Alejandro Giammattei, a right-wing former prison chief, surged to victory in presidential elections in Guatemala on Sunday, winning nearly 60% of the vote over former First Lady Sandra Torres in an election many Guatemalans considered a battle between the worst possible options.
“Today is a new period of the country,” Giammattei, a member of the fledgling Vamos party, said in declaring victory Sunday night, according to Al Jazeera.
Many Guatemalans, however, fear the opposite is true: that Giammattei largely represents a continuation of current President Jimmy Morales, a leader who has routinely defied constitutional courts, rolled back human rights protections, sought to defend human rights abusers, and worked to undermine a U.N.-backed commission investigating corruption and abuses that has implicated hundreds of Guatemalan business elites, members of organized crime factions and politicians — including Morales himself.
As journalist and author Francisco Goldman wrote in January, Morales is “an unpopular president backed by hard-line military, right-wing parties and conservative elites” who “disdains democratic norms and institutions.”
Giammattei may prove similar.
“Giammattei’s victory means the continuity of this government and the continued [erosion] of democratic values,” Helen Mack, a Guatemalan human rights activist, told HuffPost prior to the final vote. “With regard to human rights, setbacks will continue to be more evident. We see it currently, and we will continue going backwards.”
Like other right-wing politicians who’ve come to power in Latin America, Giammattei seized on concerns about rising levels of violent crime and promised hard-line strategies to combat it in urban areas. As the former head of Guatemala’s prison system, Giammattei was investigated over a massacre in which police carried out extrajudicial killings of seven prisoners in 2006. (He was arrested but later exonerated.)
During his campaign, Giammattei proposed reinstating the death penalty and militarizing public security on urban streets to combat violent crime ― a strategy that has proven ineffective across Latin America.
“He has a very iron-fist view of how to address public security concerns,” said Adriana Beltrán, a Guatemala expert at the Washington Office for Latin America. “The fear is that he would probably move in that direction, going back to implementing an iron-fist policy that has been very common strategy in the region. We’ve seen it in El Salvador, we’ve seen it in Honduras, and we’ve seen that it has failed at reducing levels of violence.”
Giammattei has suggested that he would seek to limit anti-government protests organized by human rights activists and others angry about the rampant corruption and impunity that runs rife through the country’s political system.
“His speech has been against [human] rights. He has been saying that if there’s a protest, [he] will kick them out,” said Álvaro Montenegro, an activist who has organized protests against corruption. “He supports all kind of anti-rights movements.”
Giammattei has also proposed opening indigenous lands to mining and other economic interests, even as Guatemala is already among the most dangerous countries in the world for indigenous, human rights and environmental activists. That, coupled with his rabid anti-LGBTQ beliefs ― he opposes same-sex marriage and other forms of equality ― have aroused fears that indigenous and LGBTQ Guatemalans could face a greater erosion of their rights under his government.
Even more worrying to many Guatemala observers is what Giammattei will mean for the sweeping efforts to root out corruption and impunity. Certain members of the Guatemalan political elite are tied to drug traffickers and organized crime units that preceded or grew out of the brutal civil war that plagued the country for nearly four decades until 1996.
One-fifth of Guatemalan Congress members were facing corruption investigations as of January, and Guatemala’s political parties reportedly receive as much as half of their funding from organized crime groups.
Much like Morales, Giammattei is closely tied to the Guatemalan military and factions linked to corruption and the country’s old guard. Experts say he is likely to continue Morales’ efforts to dismantle anti-corruption organizations that have worked to clean up Guatemalan politics by targeting institutional elites, military factions and politicians who have supported them.
Morales, a former television comedian who cast himself as a political outsider, won the presidency four years ago on an anti-establishment, anti-corruption platform (his slogan: “Neither corrupt nor a thief”) and pledged to support the United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG. The commission has investigated and prosecuted political corruption and politicians’ links to organized crime in the Central American country since its formation in 2006.
But Morales turned on the commission when it began to investigate members of his own family and potentially illicit campaign contributions to him and his party.
“There’s so much discontent among the population because they don’t see a real commitment from either party to continue the anti-impunity efforts.”
Morales attempted to shut down CICIG earlier this year and had already refused to renew its mandate, which expires at the beginning of September. Top former anti-corruption officials have been banned from the country, and Morales’ incessant targeting of CICIG and Guatemala’s judicial system has inspired fears that once-ambitious anti-corruption efforts may collapse entirely, Montenegro said.
“It’s a huge problem in the justice [system], and we don’t think that the attorney general has the political will to continue all these fights against corruption,” he said. “The prosecutors are very afraid, and also the judges are getting a lot of threats.”
