Sofía Hernández has served three terms in Guatemalan Congress and will look for a fourth when Guatemalans head to the polls on June 25. So far, it has been a bumpy ride.
Hernández has survived the death of the three political parties that carried her into power. The three party leaders — one a former president — were separately convicted of customs fraud, money laundering, and drug trafficking. She has also faced accusations of corruption at home and abroad.
Now, in the last leg of her re-election campaign, she is reminding voters of the merits that have seen her become one of the most influential politicians in Huehuetenango, a border province where politics has long co-existed with the narcotics underworld.
“I am a woman who has forged herself. I graduated as a teacher. I went to university. I am a psychologist. I have a Master’s degree and a Ph.D.,” Hernández said at a political rally in her hometown of Santa Ana Huista, in western Guatemala, just weeks before the vote.
But that is just part of Hernández’s story. Her rise in politics has brought scrutiny, mainly of her family’s alleged ties to the drug trade. She is just one of a host of election candidates with questionable ties to organized crime in a country where traffickers have long understood the importance of forging political alliances.
*This story is a prelude to an in-depth investigation into the politics, corruption, and organized crime surrounding the 2023 Guatemalan elections. InSight Crime will publish a series of articles in the days before Guatemalans head to the polls on June 25.
UCN: A ‘Narco Party’ Migrates
Hernández hails from Santa Ana Huista, a small town in Guatemala’s western Huehuetenango province, nestled in the mountains straddling the border with Mexico.
Before entering politics, she worked as a psychologist treating victims of crime at the Huehuetenango branch of the country’s Attorney General’s Office.
Her initial foray into politics came in 2011 when she was elected as a congressional representative for Huehuetenango with the Patriot Party (Partido Patriota – PP).
She left the PP in 2014, one year before a landmark customs fraud investigation took down the party’s leader and then-president, Otto Pérez Molina; Pérez Molina’s vice president was later accused by the US of drug trafficking.
She secured re-election in 2015 with the political party Líder, led by presidential candidate Manuel Baldizón. Baldizón came third in the elections but was later extradited to the US, where he served 28 months in prison after admitting to laundering money stemming from the drug trade. Electoral authorities annulled the Líder party in 2016, forcing Hernández to join an independent bloc of legislators.
For the 2019 elections, she joined the Union of National Change (Union del Cambio Nacional – UCN), a political faction once branded a ‘narco party’ by the US Embassy in Guatemala.
The upheaval continued. The UCN leader and presidential candidate, Mario Estrada, was arrested in Miami just two months before the elections, accused by US authorities of soliciting campaign funds from Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel. He later pled guilty to the charges and was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
The scandal highlighted the depth of the UCN’s ties to the drug trade. It also raised broader questions about the extent to which drug money had infiltrated the elections. But Estrada’s case did not stop Hernández and 11 other UCN officials from winning a seat in Congress.
And once in power, the UCN bloc quickly struck an alliance with Vamos, the political party of Guatemala’s newly-elected president, Alejandro Giammattei.
The alliance marked the beginning of the UCN’s golden era. The party became the third-biggest voting bloc in the legislature. Hernández became vice president of Congress. But it was also the party’s swansong. In 2021, electoral authorities ruled to annul the UCN for financial misconduct, once again leaving Hernández without a party.
Hernández’s rise in Congress also brought unwanted attention. The US State Department sanctioned her in 2022 for “misusing her official powers to intimidate her political opponents,” soliciting bribes, and threatening to weaponize Congress “to retaliate against her enemies for personal benefit.
“ Two years earlier, Guatemalan prosecutors documented a meeting between Hernández and a prominent political operator accused of meddling in the country’s high court appointments during an investigation into alleged influence trafficking.
Her family was also a problem. Hernández’s brother, Henry Hernández Herrera, was arrested for his links to a prominent drug ring known as the Huistas, based in Hernández’s hometown of Santa Ana Huista. He later pled guilty to collaborating with the drug ring and, after being released from prison, was shot dead while playing soccer in Huehuetenango.
Prosecutors also connected Henry Hernández and another brother to a network of companies owned by members of the Huistas in the same province.
In 2021, Hernández’s nephew was extradited to the United States on drug trafficking charges.
She and her UCN colleagues, tarnished by links to the drug trade, needed a new home. They found it in Vamos, the party of President Giammattei, whose reputation lay in tatters following a series of high-profile corruption scandals.
It seemed a good fit. The UCN representatives were already used to voting with Vamos in Congress. Giammattei’s party, deeply unpopular and faced with slim prospects of retaining the presidency, saw an opportunity to retain influence in Congress by recruiting a set of influential UCN regional operators.
The geographical distribution of the seven UCN congressional candidates now running with Vamos spans multiple regions pivotal to the drug trade, including Hernández’s home province of Huehuetenango.
The others include Napoleon Rojas, head of the UCN voting coalition, now running for Congress with Vamos in the Santa Rosa province on the Pacific coast.
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Congressional representatives Jaime Octavio Augusto Lucero (Jalapa), Mynor Estuardo Castillo y Castillo (Jutiapa), Sandra Carolina Orellana Cruz (Zacapa), and José Arnulfo García Barrios (Suchitepéquez) have also joined the UCN-Vamos migration in the hope of retaining a seat in Congress.
