One of a Kind: The Influence of Guatemala’s Corrupt System

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Authors: Citli Valencia, Marco Navarro

Democracy in Guatemala hangs by a thread. On June 25th, Guatemalans headed to the ballots to make their voices heard in the general presidential elections. But the first round of the elections proved Guatemala is a country like no other.  

Guatemala has failed to establish a consolidated democracy since the U.S.-backed military overthrew Jacobo Árbenz’s democratically elected government in 1954. It was one of the most violent civil wars in the Americas in which innocent Guatemalans suffered from oppressive rule and genocide. Indigenous communities were specifically targeted and over 200,000 Mayans were murdered for protesting the repressive government. Contrary to other countries in Latin America where populists’ charm paves the way to authoritarian rule, a faceless system of elites and a network of impunity was established to control the country’s political system. Known today as the pacto de corruptos (the Corrupt Pact), this network has targeted Indigenous communities, community leaders, independent judges and prosecutors, journalists, human rights, and land defenders. 

Marco Navarro Stanic and Citli Valencia Cordova, LAWG’s summer 2023 advocacy interns, interviewed the former head of the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity (FECI), Juan Francisco Sandoval, to learn more about the growing threats posed on Guatemalans’ liberty.

Sandoval served as the head of FECI from 2015 to 2021. In 2021, Sandoval was discharged by Attorney General María Consuelo Porras due to his office’s high profile investigations into the pacto de corruptos. Porras has since worked tirelessly to undermine his work at FECI, and now persecutes judges, journalists, and prosecutors dedicated to fighting impunity. For that reason, the State Department barred Porras from entry into the United States.

To avoid unjust arrest, Sandoval was forced to leave his family in the middle of the night, not knowing what awaited him once the sun rose. Along with several other prosecutors and judges, Sandoval is now in the United States after being abruptly uprooted from Guatemala. This is not a new phenomenon – honest judges and prosecutors who speak out against corruption are forced to leave the country they call home in order to survive. Their hope is to support the cause of justice and the rule of law in Guatemala. One way of doing so is to bring attention to the upcoming presidential elections where citizens’ human and democratic rights are at risk.


Sandoval describes the pacto de corruptos as a “corporate dictatorship,” under which this Guatemalan elite seeks to get richer from state resources while ensuring its members go unpunished for their crimes. Today, over 37 justice operators live in exile to escape the persecution they face from the government for their service. If the rights of high-profile prosecutors and judges holding public office are endangered, nothing guarantees that an average citizen without public attention is safe.

Less than one out of three Guatemalans believe their basic rights are protected, and the vast majority believe political corruption is widespread. Under the Corrupt Pact, the government no longer responds to the interests of the Guatemalans electing them and instead protects the private interests of the corrupt political and economic actors. In a country where 59.29% of people live at or below the poverty line, the Guatemalan government must fight for economic stability for all instead of using its power to shield a select few.

While political parties are not necessarily part of this elite, many certainly are accomplices. In 2019, legislators attempted to give amnesty to those responsible for genocide, torture, and crimes against humanity during the civil war. Although this act of impunity would impede victims and relatives from seeking justice for the atrocities they suffered, such a proposal is not surprising. Impunity continues to run rampant in Guatemala.


Through the government, the Corrupt Pact makes it impossible for free and fair elections to take place and from condemning impunity in Guatemala. Sandoval stressed that certain parties gain unfair advantages by evading campaign funding regulations and receiving donations from unregistered or unlawful sources. In exchange, these parties return the favor and shield elite members while in office, as Former President Jimmy Morales’s party FCN-Nación did.

FCN received significant campaign donations from highly-ranked, retired military officers and led the attempt to exonerate war criminals. This systematic corruption not only makes it impossible for smaller political parties to compete, but also pushes for measures that ensure their crimes go unpunished. The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) investigated the FCN for illicit campaign funding, but members of the Guatemalan Congress struck again with legislation virtually decriminalizing or reducing the sentencing periods for crimes such as corruption and illicit funding. The CICIG’s mandate then expired on September 3, 2019 due to intense lobbying by members of the pacto de corruptos since they were threatened by the CICIG’s exemplary work for combating corruption and organized crime.

