Can Guatemala’s New President Reignite Fight Against Corruption and Crime?

By Alex Papadovassilakis |  Jan 27th, 2024
Guatemalan President Bernardo ArevaloGuatemalan President Bernardo Arevalo.
This article by Alex Papadovassilakis originally appeared on Insightcrime.org and is being published by ElSalvadorINFO.net under a Creative Commons 3.0 license.

Bernardo Arévalo was sworn in as president of Guatemala on January 15, but it was no ordinary inauguration.

Arévalo, a rank outsider who shocked the political establishment by winning the 2023 elections on a pledge to combat graft, had already survived months of spurious legal attacks that threatened to tank his presidency before it began.

Then, when inauguration day came, the ceremony was delayed by ten hours after old-guard lawmakers made last-ditch attempts to thwart him and his party, the Seed Movement (Movimiento Semilla).

After finally swearing in shortly after midnight, Arévalo used his first speech as president to hammer home his priority of tackling widespread corruption.

“We will not allow our institutions to be bent by corruption and impunity,” he said during the delayed ceremony in Guatemala City.

Months earlier, he and his party presented an ambitious anti-graft agenda seeking the creation of an “anti-corruption cabinet,” increased scrutiny on public spending, and measures to block officials convicted of corruption from ever retaking office.

But Arévalo faces a mammoth task in achieving reform. The president inherits a frail set of institutions that, during the previous administration, were deliberately gutted to stifle Guatemala’s decades-long battle with impunity.

The new government also has the undesirable task of addressing organized crime and insecurity in a country with a homicide rate well above regional averages, and where institutional decay has left authorities ill-equipped to confront powerful drug trafficking rings and criminal groups extorting locals daily.

Below, InSight Crime analyzes some of the main challenges awaiting the new government on corruption and organized crime.

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Facing Down the Attorney General’s Office

Arévalo is already at loggerheads with Guatemala’s Attorney General, Consuelo Porras. During the previous administration, Porras spearheaded a cynical crackdown against dozens of anti-impunity prosecutors who once led the fight against impunity.

She replaced them with loyal allies who transformed the Attorney General’s Office into a shield for corrupt actors and a tool for persecuting political rivals, including Arévalo and Semilla.

Porras’ office plunged Guatemala into a political crisis by calling for Arévalo’s immunity to be stripped when he was still president-elect, citing criminal accusations that appeared to be based on flimsy evidence. The maneuvers did not stop Arévalo from taking office, but the investigations are ongoing.

“There’s a high probability that Arévalo and Semilla could continue facing judicial persecution,” said Pamela Ruiz, Central America Analyst for the International Crisis Group.

Pushing forward the president’s anti-graft plans in the short term will depend, in part, on whether he and his party can survive these legal attacks, or find a way to remove Porras.

“Very limited progress can be made while Porras remains in her post,” said Ruiz.

Arévalo has repeatedly called for Porras’ resignation, but under Guatemalan law, an attorney general cannot be removed unless convicted of a crime during his or her tenure. Porras has faced no criminal charges despite being sanctioned for corruption by the US State Department.

Some analysts have suggested the new administration could seek to reform the law, which was designed to protect Porras’ predecessor when leading an anti-corruption drive. But a modification could inadvertently invest future administrations with the power to meddle in prosecutors’ affairs.

The longer-term success of Arévalo’s anti-graft agenda may rest on whether Porras’ replacement – her term ends in 2026 – can “rebalance the Attorney General’s Office,” according to Ruiz.

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That would require ousting certain prosecutors linked to corruption and “shifting prosecutors with specializations back to designated offices to ensure efficient investigation of crimes,” she told InSight Crime.

Disrupting Organized Crime

Corruption and institutional degradation may also complicate efforts to tackle organized crime in a country where violent drug rings have infiltrated politics and the security forces.

Guatemala’s border regions have long felt the brunt of bloody disputes between criminal groups vying for control of cocaine-smuggling routes. These networks have also branched out into coca cultivation to generate additional revenue.

The Arévalo administration is yet to announce a concrete anti-narcotics strategy, though Semilla has pledged to fight contraband with the help of customs authorities and anti-narcotics police.

“[Semilla’s anti-contraband plans] could cause some concern for organized crime and drug trafficking groups,” said Marielos Chang, cofounder of Guatemalan pro-democracy group Red Ciudadana.“But there are no specific plans to directly confront the areas controlled by drug trafficking groups.”

Persistent corruption within the security forces and depleted institutions – Porras recently fired the country’s top anti-drug prosecutor – may also complicate efforts to mitigate the drug trafficking threat.

Efforts to investigate drug traffickers also risk stepping on the toes of influential politicians. Particularly in Congress, drug rings seek to position allies to shield their operations.

Arévalo has instead placed extortion and reforming the country’s prisons at the forefront of his government’s security agenda. This may be an easier target, as extortion rackets are primarily operated by low-level criminals, many in jail, with minimal clout in politics.

Navigating Congress

Arévalo’s shock election victory saw Semilla catapulted into power from relative obscurity. The party is now navigating a Congress dominated by establishment parties – many linked to corruption – where Semilla holds just 23 out of 160 seats. Lawmakers opposing Arévalo have refused to recognize his party, meaning Semilla representatives cannot sit on the boards influencing the legislative agenda.

The party has no choice but to seek coalitions in Congress when trying to enact the more ambitious parts of its anti-graft plan. This includes the creation of two new anti-corruption bodies charged with increasing scrutiny of public spending and bribery. It is tricky territory, as companies linked to congressional officials are among the most common recipients of dubiously awarded state contracts or other government bounties.

Congress also determines the composition of the country’s high courts, a selection process heavily infiltrated by corruption networks seeking to position allies in top judicial posts. In recent years, the high courts have shielded hundreds of lawmakers from investigation and overturned dozens of landmark corruption convictions. Increasing the number of qualified magistrates in the court system could go some way to reversing this trend.

Semilla has already cobbled together a majority coalition in Congress, seen by many as a crucial step to avoiding government gridlock. But forging alliances with establishment parties could smear Semilla’s reputation as an alternative to corruption; the party’s newly formed legislative bloc includes politicians from a party previously investigated for illicit campaign financing, in addition to Congress officials linked to drug trafficking. Navigating Congress could also risk watering down anti-corruption initiatives.

Some of Semilla’s more eye-catching campaign promises have been left out of the government’s plan for its first 100 days in office.

“I’ve not seen any [proposed] anti-corruption law dramatic enough to generate backlash in Congress,” Chang told InSight Crime. “It would be radical if they created a system with enough bite to stop the executive and government jobs from being a source of corruption.”

So far, “there’s nothing to stop us from falling back into the levels of corruption we had in previous governments,” she said.

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This article by Alex Papadovassilakis originally appeared on Insightcrime.org and is being published by ElSalvadorINFO.net under a Creative Commons 3.0 license.