Guatemala’s Antigraft Crusader Won in a Landslide. Will He Actually Take Office?

When the anticorruption crusader Bernardo Arévalo won a landslide victory in Guatemala’s presidential race, voters streamed into the capital of Central America’s most populous country to celebrate. But as Mr. Arévalo’s foes intensify efforts to bar the president-elect from taking office just weeks from now, the mood on the streets has changed.

Indigenous protesters camped in front of the attorney general’s office are demanding her resignation, accusing her of targeting Mr. Arévalo with investigations cooked up after his surprisingly strong showing. Graffiti excoriating prosecutors, who have broken up a major anticorruption drive, blankets government buildings. Riot police officers stand on alert as the tensions simmer.

In a region already on edge over the embrace of authoritarian tactics restricting democratic freedoms, not just in Guatemala but also in neighboring Nicaragua and El Salvador, analysts say the scorched-earth attack against a democratically elected leader in a bid to prevent an orderly transition of power reveals a country on the brink of political crisis.

In an interview, Mr. Arévalo, an Israeli-educated sociologist who is the most progressive candidate to make it this far since democracy in Guatemala was restored in 1985 after decades of military rule, insisted that he still saw a path to taking office. But he conceded that huge obstacles stand in his way.

Indigenous protesters camping in front of the attorney general’s office to demand her resignation for targeting Mr. Arévalo with investigations.Credit…Daniele Volpe for The New York Times

“In the 20th century, coups involved tanks, bayonets, soldiers, and lasted two or three days,” Mr. Arévalo said. “The coups of the 21st century are carried out with members of Congress, with lawyers, in the courts. It’s more sophisticated, takes much more time, it’s done with the pretense of institutional continuity.”

“But the truth is that the institutions are hollow shells where legality has been cast aside,” he said.

The warning signs for Guatemala’s fragile democracy started flashing as soon as Mr. Arévalo, who is the son of Juan José Arévalo, a former president still exalted for creating Guatemala’s social security system and protecting free speech, squeaked into a runoff over the summer.

A prosecutor quickly moved to suspend Mr. Arévalo’s insurgent party, Movimiento Semilla (the Seed Movement), and when he resoundingly won the election in August, the judicial authorities and members of Congress expanded their campaign against the president-elect and his allies.

These efforts reached a fever pitch in recent days as prosecutors and Congress took steps to strip Mr. Arévalo of his immunity from prosecution and effectively nullify the election results. Together with other efforts to lift Mr. Arévalo’s immunity and lock up some of his allies, these moves could open the way for judicial officials to seek his arrest and disrupt the scheduled transfer of power in mid-January.

Leonor Morales, a prosecutor who spearheaded the latest efforts against Mr. Arévalo, accused Semilla of using fraudulent signatures to register as a political party. “Semilla was never born through legal means as its constitution was through corrupt and illegal actions,” Ms. Morales told reporters last week.

In seeking to invalidate Mr. Arévalo’s party, and potentially by extension the election outcome, an alliance of conservative prosecutors and members of Congress, working without pushback from the departing president, Alejandro Giammattei, is pressing ahead with a multiyear drive to consolidate and protect their power, legal experts said.

Members of the Guatemalan Congress have taken steps to strip Mr. Arévalo of his immunity from prosecution.Credit…Daniele Volpe for The New York Times

Alejandro Balsells, a constitutional law authority, said the officials ramping up the legal attacks on the president-elect were in “burn-the-ships mode,” comparing their tactics to those of the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés, who scuttled his ships to prevent his men from turning back on what became the conquest of the Aztec Empire.

In this case, Mr. Balsells said, prosecutors and legislators were engaged in a scheme to overturn the election results and were using nearly every tool at their disposal to get the courts and Congress to move against Mr. Arévalo.

For some of Mr. Arévalo’s supporters, such positioning is tantamount to stealing the election. “It will be a miracle if Arévalo takes office,” said Claudia González, a prominent human rights lawyer who was imprisoned this year for 82 days.

Ms. González had worked for a United Nations-backed anticorruption mission that was shut down, transforming Guatemala from a staging ground for rooting out graft to a country where dozens of judges and prosecutors battling corruption have been forced into exile.

