Guatemala’s Fight Against Corruption: A Moment of Hope

By Rob October 12, 2023 No Comments

I last visited Guatemala six months ago. It was a depressing experience. I encountered a country mired in despair and desperation. The outlook for human rights defenders appeared bleak. The electoral panorama seemed to offer little possibility for positive change. The “pact of the corrupt,” a nefarious coalition of economic elites, corrupt politicians, state security officials, narcos, and extreme right-wing militants, had undermined Guatemala’s democratic institutions to the point of creating a failed state.

No one I talked to spoke about “hope” or “the light at the end of the tunnel.” In fact, most everyone remarked on just how dark and unending the tunnel seemed to be.

Ya Basta!

But then something entirely unexpected occurred. Bernardo Arévalo, a progressive candidate from a small opposition party, won the presidential election. It was as unexpected as it was inspiring. Guatemalan voters had sent a clear message that it was time for a change: the corrupt status quo wouldn’t be tolerated any longer.

Once the far-right recovered from the shock, the pushback began. Leading the charge for the pact of the corrupt was Guatemala’s Attorney General, Maria Consuelo Porras. Her tenure as head of the Public Ministry has been marred by accusations of corruption, cronyism, threats, and legal attacks against independent journalists, investigators, lawyers, judges, and even former Attorneys General. 

Ms. Porras has turned the most powerful legal institution in Guatemala into a weapon against those who investigate, denounce, or bring to justice corrupt public officials or members of organized crime.

Her actions became so notorious that even the U.S. State Department publicly denounced her “involvement in significant corruption” and added her to official list of corrupt and undemocratic actors, thereby denying her the possibility of obtaining a US visa. (Sorry, Connie, no Disney for YOU!) 

The United States is deeply concerned by Guatemalan Attorney General Consuelo Porras’ continued, brazen attacks on Guatemala’s justice system through politically motivated arrests and detentions of current and former public servants fighting corruption. 

U.S. Department of State

Slow-Motion Coup

Ms. Porras, along with other disreputable actors within the Public Ministry such as Prosecutor Rafael Curruchiche, is determined to negate the remarkable outcome of this year’s presidential election.

A young woman in Guatemala City looks at posters denouncing politicians accused of corruption.

Her first attempt was to attack the legality of Mr. Arévalo’s political party, Semilla. When that failed, she spearheaded the ongoing effort to overturn the outcome of the election. Agents of the Attorney General’s office have repeatedly raided the office of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), the governmental agency tasked with carrying out the elections.  

The TSE after counting –and recounting– the votes, declared Bernardo Arévalo the clear and definitive winner of the election. 

In response, Ms. Porras, far exceeding the mandate of her office, decided to seize all of the physical ballots, removing them from their rightful guardianship at the TSE.

President-elect Arévalo denounced these actions as “a coup in slow motion.

A Completely (Ahem) Fictional Tale

Let’s take a break for a moment. Gather around, kids, and let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time there was a horse race. Unfortunately, the race was rigged. A big-time criminal, known as Comfort Cudgels, had made sure many of the top contenders were barred from running.

During the race, however, a remarkable thing happened: an underdog –expected to finish in last place– came from behind to win the day! It didn’t come down to a photo finish. It wasn’t even a close race.

Racing officials confirmed the victory. Those who had bet on the underdog were ecstatic. But Comfort Cudgels was furious.

In a panic she declared the results of the race to be fraudulent. Days later, she broke into the racetrack and stole all the videos of the race.

Now you might be wondering: since it was a public race, watched by millions of people nationally and internationally, and the outcome had already been certified by the experts, what could this mobster hope to achieve by making off with the race results?

Who knows? Sometimes characters in completely fictional stories act in ways that are inappropriate, improper and unjustified.

And now, back to our article…

The Indigenous Shall Lead Them

Frustrated by this blatant attempt to deny the validity of their votes, Guatemalans have decided that they have had enough. The first to rise up in protest were the rural indigenous communities. Demanding the resignation of the Attorney General and her corrupt cohorts, they formed blockades to cut off major transportation routes.

Mayan spiritual leaders perform a ceremony in front of the Public Ministry building in Guatemala City asking for guidance and strength during the anti-corruption protests.

Their powerful example of peaceful protest quickly spread throughout the country, eventually reaching Guatemala City where citizens, tired of the status quo, have shut the capital down.

Quieter than COVID

Guatemala is closed for business. To be more precise, Guatemala is closed for “business as usual.” As the protests here move into their second week, the general strike has shut down the entire country.

I mean, the country is closed. Supermarkets are closed. Cafes, clothing shops, department stores — all closed. Even the McDonalds are closed. Here, in Guatemala City, the busiest-loudest-most traffic-clogged streets and highways are stunningly silent. As I write these words the loudest sound I hear in this bustling sprawl of a city is the coo of a distant pigeon. 

An empty city street in Guatemala City as anti-corruption protests and blockades continue.

Even during the darkest days of the pandemic, I don’t remember Guatemala ever being this quiet.

Well, Except for the Horns

The silence is deceptive, though. As one approaches any roadblock or public demonstration, the sound of whistles, horns, drums, and shouts all bend together into a sweet symphony of dissent. 

Families with young children holding placards, teenagers draped in flags, horn-blowing seniors. Indigenous and ladino, urban and rural. The poor and the middle class. In many places the gatherings are spontaneous, uncoordinated, organic: the very definition of “popular protests.”

Youth wearing hats with the colors of the Guatemalan flag participate in the protests

While the demands are gravely serious, the indignation righteous, and the political context fraught with peril, the overall emotion of the protests is one of national pride… and somewhat unexpectedly, joy! There is singing and dancing, soccer playing and bike riding, piñatas and street performers. Mayan ceremonies are being performed to ask the ancestors for guidance, wisdom, and strength in this struggle. University students, nuns, street vendors, office workers, families and others are bringing food and drink to those keeping watch at the blockades.

But perhaps the most goosebump-inducing, heart-swelling moment comes when someone in the crowd begins to intone the national anthem and hundreds of voices proudly and passionately join in. 

Patriotism, Not Politics

The corrupt must resign!

We will not live in fear!

These aren’t partisan protests, promoting any one person or a political party. They are patriotic protests, in the most noble sense of the word. Motivated by a love of country and a deep desire for real change, Guatemalans are taking to the streets, the crossroads, the plazas, and the public parks.

They are demanding the resignation of Ms. Porras and other corrupt actors who threaten Guatemala’s democracy. They are raising their collective voice in defense of their rights, their sovereignty, and their nation.

You can almost see the light at the end of the tunnel.

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