The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Guatemala court rules popular anti-corruption crusader ineligible to run for president

Thelma Aldana, Guatemala’s former attorney general, greets supporters during a campaign event in Guatemala City in March. (Oliver de Ros/AP)

GUATEMALA CITY — A Guatemalan court on Wednesday ruled that anti-corruption crusader Thelma Aldana is ineligible to run in next month’s presidential election, Guatemalan media reported, in what analysts called a blow to the decade-long effort to clean up the country’s graft-ridden politics.

Four years ago, Aldana, then the attorney general, led an investigation of official graft that ousted the president. But now, Aldana  is the one facing corruption charges.

Aldana’s supporters — including U.S. and Guatemala civil society groups — say the charges against her are trumped up. The 63-year-old lawyer, they say, was part of a remarkable, U.S.-backed effort in recent years to tackle corruption in this poor nation. But her attempted run for president in the June 16 general elections prompted a fierce backlash by politicians and others who benefited from the old system.

“Thelma Aldana represented the possibility of continuing to affect political actors and structures that had previously been untouchable,” said Stephanie Lopez, a political analyst at the Central American Institute of Political Studies.

The Constitutional Court ruling barring Aldana’s candidacy is a victory for an alliance of corrupt politicians, parties and institutions, said Lopez. A document filed by Aldana to register as a candidate for the Semilla party was no longer valid in light of the more recent criminal allegations, the court ruled.

After the 6-to-1 decision by the court, Aldana issued a statement, saying, “I assure the people of Guatemala that I will continue in the struggle to transform the country.”

The decision marks a turning point in an election campaign that has been wild, even by Central American standards. A quarter of the 24 initial presidential hopefuls face allegations of wrongdoing, and before Wednesday’s ruling, four had been excluded from the race. One was accused by U.S. authorities of seeking millions of dollars in campaign funds from the Sinaloa drug cartel and help in assassinating political rivals. (The candidate, Mario Estrada, who was arrested on a visit to Miami, has pleaded not guilty.)

While Guatemala is small — its population is just 17 million — its elections matter well beyond its borders. The Central American country is the No. 1 source of irregular migration to the United Statesmore than 165,000 Guatemalans have been apprehended on the border in the U.S. Southwest this fiscal year. And it is an important transshipment point for Colombian cocaine being trafficked to the United States.

The fight over Aldana’s candidacy took place as clean-government advocates warned of major setbacks for the anti-corruption movement here.

President Jimmy Morales’s government has announced it will shut down the U.N.-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, known as CICIG, for its initials in Spanish, when its mandate expires in September. The commission has worked closely with Guatemalan prosecutors in groundbreaking investigations and has sought to investigate Morales. The president has accused the commission of becoming politically motivated and overstepping its bounds — allegations it rejects.

Aldana had pledged to revive CICIG if she became president. She was among the leading presidential contenders when a judge issued an arrest warrant for her in March. Prosecutors say her office paid for workshops that allegedly never took place. She denies any wrongdoing.

Aldana has since been in self-exile in El Salvador. As a candidate, she would have had immunity from prosecution and detention. In light of the court ruling, she continues to face arrest upon return to Guatemala.

The judge in the case is now under investigation for allegedly receiving bribes in exchange for issuing the warrant. He had previously closed proceedings to the public.

“We believe it is another mechanism that has been used to prevent the spurious and unfounded nature of the case from being known,” said Rootman Pérez, Aldana’s lawyer and campaign manager.

The Semilla party — the name is Spanish for “seed” — grew out of mass protests against corruption in 2015, as prosecutors unveiled a network of graft reaching the office of then-President Otto Pérez Molina.

That case won Aldana praise in Guatemala and abroad. The U.S. State Department honored her three years ago with an International Women of Courage award. 

Stephen McFarland, a former U.S. ambassador to Guatemala, noted that Aldana prosecuted many corruption cases against politicians and businesspeople, working closely with CICIG with the support of the United States.

“These people, it would appear, are pushing back,” he said.

José Carlos Sanabria, a political analyst at the Association for Research and Social Studies, said that there are smaller opposition parties that share Aldana’s strong stance against corruption.

“They do not have the same presence or position, but they could benefit,” now that Aldana is out of the running, he said.

Aldana can continue to be a public figure for Semilla to help push for as many anti-corruption legislators in Guatemala’s Congress as possible, said Lopez.

The Constitutional Court is also scheduled to address in the coming days whether to strip presidential candidate Sandra Torres of her immunity from prosecution. Torres, a longtime politician and former first lady, is leading in the polls but has been implicated in a case of illegal campaign financing related to the 2015 election, which Morales won. She says she’s innocent.

The court on Monday disqualified right-wing presidential candidate Zury Ríos. The former congresswoman has been in second place in recent polls.

The constitution bars leaders who took power by force from running for president, and the ban extends to relatives. Ríos is the daughter of Efraín Ríos Montt, who became Guatemala’s leader by military coup in the 1980s. He was on trial on charges of genocide when he died last year.

No candidate is expected to win an outright majority in the election on June 16. A runoff vote is scheduled for Aug. 11.

The new president is to take office in January 2020.

Sheridan reported from Mexico City.

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