However, the pacto de corruptos’ power is not limited to the executive and legislative branches. They have co-opted the judiciary branch to ensure their grave human rights abuses go unpunished. Their power extends so widely that they choose which candidates make it on the ballot and in the courts, regardless of popular demand.

For example, electoral authorities rejected four presidential and vice-presidential tickets months before the election, including that of Indigenous leader Thelma Cabrera. Sandoval explained that electoral authorities enforce regulations differently among the candidates, which inevitably gives a preference to some. He mentioned that while some candidates faced “fabricated charges” to disqualify them from the race, others who were explicitly prohibited by the Constitution from running were admitted, such as frontrunner Sandra Torres. Even before the elections begin, this manipulation of regulations favors candidates tied to the corrupt networks within the state and strips many Guatemalans’ right to choose candidates that would effectively represent them. While 48% of Guatemala’s population identifies as Indigenous, there are only 16 Indigenous members of Congress out of 160. The fact Thelma Cabrera was blocked from being on the ballot completely undermines the principles of democracy. All candidates who meet the objective requirements, certainly including those who come from marginalized communities, should be allowed to run.

But even among the candidates who were allowed to run, electoral authorities failed to ensure fairness. In the first round, the anti-establishment party Movimiento Semilla led by Bernardo Arévalo surprised voters by advancing to the runoffs despite being underestimated in early campaign polls. Arévalo ran on a platform committed to eliminate poverty and foster economic development. But most importantly, he promised to prioritize the fight against corruption and impunity within the government. He was the only candidate adopting a strong stance against impunity and the system, according to Sandoval. Yet, moments before the Supreme Electoral Court (TSE) certified the first-round election results, the current head of FECI, Rafael Curruchiche, announced the suspension of Movimiento Semilla.

Curruchiche declared that FECI will open an investigation into Semilla for allegedly falsifying signatures to register as a political party. As a result, the Attorney General’s Office raided TSE’s offices to seize the party’s documentation. However, Guatemalan electoral law explicitly forbids the suspension of a political party during an ongoing election as it could allow potential sham charges to undermine the popular vote. The Constitutional Court blocked FECI’s attempt at undermining the popular vote, but the message is clear. Members of the corrupt elite are once again putting all of their efforts into suppressing the voices and votes of over 600,000 Guatemalans affected by their abuse of power.

It is no surprise that the percentage of blank and null votes surpassed that of any other candidate on the ballot. Electoral authorities and the government have an obligation to represent the interests of the entire country—not only those of a faceless and corrupt elite. Unless Guatemalans’ right to vote in fair and free elections is respected, their current leaders have proven they only have their own interests in mind and every day people will continue to suffer from high poverty levels, inequality, and insecurity. Journalists will continue to be jailed for reporting on human rights abuses, Indigenous people will face discrimination, and land defenders will be killed for protecting their centuries-old way of life. This corruption must end or Guatemalans will continue to suffer.


During the internal armed conflict that lasted thirty six years, the Guatemalan military committed numerous human rights violations, such as genocide, massacres, and forced disappearances. It has only been since 2013 that trials have taken place to prosecute military officials, all thanks to the inspiring bravery as well as the meticulous documentation victims of these genocides kept to preserve their history.

Sandoval emphasized that there is still hope within the democratic and human rights crisis highlighted by the recent and forthcoming second-round of elections on August 20. He believes that citizens must continue to document these attacks on democracy to one day bring to justice members of the corrupt elite.

Despite the political elite trying to blatantly co-opt the presidential elections, the run-offs between Arévalo and Torres are set to take place on August 20th. To ensure this next round of elections is fair, the United States and other members of the international community must:

  • Provide more platforms for human rights defenders and exiled justice operators, such as Sandoval, to expose how democratic violations directly impact Guatemalans and force people to migrate.
  • Pressure and publicly demand that the Guatemalan government and judicial institutions respect the election results.
  • Urge that the OAS Electoral Mission stay in the country until the January 14, 2024 elections to guarantee that the election results are not overturned.
  • Listen to and support the findings of international and Guatemalan civil society election observers.
  • Levy sanctions on corrupt private and public actors, including corrupt justice operators, in Guatemala.
  • In the US, the government should move beyond the Engel’s List, such as by placing corrupt actors on the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Sanctions List.

To learn more about Guatemala’s faceless system and its impact on innocent people, read the following reports by the Latin America Working Group Education Fund and partners.