Guatemala’s democratic downward spiral: A Historical Process

Adrian de León
11 min readDec 14, 2023
Photo by Shalom de León on Unsplash

A historical process of corruption and weak democratic institutions inhibits Guatemala’s ability to achieve progress.

On 20 August 2023, Bernardo Arevalo, dubbed the ‘anti-corruption crusader’ won a landslide victory in the Guatemalan presidential election. Leader of the centre-left party ‘Semilla’ (seed in English), Arevalo won 58% of the votes, with former first lady Sandra Torres coming in second with 38%. Declared by the national election body the ‘virtual winner’, motions were seemingly set in place for a transition of powers, with outgoing president Alejandro Giammattei congratulating Mr Arevalo on his X (formerly Twitter) platform. Despite this apparent enthusiasm to uphold the democratic process, the election results have been met with accusations of electoral fraud and Arevalo’s party has been suspended by a lower-court judge. Moreover, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (SET) was raided five times by the Special Prosecutor’s Office against Corruption, which saw more than 125,000 documents and original records of the general elections stolen. A move that was described by the SET as being part of a “series of intimidating actions that seek to undermine the integrity of democracy and cast doubt on election results that have already been officially confirmed.”

These efforts to thwart the election results have been widely condemned; the Organization of American States Electoral Observation Mission has stated that the raid was “carried out without due justification and constituted an attack on the functions, independence, and autonomy of the electoral body.” It added that the Public Prosecutor’s Office’s continual hounding of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal without clear reasons or motives “constitutes a political persecution reminiscent of those carried out by authoritarian regimes.” It went on to say that “the actions of the Public Prosecutor’s Office are an intolerable violation of Guatemala’s Constitution (…)” that is “altering the constitutional order.”

The international condemnation was matched with local anger, and on 2 October 2023, over 140 roadblocks were set up, as Guatemalans marched the street to protest against the attempts to block Arevalo from entering office. Leaders of the protests have declared that protests will go on indefinitely until their demands are met. The prolonging of the roadblocks, central to these protests, has begun to cause discontent amongst the wider population with a divide beginning to form between those supporting the protests and others highlighting the negative impact it is having on the access to essential supplies. Tensions rose when the first death associated with these demonstrations occurred in late October, leading to the resignation of the current administration’s Interior Minister.

As we get closer to January and the supposed inauguration of Bernardo Arevalo as President of Guatemala, protests have raged on across the country. In the face of these demonstrations, the Guatemalan state continues to erect barriers to prevent a transition of power. In recent weeks the Guatemalan congress has voted to remove the immunity of four electoral judges, forcing three of these to flee the country. The move by the Congress is widely seen as an attempt to elect new ‘anti-Arevalo’ judges to further cement the charges of corruption and thus reverse the outcomes of the elections. This decision has been met with widespread anger and has only helped to add fuel to the protests.

These protests are the inevitable culmination of a populace facing increasing socio-economic difficulties that are compounded by centuries of structural inequalities drawn across ethnic lines. It is no coincidence that these protests are being led by indigenous groups, many of whom have descended from the highlands onto the capital, Guatemala City, by foot. According to government statistics, almost half of the population is Indigenous, making it the second-highest Indigenous citizenry behind only Bolivia. Unfortunately, levels of poverty amongst this population remains extremely high, with the United Nations’ estimating that 79% of Guatemala’s Indigenous population qualify as poor — a rate 30% higher than the national average. This material poverty has been exacerbated by a lack of political representation, with various estimations suggesting that Indigenous people have never held more than 10% of the seats in the national congress.

Bernardo Arevalo’s election victory was seen by a majority of the population as bringing the opportunity for change, as the Semilla candidate ran on a anti-corruption ticket. This hope for change was reinforced when Eladio Loizaga, a key representative of the Organization of American States (OAS) declared that the election had “fulfilled all the demanding obligations”. Instead, the population has seen a Public Prosecutor’s Office, through its attempt to suspend Arevalo, “jeopardise the constitutional order and the independence of the branches of government.” (Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, IACHR, 2023).

The events that are occurring today in Guatemala is a representation of the country’s inability, and unwillingness, to wrestle with corruption in its political ruling class, which inevitably trickles down across society. The IACHR has said that the country has seen a “progressive deterioration of democratic institutions, [and] the rule of law.” The endemic corruption, which has weakened the state apparatus, is the foundation of democratic struggles of Guatemala.

Social Movements in Guatemala: From the Civil War Period to Modern Day

Guatemala is a country blighted with corruption, weak democratic institutions, and yet it boasts a civil society that continues to use the lever of mass mobilisation and civil action to demand for change. To understand this duality, and to begin to understand the tale of today’s unrest, it is important to look back where it all began: with the election of Arevalo — not Bernardo, but his father Juan José — who, in 1945, became Guatemala’s first democratically elected president.

