05/18/2024

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100 Days In, Guatemala President Locks Horns with Corruption and Crime

100 Days In, Guatemala President Locks Horns with Corruption and Crime

100 Days In, Guatemala President Locks Horns with Corruption and Crime

Bernardo Arévalo rode a wave of discontent over corruption to become Guatemala’s president. But 100 days into his government, the new president’s anti-graft drive is being outpaced by an energetic campaign against extortion and drug trafficking.

Arévalo, who took office in January, has said his government “will not tolerate corruption.” But his administration has yet to announce a comprehensive plan for dealing with graft. Some campaign promises – such as the creation of new anti-corruption bodies, an anti-bribery police, and legislation to bar corrupt officials from office – were conspicuously absent from the president’s 100-day plan. 

Instead, the new government has begun by focusing its energies on exposing corrupt schemes mounted during the administration of Arévalo’s predecessor, former president Alejandro Giammattei (2020-2024). The president has also taken aim at Guatemala’s controversial Attorney General, Consuelo Porras, whose office made repeated attempts to block an orderly transition of power.

Though still finding his feet on corruption, Arévalo has gone full-throttle on security. Authorities have launched an aggressive clampdown on extortion, while a series of bumper cocaine seizures have eclipsed the previous government’s anti-narcotics operations. 

Below, InSight Crime recaps Arévalo’s first months in government and his initial strategies for dealing with corruption and organized crime.  

Digging Up Past Corruption 

Arévalo faces an uphill battle when it comes to tackling corruption. The president inherited a weak judicial system. His party, the Seed Movement (Movimiento Semilla), has a minority bloc in congress and may struggle to pass anti-corruption reforms. 

With limited tools, Arévalo’s initial anti-corruption maneuvers have relied on executive powers. 

In February, his government launched the National Commission Against Corruption (Comisión Nacional contra la Corrupción – CNC), a rebranded version of a presidential commission created by Giammattei. By early March, the CNC had started working with ministries to expose potential acts of corruption – particularly in the public works, health, and education sectors – linked to Giammattei-era officials. 

SEE ALSO: Anti-Corruption Commission Confronts Guatemala’s ‘Continuum of Impunity’

Officials quickly began a review of over 1,400 potentially onerous public works contracts awarded during the Giammattei administration. Communications Minister Jazmín de la Vega then filed a series of legal complaints against former public works officials over construction projects that left highways and schools incomplete.

Arévalo officials also accused former health minister, Amelia Flores, of corruption. Flores became embroiled in a major scandal in 2021 after signing a shambolic contract to secure COVID-19 vaccines from Russia via a dubious intermediary. Flores resigned during the pandemic but escaped legal troubles over the vaccine contract.  

As of early April, the Arévalo government had filed 17 accusations of government corruption with the Attorney General’s Office. 

“The government has done well in presenting these accusations,” said Stephen McFarland, a retired US diplomat and former ambassador to Guatemala. “The facts are on their side.” 

But whether these accusations prosper remains to be seen. Arévalo does not have an ally in Attorney General Porras, whose office has a monopoly on state prosecution. Under Porras – a close ally of Giammattei – prosecutors have shelved major corruption cases implicating former officials. 

“The Attorney General’s Office is defending them tooth and nail,” said McFarland, referring to the former Giammattei officials. 

Sparring with Attorney General Porras 

Before taking office, Arévalo promised supporters he would demand Attorney General Porras’ resignation. The pledge came after weeks of nationwide protests against Porras, whose office looked set to derail the transition of power by launching spurious investigations into Arévalo and his party. 

Porras has also spearheaded a systematic campaign aimed at weakening the Attorney General’s Office from within. Most high-profile corruption investigations have stalled under her tenure.

Arévalo’s attempts to oust Porras have fallen short of formally demanding her resignation;  under Guatemalan law, a president cannot force the attorney general to resign. Instead, his government filed a legal complaint against her, citing a technicality, in the hope of lifting her political immunity.

The new administration has also gone after Porras’ general secretary and right-hand-man, Ángel Pineda, accusing him of using public funds to harass exiled prosecutors with politically motivated lawsuits. Pineda denies the allegations. 

Arévalo’s head-on strategy grabbed headlines, but its chances of success are slim: Porras has allies in the courts, who have so far stalled the vote on her immunity.

SEE ALSO: Democracy on the Line as Guatemalan Prosecutors Take Aim at President-Elect

Losing the showdown with Porras would both limit the scope of Arévalo’s anti-corruption ambitions and potentially exacerbate the existential threat to his government posed by Porras’ ranks of loyal prosecutors. 

“Porras and Arévalo are on a collision course,” said Jo-Marie Burt, an associate professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and President of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA).

“If he is unable to replace her, it is quite possible that he will be steamrolled by her,” she added. 

Getting Tougher on Crime

While Arévalo is still finding a rhythm on corruption, his government wasted no time on security.

Guatemalan authorities announced a major crackdown on extortion just days after Arévalo’s inauguration. Police have staged multiple raids on notorious prison gangs and arrested over 500 people suspected of extortion in the first months of government.

The anti-extortion campaign bears some similarities with a hardline anti-gang crackdown in neighboring El Salvador. Authorities in both countries have posted a stream of bombastic videos promoting police operations, some set to dramatic music. Other clips flaunt police power in regimented parades. Government social media accounts have also plastered photos of suspected gang members on Twitter, now X. 

Drug trafficking is also high on the security agenda. Guatemalan authorities seized over 5 tons of cocaine in the 59 days since Arévalo took power – more than double the amount seized in 2023.

Featured image: President-elect Bernardo Arévalo gives a press conference in Guatemala City, December 2023. Credit: AP/Moises Castillo

The post 100 Days In, Guatemala President Locks Horns with Corruption and Crime appeared first on InSight Crime.