. "Everything that goes against national unity and territorial integrity hurts us."

Diego Santiago Ceto, a leader of the Ixil indigenous authorities, told VICE News that he had no doubt about Morales' military ties. The Ixil people suffered particularly badly from military operations during the conflict.

"This man, Jimmy Morales, is the figure for all the ex-generals from the war," he said.

The indigenous leader pointed to the irony of Morales' popularity on the back of public anger and fatigue with corruption that grew dramatically during the Pérez Molina administration. The former president is himself a retired general and the customs scam that brought him down was rooted in graft networks built during military rule.

A Morales victory "would be, in practical terms, the continuation of the administration of Otto Pérez Molina" Ceto said. "The majority of people don't understand this connection."

Related: Landslide Buries Town in Guatemala: 26 Dead and 600 Feared Missing

Follow Jeff Abbott on Twitter: @palabrasdeabajo