Guatemala: Electoral Officials Clear Path for Conservative Candidate, Daughter of Ex-Dictator

Mar 28, 2023
3:40 PM

Zury Ríos, presidential candidate for the coalition of Valor and Unionista parties, attends her first campaign meeting in Guatemala City, Monday, March 27, 2023. Guatemalans go to the polls on June 25. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)


GUATEMALA CITY — After candidate registration for Guatemala‘s June elections closed this weekend, electoral authorities, toeing the line for far-right political operatives, have spuriously excluded two presidential tickets and are aiming for a third, clearing the way for conservative Zury Ríos.

Trolls in High Places

It’s a play in three acts: Far-right Twitter trolls bombard a public figure who has denounced corruption. A ringleader of the accounts, online or in person, promises to release the “Kraken” or send them to “jail or exile,” sometimes leaking information on legal filings. Guatemalan authorities then move on the individual.

This sequence, at first glance absurd, has helped push dozens of prosecutors, judges, opposition members, and journalists to flee the country since 2021. It is also stacking the deck for the June 25 elections —when Guatemalans will pick the president, Congress, mayors, and more— by excluding prominent candidates, as already happened in 2019.

On Saturday, when registration closed, Indigenous leader Thelma Cabrera and Jordán Rodas, the presidential ticket for the People’s Liberation Movement (MLP), were excluded.

Supporters of the People’s Liberation Movement at a June 2019 campaign event for Indigenous candidate Thelma Cabrera in Guatemala City’s Constitutional Plaza. (Johan Ordóñez/AFP)

In January, former human rights ombudsman Rodas’ probity certificate was revoked after his successor accused him of wrongdoing in the role. But he was never notified of any legal action, a precursor for revocation. “The ombudsman is incapable of indicating what I did (wrong),” Rodas told El Faro English.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights called on the authorities to hear the appeal. The Guatemalan Supreme Court agreed but scheduled it for March 27—two days after the candidate registration window closed.

Registration “isn’t a supplication, it’s a right,” MLP Secretary General Cirilo Pérez argued before the Supreme Court on Monday in a last-minute appeal. The party added that Rodas’ valid probity certificate was still available on the government online portal, per Prensa Comunitaria.

The exclusion led to nationwide protests in mid-March. Cabrera, a Mam Mayan representative of the Campesino Development Committee and the most prominent Indigenous politician in Guatemala, came in fourth in 2019. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal issued a warning to Cabrera for pre-campaigning last year while turning a blind eye to others like Valor, the party of leading contender Zury Ríos, or Vamos, that of the president.

‘Executive Branch Veto’

Roberto Arzú, a wayward son of the Arzú political dynasty competing for the capital city vote, has also been barred from running. The Unionist Party, founded by his late father and led by his brother, has allied with Zury Ríos’ party.

Arzú’s bid was annulled for courting the public during the pre-campaign.

“We’re seeing a clear veto from the executive branch and certain political groups,” constitutional lawyer Alejandro Balsells told El Faro English. “Judges, especially the TSE, simply obey.”

The rulings “generate uncertainty and tensions,” the OAS Secretariat for Strengthening Democracy wrote last week. “Hundreds of people have been excluded from the elections, some of them very high-profile.”

Presidential candidate Roberto Arzú at a Guatemala City polling station on election day in 2019. (Orlando Estrada/AFP)

“The (U.N.) secretary-general has no comments on the specifics of domestic electoral processes,” spokesperson Farhan Haq told El Faro English. “He does, however, stress that fostering inclusive elections contributes to the democratic process, underpinning the right to vote and to be elected.”

In other cases, the TSE has overlooked clear hurdles to candidates’ probity. One congressman was allowed to run for reelection despite pending impeachment proceedings. Two mayors, who the Prosecutor’s Office for Narco-Activity had requested have their immunity revoked in 2021, were also allowed to enroll.

Two-time presidential candidate and congressional power broker Manuel Baldizón, who spent almost two years in a Georgia prison on a money laundering conviction, was deported to Guatemala last year. Despite still facing additional charges, he was allowed to register as a congressional candidate on March 13 with a party just founded by his sons.

A day later, under public pressure, the TSE backpedaled, revoking his registration.

Open Support for Zury

A third presidential candidate could be in jeopardy: Edmond Mulet, a former U.N. diplomat who CID Gallup polling ranked fourth in February.

On March 20, Mulet filed an injunction to halt a court order to investigate journalists and columnists who have written about the prosecution of jailed publisher José Rubén Zamora. The court had stated that their coverage of the case tried to “coerce the court.”

“The recent rulings of Judge Jimi Rodolfo Bremer Ramírez looking to investigate journalists for their publications sets a terrible precedent for our nation,” Mulet tweeted. “The law is very clear: Freedom of thought will not be restrained nor persecuted.”

He immediately received threats that he would end up “in prison or exiled” from online accounts associated with the Foundation Against Terrorism (FCT), a far-right player in the corrupt crackdown against justice system operators. Prosecutors then requested that Mulet’s immunity as a candidate be revoked for “possible obstruction of justice.”

Prosecutors also asserted that Mulet’s injunction constituted illegal pre-campaigning.

Presidential candidate Edmond Mulet presents an injunction on a Guatemalan court’s order to investigate nine journalists and columnists covering the Zamora prosecution. (Twitter)

The contrast is evident with former First Lady Sandra Torres, a legislative ally of President Alejandro Giammattei‘s, who was let off the hook last year on charges of illicit campaign finance.

But leading the polls is former congresswoman Zury Ríos, who has also received the favor of electoral arbiters. Her military-backed party has brokered an alliance with economic elites and authorities have allowed her, the daughter and protégé of military dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, to enroll despite a constitutional ban on the office for the offspring of coup presidents. (Ríos Montt came to power in a coup in 1982.)

The prohibition dashed her bids in 2015 and 2019, but without any constitutional reform it is not being applied this time. And there has been no official explanation as to why not.

The FCT, ardent defenders of human rights abusers in the military, openly supports Ríos’ candidacy. “Yes, and what’s the problem?” tweeted FCT lawyer Raúl Falla earlier this month.

Ríos is also drawing advice from next door. Porfirio Chica, a Salvadoran political strategist for Nayib Bukele, has joined her campaign, according to No-Ficción, helping explain their rhetorical closeness. As we highlighted in our October 4 edition, Ríos has called Bukele’s state of exception —which turned a year old yesterday and has been extended 11 times— “a model of reference.”

Expectedly, Bukele called the state of exception year-mark a vindication of “sovereignty and independence.” Over 64,000 people have been imprisoned, subject to mass trials. Last April we asked: “Will the state of exception be the new normal?” The answer is clear.

In Honduras, the Castro administration has prolonged through April 20 its own state of exception, enacted in December and modeled on that of Bukele.

Extended states of exception are not exceptional in El Salvador, notes historian Héctor Lindo. Dictator Maximiliano Hernández Martínez (1931-1944) invoked similar measures in 1931 when he crushed an Indigenous and campesino uprising, massacring 30,000 people. He “governed a good part of his dictatorship with limited constitutional guarantees,” explains Lindo.