Hernández’s son, Erick Geovanni Martínez Hernández, has also migrated from the UCN to Vamos in his bid for Congress re-election (Huehuetenango). Her daughter, Karla Martínez, has also jumped between the two parties but has traded Congress for a shot at a seat on the Central American Parliament (Parlamento Centroamericano – Parlacen).
The UCN migration did not end with Vamos. All of the party’s remaining congressional representatives found their way to a new party for the elections. Other members and affiliates, some with links to the Huistas, have also looked for an alternative route into power, most conspicuously with the political party Citizen Prosperity (Prosperidad Ciudadana – PC).
A minor force in politics, Citizen Prosperity took the 2023 elections by storm when the party’s presidential candidate, Carlos Pineda, emerged as a surprise favorite mid-campaign. But the party’s hopes evaporated when electoral authorities excluded Pineda and the entire party from the elections on an administrative technicality.
This has created a headache for a set of UCN affiliates and alleged Huistas’ allies that had hoped to cruise into power on the Pineda bandwagon. This includes the family of Freddy Salazar Flores, a UCN Parlacen member who, in 2022, was sanctioned by the United States for “transporting and storing cocaine on behalf of the Huistas.” The sanctions followed an indictment against Salazar lodged by the Justice Department in 2016.
Electoral authorities blocked Salazar’s bid for re-election with Citizen Prosperity, but his mother and wife stepped in to replace him. His wife, Danury Lizeth Samayoa Montejo, is the daughter of alleged Huistas leader Aler Samayoa. Samayoa is wanted by US authorities on drug trafficking charges. Salazar’s sister, Elisa Judith Mejía Salazar de Rozotto, was reportedly married to another Huistas leader as of 2018 and had registered as a PC congressional candidate prior to the party’s exclusion.
The PC’s elimination could dent the extensive influence network built by the Huistas in Guatemalan politics. Like many DTOs, the group has increasingly looked to Congress to position allies who can provide political protection and, according to the allegations against Freddy Salazar, hands-on assistance with storing and transporting cocaine.
The group’s political connections may help explain why it has outlasted some of the country’s most prominent drug rings, many of which buckled under intense pressure from authorities in the 2010s.
But the elections are partly about hedging bets across Guatemala’s fragmented party system — 22 parties have put forward presidential candidates — and there is no shortage of alternative options.
Political party Podemos now houses UCN congresswoman Vivian Preciado Navarijo, whose family is linked to a drug ring on the country’s Pacific coast.
Another UCN congress representative, Julio César López Escobar, is now running with the Cabal party, led by a presidential frontrunner, Edmond Mulet. López Escobar’s father was previously embroiled in a corruption scandal and is also running for Congress with Cabal. His uncle, Roberto López Villatoro, was the architect of a sophisticated criminal scheme aimed at stacking the country’s courts with allies to secure political protection.
“They say I’m a narco, and I am…”
Gunshots rang out in a town high up in Guatemala’s mountains as a group of townspeople held their mayor, Exadillas Ramos, aloft. Ramos and his supporters, from the municipality of Esquipulas Palo Gordo, in the western San Marcos province, were celebrating the launch of the mayor’s re-election campaign and his decision to join forces with Vamos.
Ramos is one of 169 mayoral candidates running with Vamos for the 2023 elections, part of a nationwide strategy aimed at scooping up votes and propelling the party’s lukewarm presidential candidate, Manuel Conde, to a second-round runoff.
The scope of Vamos’ campaign has taken the party to many municipalities that house smuggling routes, particularly in border provinces like San Marcos, where drug traffickers seek municipal power to facilitate and shield operations.
Guatemalan mayors enjoy political immunity and hold sway over local security forces. They also have privileged access to state contracts that can be used to launder money.
“They call me a narco, and I am one…” Ramos said at a public event after being elected mayor in 2019.
It was a view shared by Guatemalan prosecutors. The Attorney General’s Office raided the Equipulas Palo Gordo town hall in mid-2021 and identified Ramos as a suspected member of a local drug ring moving cocaine between Guatemala and Mexico.
Prosecutors raided the town treasury and singled out Ramos’ wife as the group’s main money launderer. Authorities also arrested two of the mayor’s sons.
Mayor Exadillas’ political immunity shielded him from a formal indictment. His alleged connections to the narcotics underworld did not appear to concern electoral authorities, who greenlit his re-election bid.
Exadillas is joined on the ballot by his brother, Roderico Ramos Aguilar, who was also arrested in the raids. Prosecutors accused Ramos of money laundering and illicit association, but the case against him was later dropped. He also faced no resistance from electoral authorities when signing on as a mayoral candidate for nearby the town of El Rodeo. The town’s current mayor is wanted for US extradition on drug trafficking charges.
Other Vamos election candidates with links to the drug trade include Roberto Marroquín, the mayor of a Pacific Coast town engulfed by narco violence. InSight Crime chronicled the mayor’s connections to the drug trade in a 2021 investigation.
Guatemalan drug authorities have also arrested a candidate for municipal council, running with Vamos in the El Progreso province, wanted for extradition in the US on drug trafficking charges.
Vamos has also provided a new political platform for over a dozen UCN mayors, according to an investigation by Ojoconmipisto. Another 30 have joined Vamos from the political party the Union of National Hope (Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza – UNE), whose previous election campaigns were allegedly bankrolled by Mexican drug traffickers.