Questions persist over Guatemala election funding ahead of Sunday vote

Guatemalan political parties appear to be flouting the election funding cap and trying to conceal their funding sources, which some worry could be Guatemala's criminal groups.

William Gularte/Reuters
Workers of the Electoral Tribunal of Guatemala prepare electoral ballots for shipment across the country in Guatemala City, September 4, ahead of the presidential and legislative elections on September 11.

As Guatemala gets closer to election day, allegations of misdeeds continue to dog the campaigns, from murders of candidates to irregularities in campaign funding.

Guatemala goes to the polls on September 11 to elect the president, members of Congress, mayors, and town councilors. The run-up to the elections has been plagued by violence and scandals, with more than 20 political murders committed by mid-June. As InSight Crime predicted, the violence worsened over the summer as the elections drew nearer, with the death toll now standing at 36, according to the Human Rights Ombudsman.

Many of these murders are linked to organized criminal interests who are determined to win influence through having the candidate of their choice elected, especially in local positions of power like mayorships.

A more subtle threat to the legitimacy of the Guatemalan elections is posed by irregularities in campaign funding. A recent report by Mirador Electoral, a union of various NGOs, found that the two leading parties had flouted the spending cap of 48 million quetzeles ($6 million). The leading Partido Patriotica (PP) has spent 88.7 million quetzeles, according to the watchdog, almost double the assigned limit. Meanwhile UNE-GANA, a coalition including the National Unity of Hope party (Unidad Nacional de Esperanza - UNE) of current President Alvaro Colom, spent 61.8 million quetzeles. Mirador Electoral added it was likely that the Lider party has broken the spending limit, as they almost had by August 15, with more than three weeks to go before the elections.

According to the NGOs, this overspending is particularly troubling because there is a “direct correlation” between money spent and how each party fares in the polls. The PP, far in the lead with spending, has been leading the presidential polls for some months. The latest poll by Siglo 21 put PP presidential candidate Otto Perez Molina at just under 45 percent, an eight point drop from his showing in the previous poll, but still far ahead of his nearest rival, Lider's Manuel Baldizon, at 22.5 percent. This suggests that the financial irregularities are a serious issue, capable of affecting the outcome of the election.

A still more serious source of concern is the source of these funds. Mirador Electoral warned in a July report that political parties appeared to be trying to conceal the source of their funding, which comes mainly from private donors. It noted that the lack of transparency gave reason to believe that money came from “illicit sources.”

There is a long tradition of Guatemala’s criminal groups – who are mostly well-established, rooted in a particular region, and family-run, like the Mendozas and the Lorenzanas – buying off politicians. As InSight Crime has noted, building ties to mayors, who have influence on security policies and control budgets at the municipal level, is often a priority for these groups.

Ties to illegal groups, including the "hidden powers" that control Guatemalan politics, are thought to permeate much of the party system. Prominent newspaper editor Jose Ruben Zamora has alleged that army Gen. Mauro Jacinto, who was found murdered soon afterwards, told him that Mr. Colom’s campaign for the presidency had received 16 million quetzeles from local criminal bosses such as the Leones, the Mendozas, and the Lorenzanas, and more than Q20 million from the Zetas. This allegation, if true, illustrates the kind of massive funding that drug trafficking groups can offer to political parties -- together, the two alleged donations come to the best part of the total spending allowed.

The entry of cash from organized crime into election campaigns is particularly corrosive because of the way the Guatemalan political party system is set up. The parties tend to have little coherent ideology, and often field candidates who have bought their way in and have little connection to the party’s central command. Many switch party affiliation multiple times according to convenience and shifting alliances, in a system built on local patronage and power broking. As Mirador Electoral noted in its July report, this means that candidates have more loyalty to their financial backers than to their party or the voters who elected them. When elected, the new president, congress members, mayors, and councilors will “owe” their backers favors in return for this crucial financial support, and will set their priorities accordingly.

An example of what this kind of obligation might look like was given in December, when the Zetas reportedly forced a radio station to broadcast a message saying they had paid Colom $11.5 million, but that he had failed to fulfill his promises to them. This followed the government’s operations against the criminal group in Alta Verapaz, where Colom declared a state of siege, sending the army onto the streets. The Zetas' message warned that the president would "pay" for not complying, and that the Zetas would start a “war” in the country. Since then the group has committed a number of horrific attacks in Guatemala, though none appeared to be motivated revenge on Colom.

Guatemala's troubled electoral process looks set to roll on past September 11 – with no candidate likely to get more than 50 percent of votes in the first round, the presidential elections will go to a second round in November.

--- Hannah Stone is a writer for Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region. Find all of her research here.

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