Ana Castro

In June 2023, the results of the general elections in Guatemala took most of the country by surprise. The outcome of the upcoming run-off election on 20 August could change the country’s political landscape and pave the way for an overhaul of crime and corruption.

According to the 2021 Organized Crime Index, Guatemala is one of the most crime-ridden countries in the world, ranking 23rd globally and 8th in the Americas, with a criminality score of 6.48. Guatemala plays a significant role in the transnational illegal arms trade, serving as a source, transit and destination country. This contributes to high levels of domestic violence – over 80% of homicide victims in the country in 2022 were killed with firearms.

Guatemala also faces challenges in curbing the illegal trade in flora, particularly rosewood, a rare species and source of highly coveted timber. This illicit market is controlled by large criminal organizations working with local farmers and Chinese criminal networks to meet the high demand for rosewood in China. Local criminal organizations are also involved in the production of cocaine and synthetic drugs, markets dominated by domestic and Mexican drug cartels.

Corrupt state-embedded actors in Guatemala collaborate with criminal groups, which is often evident in the involvement of defence authorities in criminality. But how do these criminal actors successfully establish themselves within the state? Their methods vary depending on the level of influence they seek to achieve. A common tactic is to make new appointments when there is a change of government. However, winning elections precedes this process. Any criminal actor seeking a position of power in office would have to participate – directly or indirectly – in the democratic electoral process. Criminal actors benefit from and exploit a weak democratic system to obtain or retain power and perpetuate illicit activities while operating within the state.

A new hope

On 25 June 2023, Guatemala held general elections. The results were surprising. As no presidential candidate received more than 50% of the vote, a run-off will be held on 20 August between the two candidates with the most votes. Manuel Conde of Vamos, the party currently in power, came fourth (with just 7.85% of the vote). Sandra Torres (15.97%) and Bernardo Arévalo (11.74%) came in second and third, respectively. (The ‘null vote’ came out on top with 965 462 votes, or 17.33% of the total – a sign of the general dissatisfaction of the electorate.)

Sandra Torres is a former first lady who is running for president for the third time on the ticket of the Unión Nacional de la Esperanza (National Union of Hope, UNE) party. UNE is the country’s second oldest active party, part of the country’s political establishment, and is seeking to regain power after winning the presidency in 2007.

Arévalo is the candidate of Semilla (Seed), a progressive party born out of the country’s 2015 anti-corruption movement, whose strong stance against corruption appears to have resonated with voters. Unlike rival parties, Semilla is said to have a clean record, untainted by corruption scandals or associations with criminal actors. Although Semilla is not the first party to campaign against corruption, its origins and background have not been linked to criminal structures. This is the second time Semilla has participated in a general election, and the first with a presidential candidate. (The first time Semilla participated in a general election, in 2019, then presidential candidate Thelma Aldana was barred from running.)

Depending on the outcome of the election, Guatemala, positioned in the high criminality band of the Index and in the firm grip of state-embedded actors, may therefore experience a momentous change in its political leadership. This threat to the political establishment has not gone unchallenged. A group of political parties questioned the electoral process, alleging irregularities. In July, the office of the public prosecution authority called for the suspension of Semilla, a request that was blocked by the Constitutional Court. It is believed that the actors making the fraud allegations are colluding with state-embedded criminal actors at all levels of government to ensure their survival. Despite these efforts, the latest polls show Bernardo Arévalo well ahead of Torres.

A roadmap for resilience

In the event that Semilla wins the election, what can be expected from state-embedded actors who will be directly affected? What could the new leadership do to dismantle criminal structures operating from within the state apparatus? And, importantly, how can newcomers with an ambitious anti-corruption agenda implement safeguards to ensure they do not follow in the same footsteps as previous administrations?

The Index’s resilience indicators provide valuable guidance, a roadmap of sorts that could be implemented to address the challenges posed by organized crime. It is essential to review and strengthen transparency and accountability structures to ensure that they are capable of effectively combating transnational organized crime. Embracing international cooperation is crucial to coordinate efforts with other countries to tackle criminal markets that exert significant influence in the region, such as drug trafficking, arms trafficking and human smuggling.

For long-term success of such a strategy, it is necessary to establish comprehensive national policies with robust monitoring and evaluation mechanisms to measure their impact. Law enforcement agencies should prioritize identifying areas at risk of petty corruption and take decisive action to dismantle corrupt structures that have infiltrated the judicial system. It is also important to create space for the active participation of non-state actors, who can help identify hidden issues that investigative journalism plays a crucial role in uncovering. The work of grass-roots civil society organizations within communities is also essential in supporting victims and working on prevention initiatives, thereby building overall resilience to the impact of organized crime.

In any scenario where a country experiences a change in political leadership committed to dismantling corrupt structures, the impact on state-embedded actors would be significant, starting with the trust given by society to the new leadership and their willingness to challenge the status quo. The new leadership should seize the opportunity to confront criminal structures within the government head on and strengthen transparency, accountability and the rule of law. In Guatemala – and other countries facing similar challenges – taking these steps could lead to significant progress in countering organized crime, protecting citizens, and building a safer and more just society.

This analysis is part of the GI-TOC’s series of articles delving into the results of the Global Organized Crime Index 2021. The series explores the Index’s findings and their effects on policymaking, anti-organized crime measures and analyses from a thematic or regional perspective.