Guatemala’s Presidential Election

A Nation on the Ropes

More than a decade after the signing of the Peace Accords that ended 30 years of brutal conflict costing 200,000 lives, violence and shabby politics still walk hand-in-hand in Guatemala.

Guatemala has one of the most unequal distributions of income in the Western Hemisphere. Furthermore, in the wake of President Bush’s visit to the country in May, a new interest in large-scale ethanol production was ignited which is likely to lead to an even greater degree of the concentration of wealth. Nevertheless, the main issue at hand in the upcoming election is neither poverty alleviation nor securing proper energy resources, but the mounting toll of recently alleged politically-motivated assassinations of more than 80 Guatemalans.

The two main parties continue to point fingers at each other, but none of their epidermal solutions go to the root of the problem.

Guatemala: A Nation on the Ropes

September brings with it the annual commemoration of 9/11 in the United States. Although the date represents a landmark moment, which at the same time serves as a trigger for a random discussion of terrorism, far fewer commentators in this country have noted that two days earlier another important event in the modern history of terrorism occurs—the first round of the Guatemalan general elections.

At almost 13 million people, and the most populous Central American nation, Guatemala is strategically positioned in the heart of the Western Hemisphere, with access to both the Atlantic and the Pacific, and with a long and bitter history of unremitting violence and human rights abuses, Guatemala will hold its general elections in just a few days. The president, national legislators and mayors will be facing the electorate; no governors, senators, or state representatives are running as Guatemala has neither an upper house nor a state legislature, and governors are appointed by the president. That said, the explosive fact on the docket is that more than 80 Guatemalans, half of them political candidates or their supporters, have been assassinated since the injunction of the electoral campaign.

A Deadly Tool

As Jorge Rodriguez, lawyer and former coordinator of the Justice Pastoral, observed, “it is a trend that, in Guatemala, the violence level increases during the electoral periods.” Perhaps the main reason behind these grim mathematics is that after persuading the combatants to lay down their weapons, the 1996 Acuerdos de Paz Firme y Duradera (Peace Accords) were supposed to mark not only the end of 30 years of fratricidal bloodshed and ongoing civil conflict, but also the closing down of an industry that, until then, had been providing a blood-soaked living for both leftist rebel death squad forces, and the violence-prone armed forces.

It should not be forgotten that, although the international community had been pressing for the end of the war between the militia and leftist forces at least since 1992, the signing of the Peace Accords in 1996 caught many Guatemalans by surprise. In December of that year, senior rebel officials and the armed forces met with the Arzú administration after months of secret talks and United Nations mediation, and what turned out to be a shaky peace was declared. However, the low-rank fighters largely had been left in the dark about the whole process. It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that the culture of using violence for one’s livelihood developed as a prime result of the lack of re-training opportunities and the resultant high rates of unemployment. This came as a result of decades of civil war, with the country not seeing the end of the road when it came to violence. It makes eminent sense that trained fighters, suddenly unemployed with neither the necessary skills to be competitive in an already saturated formal job sector, nor in the least bit interested in a proposed land-gun exchange, would try to find new and darker markets for their talents. In addition to the classic strategy of working as mercenaries—increasingly under the command of Mexican drug lords looking for a calmer place to manage their operations, rather than in their own turbulent nation—Guatemalan former combatants also found another niche. This was recruiting from the streets an army of gunslingers among the fearless and hopeless of the forgotten youth from poor rural areas to urban slums. This can help to explain the rapid increase in organized crime in urban areas, and its emulation by the maras—a more sophisticated version of urban youth gangs.

Election Time

In this context, the general elections have presented themselves as a unique opportunity for those in the business of violence to profit. In a country that lacks a democratic experience, electoral events could generate a topical demand for those experienced in using violence to induce political instability, in order to achieve the desired results at the polls. Guatemala may be experiencing a novel era of 12 years without a military coup, but the 2007 election is already stained by a surge in violence.

Widespread Violence aimed against urban transportation

The assassination of more than 40 drivers in urban transportation services—many of which were not even followed by robbery—has generated great fear among that sector as well as apprehension among various segments of the political class.

