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No matter that Guatemalan President-Elect Bernardo Arévalo marched with thousands again through the streets of the capital on Thursday, or that the OAS has repeated that attempts to overturn the election outcome are “inappropriate, improper and unjustified.” No matter that Indigenous demonstrators blocked roads across the country in October and have slept and rallied for two months outside the Public Prosecutor’s Office.
This Friday, Guatemalan AG Consuelo Porras launched her most aggressive attack against the recent presidential race, alleging evidence of fraud and concluding that the election results should be declared “null and void”. She also asked Congress —for the second time in three weeks— to strip immunity from Arévalo, who she accused of money laundering and of deliberate fraud in the creation of his party, Semilla, in 2017.
By law, only the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) can certify or nullify elections, and any appeal leads to the Constitutional Court. Crucially, TSE President Blanca Alfaro reiterated on Friday that the results “have been made official and are unalterable.” But fears that attempts to prevent Arévalo from being sworn in on January 14 can succeed are increasing.
The chambers of business association CACIF, who many Arévalo allies consider to be in line with or at least tolerant of the coup, unanimously responded on Friday that Arévalo and Karin Herrera should take office, and that “any action aimed at contravening the official election results should have no place in our democracy.”
The fact that CACIF explicitly named Arévalo and Herrera appears to be particularly politically relevant, after months of meticulously omitting them from their statements.
International condemnations, too, were immediate. The E.U. High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, called it “an attempted coup d’etat that will impact EU-Guatemala relations” and the Ambassador to Guatemala announced on Sunday upcoming “targeted restrictive measures” against those involved in the coup. Spanish President Pedro Sánchez, whose embassy is one of the closest to Giammattei, called Arévalo on Sunday to personally voice his support.
Costa Rica, Panama, Ecuador, and the Dominican Republic jointly condemned Porras’ maneuver. El Salvador, Honduras, and of course Nicaragua remained silent.
OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro also denounced an “attempted coup d’état” and the “consolidation of a political fraud”. Porras raided the TSE in September, illegally confiscated ballots in October, and accused four electoral magistrates of crimes in November. A week ago, Congress stripped their immunity, and they left the country.
A bicameral delegation of U.S. Democrats were visiting the country at the time to discuss threats to Guatemalan democracy. “When you attack the candidate who won the elections, you are attacking the Guatemalan people,” said Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, Chair of the Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs. According to a U.S. official, President Alejandro Giammattei declined to meet with the delegation.
The international community has spent months trying to avert a coup. But it remains to be seen if the effort will suffice. At noon on Monday, the United States announced visa restrictions on “nearly 300 Guatemalan nationals, including over 100 members of the Guatemalan congress” —there are 160 seats in total— “as well as private sector representatives and their family members for undermining democracy and the rule of law.”
The Treasury gave a warning shot on December 1, placing Magnitsky sanctions on Miguel Martínez, Giammattei’s closest political operator. In July the State Department took the earliest sanctions action, pulling the visas of the judge and prosecutors at the heart of Porras’ efforts to overturn the first round results.
“The Americans are throwing their entire weight at this, and it’s not working,” a senior diplomat in Guatemala City told El Faro English prior to the Monday sanctions announcement. “If they come up short, you can forget about U.S. influence in the region.”
No new evidence
Ángel Pineda, secretary general of the Public Prosecutor’s Office —an Engel List member like Curruchiche— unironically called Friday “a historic day for democratic institutions.” But while the accusations against the president-elect increase in gravity, prosecutors have yet to present corroborating evidence.
Prosecutors insisted on theories that the preliminary digital vote-count system TREP had been tampered with, sidestepping the obvious facts that the results were certified after a review of physical voting records, that CACIF —no Arévalo booster— did their own recount, and that three international observation missions validated the final results.
Prosecutors also doubled down on their July claim that over 5,000 of the nearly 25,000 signatures listed on the petition to create Semilla in 2017 were forged. Now they claim to have found over 8,000 altered signatures, and they infer without any evidence that Arévalo and other party leaders knowingly registered them.
The signatures affair also morphed into a money laundering accusation: In Guatemala, individuals or companies can be paid 7 quetzales (nearly one USD) by prospective political parties per signature they gather. In July prosecutors seized this fact to accuse Semilla of “potential money laundering” for not specifying where they got the money to pay.
On Friday they also personally accused the president-elect (secretary general of Semilla until a few days ago) of laundering money, for allegedly not specifying where the party got the money to pay an administrative fine of $44,000 USD last year for not presenting certain financial information to the TSE in 2022.
“Prosecutors must demonstrate that the origin of the funds is illegal, not that there is no record of their origin,” constitutional lawyer Édgar Ortiz told El Faro English.
The money laundering accusation echoes the tactics employed to imprison publisher José Rubén Zamora: “It’s typical of authoritarian regimes to use money laundering laws to persecute the opposition,” Ortiz added. “If this were truly a matter of electoral finance, it would be a minor administrative sanction.”
On November 16, the AG similarly moved against Arévalo's immunity, accusing him and VP-Elect Karin Herrera of “damaging the national patrimony” for publicly rejecting the fraudulent election last year of the rector of San Carlos University, while student and faculty protestors physically occupied university buildings.
Looking for the winning horse
At this critical juncture, uncertainty is not only an effect of the attempted coup, but also a weapon in and of itself. “The panic last week was brutal,” said the Guatemala City diplomat. “Journalists and those who volunteered at polling stations feared they would be accused of crimes or arrested, more people left for exile… It’s all by design.”
The outcome may indeed be determined by a crude confluence of perceptions. If key actors with divided interests —like the Constitutional Court, CACIF, and the TSE itself— become convinced that the coup will prevail, they are likely to align with the winning side.
TSE President Blanca Alfaro embodies this perhaps better than anybody. She was the one who two years ago privately reported bribes from Giammattei in order to build his own fraud. On election day last August, she even claimed she was considering retiring after receiving threats for refusing to throw out the results.
But in a move widely read as pro-coup, after Congress revoked the immunity of the other four magistrates in relation to the TREP case two weeks ago, Alfaro asked legislators to name replacements, despite the fact that her colleagues have not vacated their posts.
In a written rebuke of both Congress and Alfaro’s behavior, electoral magistrate Irma Palencia denounced that “the chief motivation of all this political persecution —while keeping the appearance of legality— is to fill the Tribunal with new magistrates,” she wrote, “to possibly change the results obtained in the 2023 general elections.”
The Porras alliance’s intentions before Christmas are fairly clear. In a recent congressional hearing, the far-right attorney accusing the TSE testified that “we don’t have time, we’re a few months away from January 14.”
A legislator tried to ask what she truly meant by urging the commission to take action before that date, inauguration day, but another from Giammattei’s party Vamos interjected: “I’m sorry, but that question is too direct. I ask that you be careful what you answer,” he advised the attorney.
Enrique Montano, the congressman in charge of the commission, denounced threats that same day “from very powerful people (…) who do not want Bernardo Arévalo to be sworn in,” adding: “Let’s get on with this stupid session, which is already rigged.”
It’s worth reiterating that if there’s no political will to stop Porras’ maneuvers, and last-minute judicial action against the election results continues, the Constitutional Court will have the final say. Most likely, also under threat.
This article first appeared in the December 11 edition of the El Faro English newsletter. Subscribe here to tune into Central America.