GUATEMALA CITY – Guatemalan voters go to the polls Sunday to elect a new president and other lawmakers in this former Cold War battleground that Washington now views through the prism of two key strategic concerns – U.S.-bound illicit immigration and drug trafficking.
Sandra Torres, a former first lady who has denied allegations of illicit campaign funding from an unsuccessful 2015 presidential run, is at the head of a crowded field to replace President Jimmy Morales, recent polls show.
Guatemalan law bars the controversial ex-TV comedian from seeking reelection.
Most polls show no candidate winning a majority, which would result in the top two finishers facing each other in an August runoff. Guatemalans are also electing a new Congress and mayors nationwide.
Guatemala and neighboring Honduras are the homelands of most Central American migrants arriving to the U.S.-Mexico border and seeking asylum. The number of migrants making it to U.S. territory has spiked in recent months, prompting President Donald Trump to put pressure on Mexico and on Central American nations to act to reduce the flows.
Last week, Vice President Mike Pence told Fox News that Washington was working on a plan with Guatemala whereby many Central American asylum-seekers – presumably those from neighboring Honduras and El Salvador – would have to seek asylum here, not in the United States. Human rights groups immediately denounced the idea, noting Guatemala’s high levels of violence and the fact that many of its own citizens feel compelled to flee for their safety.
The Trump administration is also seeking to bolster anti-drug efforts here – Guatemala is a key transportation point for Colombian cocaine destined for the U.S. market.
The lead-up to Sunday’s balloting has been chaotic even by the standards of Central America’s often-turbulent politics.
Election officials in recent weeks have barred at least four candidates, including two possible front-runners: Zury Rios, the right-wing daughter of former dictator Efrain Rios Montt, because of her familial link to the ex-strongman; and Thelma Aldana, a former ex-attorney general whose prosecutorial zeal helped put another ex-president and other former officials behind bars.
Aldana’s name was taken off the ballot for alleged financial irregularities during her term as attorney general – allegations that Aldana has dismissed as politically motivated.
“Our country has been pushed to a precipice,” Aldana said last month after the nation’s highest court rejected her appeal.
Aldana worked closely with a United Nations-backed anti-corruption panel – the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, known by its Spanish acronym, CICIG – that is popular among many Guatemalans for its prosecutions of crooked politicians. The panel has drawn the ire of the lame-duck president.
Morales, who was elected as an outsider candidate four years ago on a slogan of “neither corrupt nor a thief,” has faced graft investigations, as have his family members and close associates.
Morales has pushed back against the anti-corruption panel, barring its commissioner from entering Guatemala and declaring that he would not renew its mandate, which is set to expire in September. That would mean the commission would no be available to act when he leaves office in January and could be subject to prosecution. Morales’ actions set off large-scale protests in support of the commission.
Morales is a favorite of the Trump administration and followed Washington’s lead in relocating his country’s Israeli embassy to Jerusalem, despite widespread denunciations around the globe of the U.S. move.
The Obama administration vociferously opposed a previous Guatemalan president’s attempt to shutter the anti-corruption panel, which is viewed as a regional model for instituting good-government standards in corruption-ridden countries. The Trump administration has not publicly pressured Morales to retain the commission; the United States is the panel’s largest financial backer.
Aldana was the only leading candidate to back the commission, and her absence from the ballot would seem to ensure its demise. Many fear that democratic advances made here in recent years, in large part because of the commission’s work, could falter.
“I believe we could see a slow-motion return to the past situation of impunity,” said Edgar Ortiz, a political analyst here.
The remaining top candidates, Ortiz noted, “represent the establishment and could be more vulnerable to the structures of corruption that functioned before.”
The ex-attorney general, Aldana, has said she left the country for El Salvador because of concerns for her security. Her flight is part of what human rights activists call a climate of preelectoral intimidation here.
Last week, Oscar Shaad, the country’s top prosecutor for electoral crimes, went on leave fearing for his family’s safety, authorities said, reportedly after receiving death threats.
At least 10 people have been killed in preelection violence in Guatemala, human rights advocates say, and military veterans from the country’s multi-decade civil war – which officially ended in 1996 – have threatened to use violence if their demands for pensions are not met.
In April, U.S. authorities arrested a then-presidential candidate, Mario Estrada, and charged him in a complex plot to use drug cartel money to win the election and assassinate rivals. Estrada, a former member of Congress, denied the charges. He is also no longer on the ballot.
A profound sense of discontent and confusion is evident among voters in this nation of 17 million, the largest and most populous country in Central America.
“The presidents and Congress never respond to the people, and justice is never accomplished,” said Maria Cutuc, 65, a weaver and grandmother whose comments echoed those of many interviewed here. “What does it serve to vote?”
Griselda Lopez, 49, who runs a small clothes shop in the capital, said she had yet to decide whom to vote for – reflecting polls that show great uncertainty and disaffection among voters.
“I feel sadness, deception and fear for the future of the country, because it looks like things are going to get worse,” Lopez said. “It’s a pity that the population doesn’t become educated and wake up.”
(Special correspondent Claudia Palacios in Guatemala City contributed to this report.)
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