On Monday, 2 September 2019, Guatemalan police executed a warrant for the arrest of Ms. Sandra Torres on charges of illicit and unreported campaign financing. Her arrest came just a few days after losing the immunity granted to presidential candidates in Guatemala. The presence of the press on the daytime raid amplified the spectacle of the former first-lady’s arrest at her lavish home in Zone 15 of Guatemala City. The announcement that she would be put in pretrial confinement in the Mariscal Zavala detention center to prevent her from fleeing the country was, unlike her arrest, a surprise. Zavala Prison is located on a military base and has become the home of dozens of powerful former officials, judges and politicians convicted of corruption and abuse of power, including ex-President Otto Pérez Molina. Ms. Torres will certainly be in infamous company as she prepares for the trial she calls a political maneuver.
Sandra Torres has had a unique political career to say the least. She was Guatemala’s first lady during the term of her then husband, President Álvaro Colom from 2008 to 2012. She attempted to succeed her husband by running for his office in 2011, but was disqualified by the courts in accordance a constitutional provision barring immediate family members of the President or Vice President from running for those positions. Later that year she divorced Colom in order to be eligible for the office and tried again in 2015; a race she lost to current President Jimmy Morales. It was during these earlier campaigns that she built a reputation as a champion for rural and indigenous Guatemalans, a base that served her well during the 2019 election. Again she came in second but only after she forced a runoff against the eventual winner, Alejandro Giammattei.
Official certification of Giammattei’s electoral victory marked the end of Torres’s immunity and just days later, a judge issued the warrant for her arrest. Some see Torres’s detention last Monday as a bold strike against a common flaw in Guatemalan politics: the secret financing of candidates by anonymous donors. In the case of Ms. Torres, she stands accused of accepting more than USD $3.6 million of illicit funding associated with her 2015 campaign. The history of those charges however, could be their undoing.
The investigation that resulted in charges against Sandra Torres and four of her colleagues was a joint effort of the Guatemalan Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity (FECI), an anti-corruption agency intended to work with the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG); a United Nations body given a mandate by the Guatemalan legislature in May 2007 to investigate and prosecute “illegal and clandestine security bodies that commit crimes against fundamental human rights.” During its twelve-year mandate, CICIG made great strides in prosecuting organized criminals and violations of rights. Its investigators prosecuted 96 cases involving everything from murder of journalists to environmental fraud and pollution. The vast majority of these cases, including the one against Ms. Torres, were referred through FECI for prosecution by the Public Ministry.
Seen as effective and good for Guatemala, CICIG’s mandate was renewed five times until the office made the fatal mistake of investigating President Morales himself. He subsequently blocked further renewals leaving CICIG’s mandate to expire last Tuesday, the day after Ms. Torres’s arrest. Perhaps recognizing its mandate was nearing an end, CICIG filed the case against Torres in April 2019 after she had already began her campaign. Extraordinarily, the complaint noted that as a candidate for President, she was already immune from prosecution. Now that CICIG’s mandate has indeed expired, FECI is left to prosecute an already sensitive case without a co-plaintiff.
The health of Guatemala’s electoral system hangs in the balance. Prior to the end of its mandate, CICIG seemed to have worn out its welcome with some of the country’s power brokers. Though President Morales and President-elect Giammattei have stayed relatively silent on the arrest of their former opponent, neither was supportive of CICIG’s mandate and are unlikely to view Torres’s arrest as good news for the status quo. Their willingness and ability to influence the outcome of her trial however will depend on their calculations of the political costs involved.
Morales will likely leave it to Giammattei who will have to balance the popularity of both CICIG and Ms. Torres among rural and indigenous Guatemalans, against the temptation to let her take the fall. Doing so could expose anonymous donors that are so influential they still remain anonymous despite all the legal attention the case has brought to their donations. Though the rural poor have some impact on security and electoral success, Giammattei managed to win the Presidency largely without their support in the first place. Campaign donors on the other hand, are likely to be in command of Guatemala’s rapidly developing economy. A defensive move by either constituency could cause a great deal of trouble for the new administration which will have to tread very carefully to find a workable cure for Guatemala’s electoral illness.
Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC which now has a presence in Guatemala City.