As president, Juan José Arevalo introduced a series of mild reforms, focused predominantly on land redistribution and delivering a wide literacy campaign across the countryside. In 1954, his successor, Jacobo Arbenz, was overthrown by a CIA-backed military coup, which led to a bloody civil war from 1960 to 1996 with the signing of the peace accords. In this 36 year period, Guatemalan society suffered as it became the main collateral of the battles being fought between the military on one side, and an insurgency movement composed of former mid-ranking military personnel, Marxist-leaning indigenous populations and university students on the other.

As part of a peace agreement between warring parties the Comisión de Esclarecimiento Histórico (CEH) was established in 1994. This truth-seeking commission found that:

200,000 people were killed or disappeared during the conflict, most of whom were indigenous. The country’s truth and reconciliation commission reported that state forces and related paramilitary groups were responsible for more than 90 percent of the documented violations. The massacres and destruction of villages gave rise to the forced displacement of the civilian population internally and abroad. According to the CEH, as many as 1.5 million people were displaced during the most violent phase of the armed conflict In all, more than one-quarter of the country’s total population was affected by the political violence — through assassination, forced disappearance, kidnapping, or coerced displacement from their homes.” (Flores and Rivers, 2020).

This extensive violence from the state, led by the military class, was a direct response to the social movements that had been imbued by the social reforms implemented by Juan José Arevalo and Jacobo Arbenz. The desire for change and for social reform continued during the 36 year civil war, and saw a series of protest movements led predominantly by peasant and indigenous groups and university students. A notable protest group during this time was the Mutual Support Group (GAM), which was formed by women — both indigenous and non-indigenous — whose relatives had disappeared during the conflict, and who blamed the government for this. They dedicated themselves to taking action against human rights abuses during the war and in 1984 they organised a 100,000-strong march on the National Police headquarters and the Metropolitan Cathedral in Guatemala City (Flores and Rivers, 2020).

Despite suffering decades of repression and violence, the human rights movement in Guatemala achieved major success during the war and in its immediate aftermath. Through mass mobilisation and nonviolent action tactics — similar to what is seen today — these movements created the political-will that led to the creation of the CEH, and laid the foundations for the creation of public institutions such as the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman, the Presidential Human Rights Commission, and the Presidential Commission against Racism and Discrimination (Flores and Rivers, 2020).

Therefore, Guatemalan society had built across these decades of repression and violence a legacy of civil movements, which set the foundations that led to another major institutional breakthrough: the creation of the UN-sanctioned Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG).

The CICIG vs State Corruption

Despite the signing of peace accords in 1996, Guatemala is a country that still suffers from the impact of violence and corruption to this day. A legacy of the conflict has been the inability for the government to fortify its institutions, which has allowed corrupt politicians, powerful business elites and criminal syndicates to subvert the state apparatuses to achieve their goals. In the process, Guatemala has become one of the most unequal and poorest countries in Latin America.

The Guatemalan state maintained power and control during the civil war by unleashing repressive and violent power to break down the opposition from insurgents and indigenous-led groups. Following the peace accord and the surrender of the insurgents group, the security apparatuses and the personnel used during the war became surplus to requirement and they existed in a power vacuum that was filled by the ever-growing criminal networks. As Flores and Rivers (2020) point out: “these criminal networks, known as ‘illegal clandestine security apparatuses’ (or by their Spanish acronym, CIACS), spawned from state intelligence and military services during the war and continued to operate in its aftermath. They are still operational today. They have contributed to the development of large-scale organised crime and, with their ties to government officials and elites, have wielded significant political influence and created a culture of impunity. CIACS have been responsible for brutal repression and violence against human rights defenders, union leaders, student activists, journalists, and political leaders.”

This ‘culture of impunity’ is a foundational element of the issues faced by Guatemalan society: it has allowed criminal organisations and corrupt state actors to use violence, extortion and intimidation to further private interests rather than to ensure the progress of the country as a whole. To the population and foreign observers alike, it became obvious that something had to be done to provide a response to this culture of impunity. Therefore, in 2006, the CICIG was created and for over a decade, it worked alongside the Guatemalan Attorney General’s Office, and helped to investigate and convict a number of corrupt politicians including ex-president Otto Perez Molina. However, once the body began to investigate its successor Jimmy Morales — who ran on a ‘Ni Ladron, Ni Corrupto’ (Nor Thief, Nor Corrupt) ticket — he dismantled it and expelled its staff in September 2019.

