Central America / Corruption

Allegations of Electoral Court Bribery Fuel Doubts about Legitimacy of Guatemalan Election

Reports of bribery from President Giammattei to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, disputes over the electronic vote-counting system, and suspicions of illicit campaign financing are piling onto a widely condemned elimination of presidential front-runners. These ingredients make this Sunday’s elections the most precarious and uncertain in decades.

Johan Ordóñez
Johan Ordóñez

Friday, June 23, 2023
José Luis Sanz and Roman Gressier

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It was Giammattei’s closest operator who broke the news.

On Wednesday Miguel Martínez spoke to journalists about an explosive New York Times report: that Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) magistrate Blanca Alfaro went to the U.S. Embassy last year and presented “a cash package” —50,000 quetzales; about $6,000 USD— that he allegedly gave her and other magistrates on behalf of President Alejandro Giammattei.

In a Samuel Alito-style move, Martínez tried to head off the article, published Thursday night: “When the investigation comes out, don’t be surprised,” he said. The article cited a U.S. official and a source present in the meeting, both anonymous. “This is something malicious that they’re doing in order to destabilize the elections,” said Martínez.

El Faro English has received separate confirmation by three sources that the Embassy meeting happened. One of them, present at the meeting, sets the date as March 22, 2022. Another asserts that Alfaro intended for the embassy to keep the money as supposed proof of the bribe, but that the U.S. officials refused.

The account that Giammattei has quite literally put cash on the table at the TSE has circulated for months in Guatemala City and Washington, D.C. In a February radio interview, former president of Congress and current opposition legislator Mario Taracena said: “the TSE receives monthly cash under the table, and that’s something I’ve never seen in my life. Now they have a monthly stipend and that’s why they listen to the president.”

A possible example of Giammattei’s hand in the TSE is an audio of an ex-president of the National Association of Municipalities in which he denounced maneuvering by Giammattei to use the TSE to blackmail a party —Prosperidad Ciudadana— into listing as congressional candidates a number of Giammattei’s pawns.

With general elections set to begin at 9 a.m. ET this Sunday, June 25, allegations against the Tribunal are the pinnacle of Guatemala’s political and electoral crisis.

A joint journalistic investigation coordinated by Ciclos CAP found that Giammattei used “selective assignment of public works, an increase in subsidies to senior citizens, and possible influence-trafficking” to vastly expand his party’s slate of mayoral candidates.

Not to mention that in the presidential race there is no sign of equal opportunity to compete: the daughter of a coup president is allowed to run despite a constitutional ban while the most prominent Indigenous leader was barred because of lawfare against her running mate.

Another two candidates, including controversial frontrunner Carlos Pineda, were expelled with the race already underway.

Per Prensa Libre’s last pre-election poll released Thursday, this emptying-out of the playing field has left former first lady Sandra Torres in first with 21 percent and diplomat Edmond Mulet in second with 13, followed by arch-conservative Zury Ríos with 9 and Giammattei’s anointed candidate Manuel Conde with 6. Only two will advance.

Former First Lady Sandra Torres speaks to the press in Guatemala City in June 2019 after advancing to the run-off presidential election. Photo Carlos Barrera
Former First Lady Sandra Torres speaks to the press in Guatemala City in June 2019 after advancing to the run-off presidential election. Photo Carlos Barrera

“The elections in Guatemala are a farce,” former attorney general and excluded 2019 presidential candidate Thelma Aldana told El Faro English. “The captured system decides which candidates participate. It is the appearance of a democratic exercise.”

Parallel vote-count systems

It gets worse: Surreally, with under a week to go before the first votes are cast, the TSE said on Tuesday that it was still mediating spats over which electronic systems would count the votes.

Mexican-Costa Rican firm Datasys —which has done business with the Guatemalan state since 2017— was selected in February to handle electronic vote reporting for $18.9 million USD, despite being the pricier of two offers and having been discarded by Colombian election officials due to criticism of its business practices.

Their work will be audited by Mexico’s Technological University of Monterrey, despite a reported contractual relationship between the two. Both the selection of Datasys and the university drew broad criticism from transparency watchdogs.

Adding to the mayhem, the districts covering the capital city and department —amassing almost a quarter of the country’s 9.37 million registered voterspurchased their own system to tally the votes. “We couldn’t persuade them” to use the same system, said TSE President Irma Palencia — in recognition that each district, or junta, is autonomous from the TSE.

The two districts have purchased their own systems for the last several electoral cycles, without complaint from any parties until this year. Party representatives claim that recent test runs showed multiple problems, including the possibility to edit votes already uploaded in the servers.

Palencia told Prensa Libre on Monday that the magistrates had yet to deliberate on how to handle the juntas’ alternate system. The matter was still unresolved by Thursday afternoon — less than three days before the vote.

The Tribunal has left unclear who should report the official data, which by law is the job of the juntas,” former capital city district member and former education minister María del Carmen Aceña told El Faro English. She argues that the parties’ criticism also misses the mark: “Party auditors must attend all technological sessions, and they haven’t done it.”

More drug money

Then there’s party finance. The editorial board of Prensa Libre observed that reported campaign spending of some 30 parties combined had reached a paltry Q12.3 million ($1.57 million) by the end of May despite parties’ spending ceiling of Q34.9 million each. They said that this was a clear sign of unreported cash flows.

“There’s an extremely complex procedure to finance a political party. On top of it, now it’s (public) information (...)  so there’s more cloudy financing because only those who don’t give a damn about the law put in the money,” Ignacio Lejárraga, head of the powerful conservative business lobby CACIF, told José Luis Sanz in an interview

“Private financing used to be 25 percent [of campaign finance]. To talk about 10 percent now would be an exaggeration. And someone else, who doesn’t appear in the electoral registry, filled that void,” said Lejárraga.

He dispelled any ambiguity: “Drug trafficking in Guatemala carries more weight in these elections than in the past.”

Campaign posters along Guatemala City
Campaign posters along Guatemala City's Liberation Boulevard on June 21, 2023. Photo Víctor Peña

Monitors have denounced the illicit use of state resources for campaigning, and parties have also given out home appliances, pantry items, and other prohibited gifts to voters, raising questions about their finances.

The state’s withholding of a subsidy to buses to shuttle voters to the polls —as opposed to past elections— has added worries that parties will foot the bill.

Millions rely on private buses in an informal economy marked by hand-to-mouth income. Speaking with Prensa Libre, Rubén Hidalgo, of the Central American Institute of Political Studies, identified transportation as a latent “electoral weakness.”

One among many others.

The question, really, is what is sustaining the legitimacy of this year’s elections in Guatemala.

This article first appeared in the June 23 edition of the El Faro English newsletter. Subscribe here to tune into Central America.

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