Translated by Richard Brown, EntreMundos
Let’s go back. For 25 years from 1985 to 2010, democracy and peace in Guatemala were at once a small success and a grand failure. A small success because they stopped the worst anti-Communist political violence that had made the country a hellscape from 1978 to 1985. But a grand failure because in these 25 years, politicians, mafias, and the majority of the economic elite built a system, a model of development, that has the honor of making Guatemala the only Latin American country that did not reduce poverty even 1%; it remains at 60%.
Further, they built a country so terrifying for the poor that 39% of Guatemalans want to escape, according to the last poll by Prensa Libre. 85% of them want to go to the United States. That is to say, one out of three Guatemalans wants to migrate north. Despite the risk of kidnapping, rape, and massacre by Mexican cartels along the journey. Despite the risk of dying in the desert. And of adolescents getting raped by border agents. And of children getting separated from their parents by the United States government at the border, and of dying at the hands of that same United States government, as six children have since 2018, as four have in the last four months.
• Read: The story of the boy prisoner in Texas who hates his father and wants to return to Chisec, by Nómada and the Texas Tribune, republished by TIME Magazine.
None of these risks of death or violence take away the desire of the Guatemalan people to escape Guatemala. 346,000 Central Americans were detained by Border Patrol in the first four months of 2019; 90% are Guatemalans and Hondurans. 300,000 people. 1% of both countries in four months. You would fill more than 12 Doroteo Guamuch Flores stadiums with them. Despite Donald Trump and his threats of hatred and death. Because they prefer this to the risk of dying of hunger or violence in “The Nothing,” as the New York Times found when it asked Guatemalans what they were fleeing.
The Nothing is the country that this alliance of politicians, mafias, and the economic elite have built, and to which we have all contributed by action or lack thereof. The Nothing is the Guatemala of corruption, impunity, and inequality. The Nothing is Guatemala, and Guatemala is in great pain.
Because it is very difficult to build a functional state when you inherit a state of mafias, violence, and state capture, human rights activists, intellectuals, and Guatemalan diplomats to the United Nations invented what would be called the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG for its Spanish acronym).
CICIG was created 12 years ago with a clear mandate: cleanse the state of the structures that create impunity and have captured the state to prevent it from functioning. We all hoped Guatemala would not remain a factory of expulsion. Let’s remember: 311,000 people in the last four months.
CICIG, as we have seen over the last year, would not have been able to achieve anything without the Guatemalan people.
Or without attorneys general like Claudia Paz y Paz and Thelma Aldana. Without Interior Ministers like Carlos Menocal and Francisco Rivas. Without courageous prosecutors like Juan Francisco Sandoval or Andrei González of FECI (an anti-impunity investigation unit). Without the FECI and CICIG teams. Without police. Without an independent tax authority with Juan Francisco Foppa. Without judges like Ericka Aifán, Pablo Xitumul, or Miguel Ángel Gálvez. Without judges like César Barrientos or Yasmín Barrios. Without judges like Gloria Porras, Bonerge Mejía, Francisco Mata Vela, Mynor Par Usén, or María Cristina Fernández. Without 10 independent media outlets. Without courageous businesspeople. Without artists. Without the indigenous and campesino movement. Without dozens of repentant criminals. Without hundreds of thousands of citizens in the streets and on social media between 2015 and 2019.
The Justice Department (hereafter Public Ministry) and CICIG, in the last five years since 2015, undertook over 100 investigations into over 600 very powerful people from politics, the military, the justice system, organized crime, and the private sector. Many of the accused are guilty, to a greater or lesser extent, of making Guatemala The Nothing. CICIG and the Public Ministry of Claudia Paz and Thelma Aldana managed to lay the system bare.
The four errors or defeats of the reform movement
I bring to this text four of the errors, defeats, or betrayals that have led us to a 2019 election that does not give us a choice between reform and conservatism. Instead, we have primary elections for the anti-CICIG alliance, with some symbolic exceptions.
Let’s do this:
1. VIP prison and conspiracy
The campaign for justice system reform (in the Public Ministry, the Interior Ministry, CICIG, and high courts) never managed to build a real prison that would prevent powerful inmates from conspiring to recover total control of the state.
Mariscal Zavala, the VIP prison in a Defense Ministry barracks, is a joke. Anyone can enter without even presenting ID and bring in liquor, food, people, and even weapons. A Nómada story describes the last barbeque thrown here by El Fantasma, a drug trafficker who was later extradited to the United States.