Nearly 70% of Guatemalans support CICIG, according to polls, but neither Torres nor Giammattei offered much hope to a corruption-weary public: Both have faced their own allegations from CICIG investigations, and though neither has been convicted on corruption charges, they similarly refused to support the commission or offer broader anti-corruption platforms during the campaign.
“Going into this election, the key issue was, was the country going to be able to continue down the path that it had started on, in pushing for key reforms and really pushing the anti-corruption agenda forward?” Beltrán said. “Now there’s so much discontent among the population because they don’t see a real commitment from either party to continue the anti-impunity efforts.”
Guatemalans also face rising levels of crime and economic inequality, driving nearly 200,000 people to flee the country for the United States since last October, according to U.S. government figures.
Few voters seemed to see either Giammattei or Torres as a credible solution to the country’s problems, and as a result, they largely rejected both candidates. Nearly 60% of eligible Guatemalans didn’t vote in Sunday’s election, according to official statistics.
“The perception for both candidates is that they are bad candidates since they still represent the old political class,” Mack said. “The mood of Guatemalans is very low.”
That Guatemalan voters’ choices were so poor was partly abetted by the Trump administration and a cadre of Washington Republicans, including Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who have emerged as key influencers over the president’s foreign policy in Latin America.
The United States has been CICIG’s largest financial supporter since the body’s formation in 2006, committing millions of dollars to Guatemala’s anti-corruption cause. Both Democrats and Republicans in Washington have traditionally supported CICIG, seeing the fight against corruption as a key to stemming the flow of undocumented immigrants and curbing illegal drug trafficking and organized crime in Central America.
The Trump administration, however, has largely abandoned the cause and cozied up to Morales even as he has demonstrated little respect for Guatemala’s democratic institutions and worked to undermine fights against corruption and organized crime in the country.
That’s in part because Morales has bent to the administration’s will on key issues: Guatemala was one of the only countries to follow the United States in relocating its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem ― a move that earned praise from U.S. officials. And amid threats of economic pressure from Trump, Morales recently defied Guatemala’s constitutional courts in reaching a Safe Third Party agreement with Washington that would force many Central American migrants to apply for asylum inside Guatemala, instead of at the U.S. border.
But Republicans like Rubio have also turned against CICIG amid a broad lobbying effort from Morales and his allies, who hired two Washington-based lobbyists last year after corruption investigations implicated members of the Morales family.
Rubio and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), backed by hedge fund manager and anti-Russia activist Bill Browder, who saw the anti-corruption body as a Russian opposition effort, eventually called on the Trump administration to attach conditions to CICIG funding, The New Yorker detailed in May.
And while it’s unclear what actions Trump took regarding CICIG, the U.S. sent a “green light” to Morales and Guatemalan officials that they wouldn’t face U.S. pushback for continued crackdowns on the judiciary, Beltrán said.
The United States remained silent this spring when Thelma Aldana, a leading presidential candidate and former attorney general who had spearheaded important corruption investigations, was barred from the race amid allegations of corruption, which many of her allies and independent observers viewed as retaliation for her pursuit of charges against Morales and other politicians.
“The country will remain under the control of the mafias that succeeded in ousting CICIG, thanks only to the support of Trump,” Manfredo Marroquín, an activist who ran for president in the first round of elections in June, told The New York Times after Giammattei and Torres advanced to Sunday’s run-off stage.
The Trump administration also threatened foreign aid to Guatemala (along with aid to El Salvador and Honduras) in 2019, which experts have warned could derail ongoing efforts to combat violence and poverty in the region. And Trump’s continued push for an unpopular and possibly unconstitutional immigration agreement in a country that likely can’t handle it may only exacerbate Guatemala’s woes.
“I think the United States, by backing off of support for CICIG and by sort of imposing this third country agreement, has made the situation worse,” said Michael Shifter, the president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank that focuses on Latin America.
“I think the United States, by backing off of support for CICIG and by sort of imposing this third country agreement, has made the situation worse.”
Giammattei said Sunday that he opposed the Morales government’s immigration agreement with the United States and would work to alter it in terms more favorable to Guatemala. But economic elites in Guatemala’s urban areas have supported the agreement amid Trump’s threats of tariffs and other economic pressures.
And Giammattei doesn’t take office until January, giving Morales months to further target and undermine Guatemala’s democratic institutions. The president-elect’s refusal to back CICIG and his other similarities to Morales, meanwhile, have inspired fears that Giammattei will only offer Guatemalans more of the same.
“The fear is, over the next six months, what the Morales administration is able to do in terms of rolling back even more measures of progress that have been seen,” said Beltrán, of the Washington Office of Latin America. “You’ve seen attacks against anybody that had played a role in the anti-corruption agenda, from civil society leaders to judges and prosecutors.”
“If Giammattei continues pretty much along the same lines,” she said, “you’ll see an ongoing reversal of democratic gains.”