Guatemala, together with El Salvador and Honduras, is one of the most problematic countries in Central America and Latin America. As in the rest of the region, the Guatemalan electorate has been frustrated by the insecurity of life due to the daily life of the drug trade, widespread poverty and unemployment, “forced” migration towards the United States, and a long tradition of corruption among politicians. In these elections, an atypical candidate, Bernardo Arévalo, campaigning on the promise of ending corruption and rooting out corrupt political cadres, attracted the attention of Guatemalan voters who had little trust in politicians, and the atypical candidate who challenged the “establishment” won 58 per cent of the vote. It should be recalled that Sandra Torres, the former “first lady” whom Arévalo defeated in the second round, is also a centre-left politician with pro-poor policies.
Who is Arévalo?
The son of former president Juan José Arévalo (1945-1951), a retired diplomat and former member of parliament, Arévalo has his work cut out for him. How will he put an end to the tradition of corruption in Guatemala, which is so ingrained in the fabric of the current political system and politicians? We know that Arévalo was able to win the favour of the electorate by claiming that he would not only end the violence and corruption in the country, but also solve the problem of hunger and poverty and ensure economic growth.
The fight against corruption has a history
In Guatemala, with its 17 million inhabitants, Arévalo’s job will be difficult if we do not recognise the valuable efforts made over the past years to radically reform the judiciary and justice system in order to put an end to corruption, to ensure that criminals are punished with certainty, to strengthen deterrence through exemplary sentences, and to eradicate the culture of impunity.
United Nations helps Guatemala fight corruption
The problem of public order and jobs in Guatemala and its two neighbours, El Salvador and Honduras, is a widespread and deep-rooted problem that concerns the entire continent. There is a broad consensus that if this region, known as the Northern Triangle, becomes peaceful and prosperous, migration movements from Central America towards the United States will slow down and that a reasonable solution to migration movements is a change in the poor conditions in the sending countries. We know that United Nations experts, approaching the migration movements in the new continent from this perspective, have been working towards this goal by assessing that criminal networks can be dismantled if the outdated judicial system in the countries of the region is strengthened. Since 2007, the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), established as part of the UN’s efforts to fight corruption, has, in co-operation with the Guatemalan government, supported the judicial system in the country and achieved astonishing success in ensuring that previously untouchable criminals are investigated and punished. Between 2007 and 2017, the crime rate in neighbouring countries rose by a steady 1 per cent per year, while in Guatemala it fell by 5 per cent. As the UN’s success in Guatemala is being replicated in other Central American countries, we recall with disappointment that Guatemala’s complacent political elites succeeded in blocking the Commission, clamouring that it was interfering in the country’s internal affairs. In the end, the fearless prosecutors and judges who, in co-operation with the Commission, arrested, tried and imprisoned drug leaders and corrupt politicians (including former heads of state), were forced to leave the country in 2017 (I recommend the film Burden of Peace).
Will Bernardo Arévalo get support from Parliament?
Considering that the new President Bernardo Arévalo has only 24 deputies in the 160-seat Parliament, the question is how he will fulfil his commitment to end corruption. To be honest, I cannot see how it will be possible for him to reform the justice system and to purge the judges and prosecutors who give the green light to corruption. It is not in the nature of political science to expect the centre-left Sandra Torres’ party (UNE, 28 MPs) and the right-conservative party of outgoing President Alejandro Giammatei (VAMOS, 40 MPs) to cooperate for this purpose. It is a miracle that it has the support of the majority of the Parliament, which is made up of deputies from 15 different parties, large and small. The Latin American political scene is characterised by power games between leaders who make a good faith effort to pass reform laws and parliaments that try to block the head of state and remove him or her from office. Did we not witness the last time in Peru, when the socialist president Pedro Castillo was deposed by the Parliament (end of 2022) and sentenced to jail within 1.5 years?
How did Nayib Bukele solve the security problem in El Salvador?
While our minds are preoccupied with the questions of how Bernardo Arévalo will bring justice to his country, how he will end the domination of drug gangs over the population, in short, how he will create a prosperous Guatemala where there is no fear for life, we cannot help but turn our eyes to neighbouring El Salvador. Nayib Bukele, the young, diverse, immensely popular president of this neighbouring country (the first in the world to legalise bitcoin), ended the dominance of drug gangs in El Salvador within two years. The people of El Salvador now roam the streets as they wish without any security concerns, work without extortion, and earn their bread. There are no more murders in the country, where an average of 20 murders a day were recorded: In short, law and order in El Salvador is perfect. Nayib Bukele’s achievement is the so-called “mano dura”, the hard-line police state policy. It is based on limiting the rights of criminals or suspects and increasing the powers of the police. His success in sending more than 70,000 suspects to prison in the year and a half since he declared a state of emergency in March last year has been a big hit with the people and politicians of the region. Naturally, human rights organisations, associations defending the rule of law, etc. are very disturbed by the Bukele miracle.
“mano dura” is gaining popularity in Latin America
While Bukele is popular throughout Latin America with his “mano dura” policy, the leftist female president Xiomara Castro in Honduras, another country of the Northern Triangle suffering from gang violence, seems to have adopted this harsh policing method. Castro, who claimed during the election campaign that drug violence could not be prevented by military means, has done a 180-degree turn and, with the declaration of a state of emergency, adopted Bukele’s path and embraced security policies, demonstrating the growing popularity of this tendency.
The “Bukele effect” is also evident in Guatemala, which is in the midst of an electoral process. We know that Mrs Sandra Torres, President-elect Arévalo’s opponent in the second round, admitted during the campaign that Bukele’s “mano dura” policy had been successful and pledged to implement similar security policies to maintain order. What we do not know is whether President-elect Bernardo Arévalo will, at some stage, favour Bukele’s security policies that have achieved results!
Let the people of Guatemala enjoy peace and prosperity!
After 36 years of civil war, which ended in 1996, it was hoped that Guatemala would have peace and prosperity. The expected peace and prosperity has not come for 25 years. It is sad and frustrating that the desperate Guatemalan people are still looking for salvation in emigration to the United States. I don’t know whether President-elect Arévalo will apply to the UN for a CICIG-like application, whether he will opt for the ‘mano dura’ policy of neighbouring El Salvador, or whether he will pull Guatemala out of the hole it has fallen into by carrying out a radical judicial and justice reform in the country, with the unexpected ingenuity of the Parliament behind him. In the framework of my interest in the region, I can do nothing but send my sincere wishes of success to “el Presidente”.