Further, they have unlimited access to the Internet. The radio station ConCriterio has published several audio leaks of Gustavo Alejos, one of the major financiers and beneficiaries of corruption under the past four administrations, conspiring to use the femicide appeals court against CICIG and the Public Ministry.
Most of the economic elite joined this conspiracy, as we demonstrated in coverage of the lobbying campaign begun in 2017.
• Read this Nómada investigation: Jimmy, Baldizón, narco-members of Congress, and business magnates hired lobbyists to stop U.S. support for CICIG.
2. United States hegemony and Consuelo Porras
There are many decent actors who do not make decisions without the blessing of the United States. And who believe that Washington and its Embassy are infallible and that they have a genuine interest in Guatemala’s well-being. For God’s sake, it’s as if they’d never read anything about the history of our countries. The United States is a walking contradiction. On one hand it supports human rights protection and democracy, and on the other it favors pacts with authoritarians who violate human rights and democracy in favor of the “stability” that serves its interests.
This “stability doctrine,” the reason the United States supported Pérez Molina and Jimmy Morales, has a result: 311,000 adults and children who escaped from Guatemala toward its borders in the first four months of 2019. 1% of the country in four months.
At the beginning of 2018, various sources told me that law school deans consulted the United States Embassy to approve a list of six finalists to become Attorney General. And since the Embassy approved, they included a questionable candidate, Consuelo Porras, over better choices, like Claudia Escobar, a conservative and incorruptible judge.
Consuelo Porras is Jimmy Morales’ prosecutor. With timidity at first, she limited CICIG’s options with hypocritical actions. She stopped meeting and even having conferences with CICIG Commissioner Iván Velásquez; she didn’t want to anger Sir Jimmy. She did not resist the buffeting of Interior Minister Enrique Degenhart. Nor did she stand up for the Constitutional Court when the Interior Ministry stopped complying with its rulings. She is going down in history as The Vigilante. But it’s much worse than that. She is burying 12 years of independence for the Public Ministry.
She protected President Jimmy Morales and his financiers, asking that illegal campaign financing no longer be pursued. She protected Sandra Torres, delaying a CICIG investigation into her for four months until she had immunity. She changed the management model that in ten years had achieved an 8% reduction in impunity and contributed to a 40% drop in violence. She is about to end the run of the extremely valuable FECI team because she prohibited promotions for prosecutors who have been accused of any wrongdoing, as spurious as the accusations may be. And she diligently brought criminal charges against and sought the arrest of ex-Attorney General Thelma Aldana for a spurious case in which, if she went after anyone, she should have gone after a lawyer for not having shown up to give classes to prosecutors.
This week she presented her report on a year of work that featured honored guests President Jimmy Morales and President of Congress Álvaro Arzú Escobar. Afterwards, they had a meeting. And you know who was seated to her right, supporting her? United States Ambassador Luis Arreaga.
• Read Nómada’s 2018 investigation: The strategy of the Pact, Consuelo Porras, and the United States to replaced CICIG.
3. The CICIG judges and the fear of a coup d’état
On August 31, 2018, President Jimmy Morales, Interior Minister Enrique Degenhart, and part of the military sought to intimidate CICIG, the Constitutional Court, the media, and the people of Guatemala with a press conference and a convoy of armored vehicles. They announced that they would not comply with any further Constitutional Court decisions. CICIG, the media, and the citizenry continued to investigate, audit, and protest. But most of the Constitutional Court got intimidated.
The government prevented CICIG commissioner Iván Velásquez from returning to Guatemala from September 5, 2018, forward, and announced that it would not comply with any Constitutional Court mandate to permit his entry.
Instead of removing Interior Minister Degenhart and Foreign Affairs Minister Sandra Jovel from office, the Constitutional Court decided to look the other way at this technical coup d’état. “If we pretend not to notice they disobeyed us, they didn’t disobey us, so we still have rule of law,” the judges seem to have thought.
The logic of the five independent judges, two of them confirmed to me, was: “If we remove them from office, they’ll execute a coup d’état. So we sacrificed CICIG, but we saved democracy.”
To me, it seems they didn’t. When the criminal alliance saw that the Constitutional Court was faltering, it was emboldened.
Not only did they prevent the return of the CICIG commissioner and 11 of his investigators. Four months later, they illegally cancelled the CICIG mandate and, practically at gunpoint, expelled all the Commission’s personnel for several weeks.