Despite achieving great success in its twelve years in Guatemala — the CICIG assisted in the filing of more than 120 cases in the state justice system, resulting in charges against 1,540 people and more than 400 convictions — its ultimate demise is the tale of a country heading in the right direction, but which nonetheless is caught-up by its demons. Flores and Rivers (2020) argue that “the enforcement of anti corruption laws are particularly challenging in post conflict states, which are often left with weak or nonexistent legal and institutional frameworks.” This suggests that support from the international community will only have a short-term or mild impact unless the country’s institutions are strong enough to properly absorb the expertise and resources of bodies such as the CICIG.

Similar to so many countries in Latin America, modern Guatemala is still wrestling with the impact of a civil war that exacerbated existing institutional and structural elitism drawn on racial lines, and which has weakened the state apparatuses that are crucial in ensuring the strong rule of democracy. The obstruction of Arevalo’s transition to power is part of a wider historical process and almost an inevitable culmination of Guatemala’s continuous inability to wrestle with the conditions that allow this corruption to help the elite’s to flourish, and at the same time, inflict pain and insecurity to the rest of the population.

In a report for the Washington Office on Latin America Haugaard and Daniella (2022) described Guatemala as a country in which “the rule of law is on a dramatic downward spiral’’; it attributes the beginning of this downward spiral to Jimmy Morales’ decision to expel the CICIG from the country. Furthermore, in the details of this report, a central character emerges, a character that is at the very centre of the issues plaguing Guatemalan democracy today. This central role is played by Attorney General Consuelo Porras Argueta.

Attorney General of Law and Disorder

The dismantling of the CICIG initiated by president Jimmy Morales was executed by Attorney General Consuelo Porras Argueta, who was appointed in May 2018. In this time, she was accused of orchestrating efforts to block the CICIG’s efforts by routinely targeting the judges and prosecutors that were supporting the CICIG in its anti-corruption battle. Her actions caught the attention of foreign observers and in 2021, the State Department of the U.S. government “designated Porras as a corrupt actor under section 353 of the United States–Northern Triangle Enhanced Engagement Act (the so-called “Engel list,”) and in May 2022, designated her under section 7031 of the State, Foreign Operations law ‘due to her involvement in significant corruption…. Porras repeatedly obstructed and undermined anti-corruption investigations in Guatemala to protect her political allies and gain undue political favour.’” Despite these charges, and against the wishes of civil society, she was re-appointed by outgoing President Giammattei in 2022.

Today, Consuelo Porras Argueta is now leading the movement that is blocking the democratic transition to power of Bernardo Arevalo and fueling the protests that have marred the country over the last few months. On 16 November 2023, the Attorney General’s Office requested 27 arrest warrants against activists, students, academics, human rights defenders, and a member of Arevalo’s political party, the Semilla Movement (Human Rights Watch, 2023). This is a political crisis so severe that the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States (OAS) approved on November 15 a resolution urging the Guatemalan judicial, legislative, and executive branches to take action to end “any act of intimidation against electoral authorities, the Semilla Movement party [and] those who have been elected.” Moreover, the OAS has continued to condemn the “excessive judicialization” of the electoral process in Guatemala and has even “called on the authorities to stop interfering in the elections and respect the will of the people.” (Human Rights Watch 2023).

It is no coincidence, but rather a clear indictment of the structural nature of Guatemala’s political status quo, that the dismantling of the CICIG and the obstruction of Arevalo’s coming to power is being orchestrated by the same Attorney General. Consuelo Porras Argueta is not the root cause of the issues, but rather a human-form mechanism used by the elites to promote their private interests and at the same time ensure that the state remains too weak and corrupt to meddle in its affairs. Evidence suggests that Argueta’s mandate lies more with the powerful elites of her country than with her fellow citizens, and drives her actions that are obstructing democracy in Guatemala. The post-conflict nation state of Guatemala is a kleptocracy, and its institutions are empowered not to promote the rule of law and equity, but to raise the barriers against any element that might diminish the power and profit margins of a tiny elite.

What has been underexplored here is the undeniable role that race and post-colonial policies of the late 19th and early 20th century play in ensuring that this inequality is clearly defined amongst indigenous and non-indigenous lines. At the risk of sounding simplistic, it is clear that this entrenched inequality is driven by the desire of business interests (both legal and illegal) to maximise their profits and keep the power amongst the grips of a handful of individuals. A handful that does not include Bernardo Arevalo’s political movement, who, despite his mildly reformist policies, has been identified as a danger to the status quo.

To have a sound understanding of the ills of modern Guatemalan society, it is essential to understand the historical processes underpinning the state and the powerful interests that operate within it. The mechanisms that will bring concrete and sustained change that will benefit the Guatemalan people are not clear. What is clear, is that all efforts that do not get to the root of the issues, and that do not take a historical lens are doomed to allow these waves of corruption and violence to continue operating in the country.

--

--