Guatemala has its own magical realism when it comes to law and justice. In the past two months the fight against impunity in the Guatemalan courts took three notable hits. This put into question the rule of law in a country a Prensa Libre editorial recently called: “the paradise of impunity and the hell of law enforcement, subject to unforeseen and inexplicable changes.”
On May 11, Alejandro Giammattei, accused of executing five convicts when security forces stormed El Pavón prison outside Guatemala City in 2006, was acquitted due to a lack of evidence. This was the first major case launched in August 2010 by the UN-appointed agency International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). Giammattei was accused by CICIG, led at the time by its then newly appointed head Francisco Dall'Anese Ruiz, of forming part of a criminal organization based in the interior ministry and the civil police. This unit was called on as being responsible for the executions of people detained in prisons. Alleged crimes included murder, drug trafficking, money laundering, kidnapping, extortion, and the theft of drugs.
Two days before Giammattei’s acquittal, the Eleventh Court of Criminal Sentencing in Guatemala acquitted former President Alfonso Portillo Cabrera of embezzlement. Portillo was accused of diverting Q120 million ($16.1 million) from the Ministry of Defense. Manuel Maza Castellanos and Eduardo Arevalo Lacs, former ministers of finance and defense, were also acquitted in a case that involved money laundering through accounts in Guatemala as well as U.S. and European banks.
The acquittal came because two of the three members of the Guatemalan court felt that the Attorney General and CICIG had no hard evidence to prove the charges and questioned the quality of the witnesses. Upon hearing the sentence, Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz warned she would promptly be submitting an appeal with the belief that there was sufficient testimonial evidence to issue a guilty verdict. The attorney general said she would use all state resources to challenge the ruling.
Sandra Torres, the recent ex-wife of Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom, filed papers yesterday with the Registro de Ciudadanos at the Tribunal Supremo Electoral in Guatemala City to become a presidential candidate in the upcoming election. Accompanied by Roberto Díaz-Durán, her aspiring vice-presidential candidate and the former president of port operator Nacional Santo Tomás de Castilla, the filing put an end to weeks of speculation that the former first lady would run for office after filing for divorce from the president this past March. If approved, Torres and Díaz-Durán will be the candidates for the Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza (UNE) and Gran Alianza Nacional (Gana) political parties, which have formed an alliance to back the two candidates in the September 11 election.
Torres filed for divorce from President Colom to sidestep a law in the country’s constitution prohibiting the president’s relatives from running for the nation’s highest office. Colom is also ineligible to run for re-election. Despite legal approval of the divorce in April, some have called the divorce fraudulent and a blatant violation of the constitution. On Friday, a legal organization, Alternativa Renovadora de Abogados y Notarios, filed a motion with the civil tribunal court asking for a reevaluation of the approval of the divorce in light of the allegations. The motion also asks the court to decide if the candidacy filing should be considered fraudulent and the approval annulled.
In the meantime, the Tribunal Supremo Electoral will now review Torres’ candidacy papers to ensure they meet all the necessary requirements before officially registering Torres and Díaz-Durán as candidates. It is uncertain how last week’s legal filing may affect the proceedings.
Should Torres be approved by the Tribunal, her main opponent would be former army general Otto Pérez Molina, of the right-wing Partido Patriota. Polls published this Monday by newspaper Siglo 21 show that Molina holds a 16+ point lead over Torres among likely voters in September's election.
Authors: Daniel Altschuler and Javier Corrales
Sometimes in an election, voters have to choose the lesser evil. Democracy is imperfect, and so are candidates. But the two apparent front-runners for Guatemala’s upcoming presidential election in September are worse than imperfect candidates; they reflect deeply troubling trends in Latin American politics—the Iron Fist and conjugal continuismo.
The front-runner, Otto Pérez Molina, signals a frightened population’s willingness to cede power back to a military that devastated the country. Pérez’s rise seems predicated on the promise of resuscitating coercive means of the past in response to crime in the present.
The second candidate, First Lady Sandra Torres de Colom, represents the trend of sitting presidents seeking to extend their reign. Since the 1990s, many Latin American presidents have tried to relax or abolish term limits. They try various strategies. The current Guatemalan president’s chosen method for circumventing term limits is conjugal continuismo--nominate his wife as his chosen candidate.
Both candidacies are troublesome for democracy. Mr. Pérez, a retired army general, played a central role in Guatemala’s armed conflict, in which state forces killed as many as 200,000 people. Pérez once led the notorious military intelligence unit and has been implicated, though never charged, in conspiring in the murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi. In his last presidential campaign, he used his strong man image to launch a platform of mano dura, a clenched fist, to combat crime. In Latin America, at the moment, not just in Guatemala, there is demand for more heavy-handed responses to crime, undoubtedly one of the region's most serious urban problem. But when this demand occurs in a country the military remains fairly unaccountable, the result could be a serious deterioration of civilan control of the military.