The Constitutional Court overturned these actions, but never removed the ministers from office.
And so the coarsest part of the criminal alliance was further emboldened.
A presidential candidate, Mario Estrada, was arrested in Miami because the DEA recorded him conspiring to take money from the Sinaloa Cartel and to assassinate ex-Attorney General and opposition presidential candidate Thelma Aldana. On CNN, Aldana denounced these plots and asserted that they involved the government, the escape of a drug trafficker from a VIP prison, her own arrest thanks to current Attorney General Consuelo Porras and judge Víctor Cruz, and an assassination inside a prison controlled by the government and the mafias.
Further, Aldana said she suspects that President Jimmy Morales approved the plan during a meeting he had with Mario Estrada on his plantation in Jalapa.
So the Constitutional Court can’t have saved all that much democracy. Without opposition candidates, the election is not democratic. It is simply a primary election of the anti-CICIG criminal alliance.
And some of us are naïve. I highly doubt that the DEA, if it is not pressed by members of the United States Congress like Norma Torres, would reveal whether President Jimmy Morales approved pacts with drug traffickers or conspiracies to assassinate his principal political rival. The United States, like all the other power players, is better served by a puppet president whom they can threaten with prison than by a president in prison.
The judges of the Constitutional Court, the last bastion of democracy, failed the reform movement in two crucial moments.
4. Sandra Torres and her strategy from Auditor General’s Office to Gloria Porras
As I wrote for the New York Times last month, “It’s not democracy if opposition candidates don’t compete in clean elections. It’s not about defending Thelma Aldana’s candidacy. Rather, it’s about respecting democratic norms and allowing her and all opposition candidates to participate in the election.”
Thelma Aldana’s candidacy represented the reformist, pro-CICIG vision, which, it seems to me, has a right to participate in the election. Hers was a candidacy that—along with Movimiento Semilla, a party that grew out of the demonstrations of 2015 and is led by professionals and a 26-year-old economist, Samuel Pérez—could have competed with the candidate who now leads in the polls, Sandra Torres of the UNE party.
• Read the complete profile of Sandra Torres: The myths, the poor, the narco, and more, by Javier Estrada Tobar.
The participation of Thelma Aldana and Movimiento Semilla ensured that a more democratic division and balance of powers was possible in the next Congress and on future courts.
But Sandra Torres, the uncomfortable member of the alliance of politicians and business magnates, had sufficient political pull to stop Thelma Aldana’s candidacy.
With one chalkboard play.
First, she made sure to co-opt the Auditor General’s Office. She offered Auditor General Carlos Mencos, who was named to his post by Roxana Baldetti during corrupt negotiations, the chance to run for Congress on her ticket as part of the UNE party.
Mencos accepted, resigned from the Auditor General’s Office, and named his interim substitute, Fernando Fernández. The UNE party in Congress maneuvered so that a new Auditor General would not be confirmed so that Fernando Fernández could remain at his new post atop the Auditor General’s Office.
In 2019, the Auditor General’s Office concocted the story that José Carlos Marroquín, an advisor to Thelma Aldana and a veteran investigator of the UNE party, never delivered the services of a consulting contract [awarded to him by the Public Ministry when Thelma Aldana was head of the ministry as Attorney General]. Based on this allegation, the Auditor General’s Office withdrew Thelma Aldana’s official certificate of no-wrongdoing while in office, which is legally required to run for president. We at Nómada investigated and found that José Carlos Marroquín did indeed fulfill, albeit poorly, the consulting contract for which he was paid.
The dispute over this allegation of the Auditor General’s Office lasted two months and reached the Constitutional Court.
Gloria Porras has been the undisputed leader of the Constitutional Court since 2015, when she was part of the minority yet succeeded in defeating obstacles to the arrest of President Otto Pérez Molina. Until 2016 when she managed to convert Francisco de Mata Vela and Bonerge Mejía, who arrived on the Constitutional Court with questionable records, into two of the most powerful independent judges. This is how they curbed mining projects that did not at all respect affected communities or the environment. They also stopped efforts by the criminal alliance in 2017 and 2018 to regain impunity, such as the declaration that CICIG Commissioner Iván Velásquez was non-grato and the approval of impunity laws that would have gotten criminals convicted of corruption out of jail along with rapists and extortionists.
But Gloria Porras, whom many of us considered a bastion of democracy and justice, is not totally independent.
