Guatemalans will return to the polls Aug. 11 to complete a presidential election marked by corruption scandals and disqualifications involving multiple candidates, including some former front-runners. The two remaining candidates are no strangers to the presidential stage. Sandra Torres, a former first lady who divorced her husband, former President Alvaro Colom, so she could legally run for president, is on her third campaign. In 2015 she finished second to current President Jimmy Morales, who is limited to a single, four-year term. Her opponent, Alejandro Giammattei, is making his fourth run at the presidency. High on the list of issues both face are the perennial Guatemalan concerns about corruption and security. Though both Torres and Giammattei have addressed these issues, understanding how they stack up against them is not so simple.
On corruption, Giammattei might seem to be at a disadvantage. In 2011, he was imprisoned for 10 months in the wake of a botched police raid that resulted in the deaths of seven inmates while he was the director of Guatemala's prison system. The case was later dismissed for lack of evidence, leaving some voters with the perception that Giammattei escaped justice for the lawless manner in which he executed his duties. He's also openly skeptical of reinstating the mandate of the United Nations' International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). Despite the CICIG's impressive record of investigation and conviction, Morales cut short its mandate, which now ends in September. This is a sensitive topic in Guatemala. The U.N. tribunal is naturally popular with an electorate sensitive to issues of corruption, and Giammattei's opposition to it may hurt him in the runoff.
Torres has issues of her own. Her 2015 presidential campaign was investigated over a spectrum of campaign finance-related violations, including illicit association, perjury, illicit and unreported electoral financing, and tax fraud. Though the Guatemalan Supreme Court decided that Torres will maintain legal immunity from these charges, the perception of corruption could affect the vote. She maintains ambiguity on CICIG, but given that her campaign finance charges were partly the result of a CICIG investigation, there's little hope she will reinstate the anti-corruption tribunal if she wins the presidency.
Torres and Giammattei differ in terms of the level of detail they've communicated regarding their security platforms. Torres has proposed little except to say that she will put the army back on the streets, an unpopular and ineffective policy that Morales had terminated last year. Giammattei has a more developed plan. Perhaps more importantly, the military supports him, and he has experience with law-enforcement stemming from his stint as director of prisons. But Giammattei's security vision may have domestic and international implications that exacerbate Guatemala's security problem.
Like every other country in Central America, Guatemala suffers from a serious lack of capacity in its penitentiary system. Overwhelmed by failing infrastructure and overcrowding, Guatemala's prison system increasingly relies on the national police to handle some inmates. Additionally, the military is increasingly used to house political prisoners who are overwhelmingly the subjects of CICIG investigations. For this and other reasons, maintaining adequate conditions and accountability of prisoners is difficult and has sparked a competition for resources among the prison system, national police and military. Though both Torres and Giammattei have promised to build new prisons — a popular large-scale infrastructure project — new facilities do not address the prospect of expensive upgrades needed to maintain existing facilities, nor does it reduce the risk to prison staff, 47 of whom were killed on the job between 2008 and 2016.
This approach, while necessary, doesn't help law enforcement directly. This is where Giammattei's more detailed approach falters. Though he has promised to restructure the police, he also has indicated he will expand the military. The proposed move is guaranteed to ignite latent paranoia stemming from the 1960-1996 Guatemalan civil war when the army was used to suppress indigenous populations suspected of communist sympathies, a dark policy that produced large-scale human rights abuses. The army's tendency toward extreme violence and the impunity with which it perpetrated abuses encouraged corruption and cronyism and led to dangerous squabbles with regional neighbors. What sets Giammattei's approach apart from Torres' is his apparent hostility — real or imagined — toward the police. The ambiguity of Giammattei's restructuring plan for the police serves to increase anxiety about his approach to security and could destabilize what is currently a more or less functional security situation by pitting them against the army.
The potential for a Giammattei victory and the security shake-up that might result comes at a time of strained relations with the United States. Unhappy with mass emigration of Central Americans to the southern U.S. border, the White House froze aid to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador in March. The subsequent, negative rhetoric that followed has made it difficult for Morales to cooperate with Washington. In an unprecedented move, Morales canceled a White House meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump in mid-July at which they were set to discuss Guatemalan support for so-called safe third country asylum requests. Morales' reason was that Guatemala's highest court had issued an injunction against the agreement and ruled it would require legislative approval.
Both Giammattei and Torres have criticized the asylum agreement Morales' government signed last week with the White House, suggesting the deal may not last beyond the next president's inauguration.
Trump responded forcefully, threatening a combination of a ban on Guatemalan migrants from entering the United States plus unspecified tariffs or a tax on remittances sent home from the United States by Guatemalan workers. Though lacking detail and of questionable legality, Trump's threats are potentially serious for Guatemala. The $10.9 billion a year in trade with the United States and $7.7 billion in remittances returned by Guatemalan workers account for about a third of the country's economy. Feeling the pressure, Morales simply ignored Guatemala's Constitutional Court's injunction and sent his interior minister to Washington to sign the safe third country agreement on July 26.
Morales' own troubles with corruption further complicate his ability to sustain the asylum agreement. The U.S. Embassy in Guatemala began distancing itself from Morales in early 2018 when his tensions with CICIG began to escalate. Though American diplomats maintained cooperation using funds that were obligated before the freeze, those programs will be largely complete by January 2020 when the new Guatemalan president is sworn in. This will leave Morales with little to show for his dramatic compromise and the new president to implement the asylum agreement without assistance from the largest external investor in Guatemalan security. Recognizing this, both Giammattei and Torres criticized the asylum deal, calling Morales "incapable" and "clumsy" in the face of threats from Trump, suggesting the deal may not last beyond the next president's inauguration.
Sensing opportunity, China is preparing to fill the vacuum. Beijing persuaded Panama and El Salvador to break relations with Taiwan in 2017 and 2018, respectively, a course of action Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez has suggested he may also consider. With pressure mounting, and facing a lack of support from Washington, it's conceivable that the next Guatemalan administration could also consider embracing Beijing in order to pay for big-ticket security and development plans. In El Salvador, that model included leasing a large percentage of the country's fertile coastal plain to China for the long term. Though China has not made any specific plans for the holdings, the deal is ostensibly for agricultural development, an arrangement that cannot be easily replicated in Guatemala without significant political upheaval. It is more likely, therefore, that any Guatemalan engagement with China would focus on infrastructure development and security cooperation, a move sure to exacerbate tensions with Washington.
In the end, what's important about Guatemala's Aug. 11 runoff election is not how the candidates measure up against each other, but how they measure up against the circumstances. There are few options available to the Guatemalan president when it comes to dealing with corruption and security, and the differences between Torres and Giammattei are more appropriately described as nuances. Exactly how those nuances affect popular trust in government and maintenance of law and order could have a tremendous impact on the security of Guatemala amid a worsening relationship with the United States. With few resources available for comprehensive solutions, it's not an exaggeration to say that the next Guatemalan president, whoever ends up in the office, has the deck stacked against them.