In a recent article [June 29, 2007], Prensa Libre reports that Mario Taracena, a representative from one of the main political parties—the moderate leftist National Unity Hope (UNE)—delivered a denouncement to the Ministry of Governance, Adela Camacho de Torrebiarte, in which he accused Mark Klugmann, an experienced American political campaign advisor, of inciting violence on behalf of UNE’s main rival, the rightist Patriotic Party (PP). According to Taracena, Klugmann, who previously had worked on the campaigns of political figures such as Ronald Reagan (U.S.) and Porfírio Pepe Lobo Sosa (Honduras), was behind a campaign strategy aimed at creating political instability in the country, through harassment of urban transportation drivers, in order to generate chaos in the streets. Many in Central America believe that a similar strategy was used in the 2005 presidential election in Honduras. Klugmann’s reply to his critics was laconic: “What I do as a professional advisor has nothing to do with what an unbalanced representative says,” and added “three Guatemalan political parties contacted me and in one case we reached an agreement, but it was for surveys and public opinion research.” Whether Klugmann is working for the PP or not is at the moment unknown, but Pepe Lobo’s old puño duro (strong first) slogan does bear some similarity to the new mano dura (strong hand) slogan of PP’s Presidential candidate, General Otto Pérez Molina.

The UNE and PP parties have used the media to debate one another, turning up the heat on the election. When it came to the drivers, while UNE’s Álvaro Colom seconded Taracena’s claim in saying that “the drivers’ deaths fulfill an electoral campaign that aims to benefit a certain candidate,” General Pérez Molina’s taut answer was that the PP was “willing to submit itself to any investigation because we don’t have any connection with the killings, as the UNE has so irresponsibly denounced.” It is true that so far the Public Ministry has not found any evidence linking the drivers’ deaths to the PP. However, Honduran legal assessor and wingman of President Manuel Zelaya, Enrique Flores, raised a telling point: Whoever is actually behind the attacks, “…one political party seems to be taking advantage of the violence out of political motivations, manipulating the facts in order to inspire fear in the population and both better gain votes and manipulate the public opinion.” With these words Flores, who is said to favor Colom, seems to be indicating that the PP, whose “strong hand” slogan is presented as a “zero tolerance” solution to the country’s increasing problem of violence, thereby links itself to that strategy.

Targeted Violence: Death of 40 political candidates and supporters

If it were the murder of the drivers alone that made violence the hot topic of the first half of the electoral campaign, politicians themselves weren’t left out of the deadly loop for long. The Public Ministry recently released figures indicating that more than 40 political candidates and campaign workers have been gunned down since the beginning of the electoral campaign.

As Juan Luis Florido, general inspector of the Public Ministry pointed out, it is unlikely that all the murders had a political motivation. For instance, the death of Edwin Saúl Martínez, a mayoral pre-candidate for Jalpatagua, seems to have been connected with narcotraffic activities, and the murder of Clara Luz López, candidate for the concejal of Casillas, appears to have been a crime of passion.

Furthermore, Colom again pointed a finger at the PP, in general, and General Pérez Molina, more specifically, as being responsible for at least several of the deaths. During a meeting with the foreign press on August 29th, Colom claimed that at least 14 of the 18 murders related to his party were committed by “members of the mobs … associated with the Military Intelligence. They (PP) have the support of old chiefs of the Military Intelligence … the people responsible for the black campaign against me.”

During the civil war the army’s Military Intelligence allegedly was one of the prime architects responsible for kidnappings, torture and killings, and Otto Pérez Molina, before being elevated to the status of general, is suspected of being involved with such activities as a member of its staff. General Pérez Molina’s answer was to menace Colom with legal reprimands. In his opinion “This is an open black campaign against me and against the PP, because the UNE is desperate now that they have realized that they are going to lose the elections.”

Coming from a militant or gang background the suspicion that political parties were hiring hit men in order to intimidate both prospective voters as well as targeting candidates has been enough to establish quite a chaotic situation with less than a week to go before the election. The members of the Electoral Supreme Court were unanimous in demanding that the parties’ maintain a campaign free of violence and verbal attacks, but its president, Óscar Bolaños, went even farther. In the last meeting with the political parties electoral observers on Wednesday, he stated: “I don’t see an atmosphere for elections. In a democratic system we all should be aware that this isn’t a matter of winning or losing, but of having a vision of what is the best for Guatemala.” Just three days after Bolaños’ appeal, two more political figures were killed.

Thomaz Alvares de Azevedo e Almeida is a Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) in Washington, DC. Read other articles by Thomaz, or visit Thomaz's website.