This shift has proved vexing for the Biden administration, which has repeatedly expressed support for Mr. Arévalo and has been trying to bolster anticorruption efforts in Guatemala. The U.S. Treasury Department this month imposed sanctions on Miguel Martínez, a close ally of Mr. Giammattei, over widespread bribery schemes.

But the drive by Guatemalan officials to keep Mr. Arévalo out of office makes clear the current limits of American influence in Guatemala, where the United States once held considerable sway.

Claudia González, a human rights lawyer, spent 82 days in jail.Credit…Daniele Volpe for The New York Times

Mr. Arévalo’s supporters, pushing back, are in a tense standoff with the authorities in parts of Guatemala’s capital. After taking to the streets in October for nationwide antigovernment demonstrations, Indigenous protesters remain camped in front of the attorney general’s headquarters to show support for the president-elect.

“Our fight today is for the little bit of democracy we have left,” said Rigoberto Juárez, 66, an Indigenous leader from Huehuetenango, in Guatemala’s western highlands. “We deposited our confidence in Arévalo,” he said. “Nullifying our votes amounts to an attack on Indigenous peoples.”

Fears are building over the lengths that Mr. Arévalo’s adversaries might go to in order to prevent him from taking office.

The latest magistrates to flee the country were members of the authority overseeing the country’s elections, which had certified the voting results and blocked the suspension of Mr. Arévalo’s party. They boarded flights out of Guatemala the same day Congress stripped them of their immunity from prosecution.

Congress also moved to kneecap Mr. Arévalo by approving a budget this month that would severely limit his ability to spend resources on two of his top priorities — education and health care — should he succeed in taking office.

Riot police officers have been on alert as tensions in Guatemala City simmer.Credit…Daniele Volpe for The New York Times

Mr. Arévalo said that members of the ruling alliance had told him that bribes were paid to secure the votes of legislators in favor of a “package deal” that included the budget and removing the election magistrates’ immunity.

“We have been told of sums that have been progressively increasing,” Mr. Arévalo said. “They started by offering 150,000 quetzals for the budget approval. Later, they told us they raised the amount to 200,000, then to 250,000, and later added more.” (250,000 quetzals is about $32,000); these claims could not be independently verified.

Simultaneously, a powerful prosecutor, Rafael Curruchiche, has mounted one of the cases aimed at stripping Mr. Arévalo of his immunity. Mr. Curruchiche, who has himself been placed on a list of Central American officials accused of corruption by the United States, contends that Mr. Arévalo’s party obtained fraudulent signatures and financing.

Prosecutors are also trying to strip Mr. Arévalo of his immunity from prosecution in connection with protests at Guatemala’s University of San Carlos. While details in that case remain vague, prosecutors argue that social media posts by Mr. Arévalo in support of the student protests amount to involvement in what the attorney general’s office calls an illegal occupation.

Rafael Curruchiche, a prosecutor, has moved against Mr. Arévalo.Credit…Daniele Volpe for The New York Times

It remains to be seen how the efforts to remove Mr. Arévalo’s immunity will proceed; the country’s Supreme Court could still weigh in, though that institution is controlled by the president-elect’s adversaries. If Mr. Arévalo’s immunity is lifted and he is arrested, Congress could potentially name a caretaker president until new elections are called.

For his part, the president-elect, who says that prosecutors “fabricated” the case against him, insists that time is running out for such maneuvers. Citing Guatemalan law, Mr. Arévalo said that immunity can by lifted only during regular sessions of Congress, which ended in November. “It’s no longer possible,” he said.

Others are not so sure that Mr. Arévalo’s foes will ease up their attacks. Will Freeman, a fellow in Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the Guatemalan authorities had weaponized the law time and again to crack down on anticorruption initiatives.

“If it was just to tie Arévalo’s hands, they’ve already done that,” Mr. Freeman said. “We’re seeing a drive to stop Arévalo from taking office.”

For those in the caught in the cross hairs as Guatemala’s prosecutors move against Mr. Arévalo and his allies, that means the wait until the president-elect’s scheduled inauguration is infused with anxiety.

“There’s this fear that remains, a sort of trauma, that stays with you,” said Marcela Blanco, 23, a member of Mr. Arévalo’s party who was arrested in November and held for 11 days. “You feel unsafe in your own home — like at any moment, they can come again and wake you in the middle of your dreams, and completely change your life.”

Marcela Blanco after her release from detention last month.Credit…Daniele Volpe for The New York Times
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