Gloria Porras became the key piece in the strategy of Sandra Torres—and the alliance of politicians, business magnates, and mafias—to end the candidacy of the opposition candidate with the best shot at winning: Thelma Aldana.
A source told me that the session in which the Constitutional Court decided the future of Guatemala’s political opposition went like this: Gloria Porras spoke up and said, “If Thelma Aldana lacks her official certificate of no-wrongdoing, she cannot be a candidate. There’s nothing more to discuss.”
This is how, with the support of De Mata Vela, Bonerge Mejía, Par Usén, and, of course, recent presidential appointees Dina Ochoa and Henry Comte—and with only one objection, that of Neftalí Aldana—Gloria Porras managed to continue her undefeated streak in the Constitutional Court and get Sandra Torres’ principal rival out of her way.
The argument against Thelma Aldana that Gloria Porras and most of the Constitutional Court put forward is so flimsy that in the same session on Wednesday, May 15, the Court allowed another politician who did not have a certification of no-wrongdoing, ex-head of the tax authority Juan Francisco Solórzano Foppa, to run for mayor of Guatemala City.
And two days later, they protected Sandra Torres from an investigation brought by FECI and CICIG.
Is this the end of the story?
No. But all this will send us into a winter for democracy. And it will set back attempts to reform the country of The Nothing.
The anti-CICIG political mission of politicians, business magnates, and mafias is thriving. They know there is no candidate or party in the election who represents a real threat to their model of development (and impunity). On top of this, and this is incredible, four of the people who fought hardest against corruption and impunity in Guatemala over the last ten years cannot return to the country: Claudia Paz, Claudia Escobar, Iván Velásquez, and Thelma Aldana. This is a national shame.
It is incredible that Gloria Porras denied the return of ex-Attorney General Thelma Aldana. Aldana, knowing that there is a plan to assassinate her in The Nothing, Thelma Aldana has no choice but to seek political asylum abroad.
Already without Thelma Aldana and Zury Ríos in the race in the middle of May, the four frontrunners are, according to an early April poll by Prensa Libre from early April: Sandra Torres, with 20%; Alejandro Giammettei, with 7%; Roberto Arzú, with 3.8%; and Edmond Mulet, with 2.7%.
None of the four want to renew CICIG’s mandate. Torres, Giammettei, and Arzú or their families have been investigated by CICIG. Torres, Giammettei, and Arzú have records and platforms that are quite authoritarian and that threaten Guatemala’s democracy. The fourth leading candidate has a record of some highlights and many shadows. We at Nómada will investigate them thoroughly and publish profiles on each in the coming weeks.
The political scientist Phillip Chicola predicts that whoever among “the dwarf candidates” reaches 12% will pass to the second round of voting.
It seems to me that the battle to get to the second round against Sandra Torres will be between these three dwarf candidates, and perhaps there is space for a pro-CICIG dwarf candidate, Manfredo Marroquín, of the Encuentro por Guatemala party of Nineth Montenegro. Nineth managed four years ago to net 25% of votes for a Guatemala City congressional seat, but if Thelma Aldana would have participated this year, Encuentro por Guatemala would be at risk of disappearing, like the other the pro-CICIG parties: Libre, MLP, Winaq, URNG. Manfredo Marroquín, the former director of Acción Ciudadana, the Guatemalan chapter of Transparency International, is so unknown that he still polls at under 1%. He could slip through only with strong support from Thelma Aldana.
In other words, unless something unexpected happens, we are headed for a social-democrat authoritarian winter with Sandra Torres or an extreme-right authoritarian winter with Giammettei or Roberto Arzú. And the consolidation of power of the alliance of The Nothing. The reformers, represented electorally by options like Movimiento Semilla and other minority parties, will together be a minority in Congress.
What will happen in the immediate future? An authoritarian winter will come. But how hard and how devastating it will be depends on the reformist resistance and the conflicts within the alliance of The Nothing. In the best case scenario, the resistance will manage, in 2023, to return Guatemala to the path of democracy, justice, and development.
During the last dead of winter, when FRG and Ríos Montt won the presidency and a majority in Congress in 1999, we came up with the idea of CICIG. We will have to take precautions and remember how to build in the snow. How soon we can dismantle The Nothing, how soon Guatemala can flourish again, will depend on how we prepare ourselves and what we learn from the mistakes of the last five years.
*This data was updated on 22/5/19, when the US Border Patrol’s official website updated information on the nationalities of detainees.