Alfonso Portillo and the “Corporate Mafia State”
During the 1999 elections, Alfonso Portillo ran on a populist ticket, hoping to lure the lower classes away from his main opponent, who was fashioned after Arzú. He promised to cut poverty by ending corruption and tax evasion. His party, the Frente Republicano Guatemalteco (FRG, Guatemalan Republican Front), was actually the brainchild of Ríos Montt, the mastermind behind some of the worst atrocities against Guatemala’s indigenous peoples during the army’s scorched-earth campaign of the early 1980s. He was forbidden, once again, from running in the election. It never stopped him from trying.
Another important campaign issue, and one Portillo played masterfully to his advantage, was citizen safety in the face of skyrocketing crime rates. A long-past incident in Mexico, whereby Portillo killed two men in self-defense before fleeing the country, was dug up during the campaign but actually worked in his favor in machismo-dominated Guatemalan society. Portillo played off the incident as evidence that he was willing and able to take a hard stance on crime.
History has not been kind in its assessment of the Portillo administration. It can be confidently stated without fear of exaggeration that the Portillo administration was one of the worst, if not the worst, of Guatemala’s governments to date. Among the elements of his atrocious legacy was the solidifying of what analysts have called the “Corporate Mafia State,” defined in a February 2002 Amnesty International report as, “The ‘unholy alliance’ between traditional sectors of the oligarchy, some ‘new entrepreneurs,’ elements of the police and military, and common criminals.”
Among the few achievements under the Portillo administration was the 2001 conviction of three persons involved in the Gerardi murder. Although two military officers and a priest were tried and convicted of the murder, the general consensus was that the intellectual authors of the crime were still at large. Progress was also made in the case of the long-running saga of the murder of anthropologist Myrna Mack. The material author of the crime, Noel de Jesús Beteta, is currently serving a 25-year prison sentence. The intellectual author, Colonel Juan Valencia Osorio, was sentenced to 30 years in prison in 2002, but an appeals court granted his release the following year. Shortly after an order for his re-arrest and return to prison, Valencia escaped while under military custody and under dubious circumstances.
Meanwhile, Efraín Ríos Montt, the dictator who presided over some of the worst atrocities during the army’s scorched-earth campaign of the early 1980s, got himself elected president of Congress. From his position, he and the military interests were said to run the show via the creation of a parallel power structure while Portillo remained a convenient government front man. Corruption, always a problem plaguing Guatemala’s governments, ballooned to unparalleled proportions. Scandals involved embezzlement by the interior minister as well as a highly publicized coverup involving Ríos Montt himself.
In an event subsequently labeled “Guategate” by the local press, Ríos Montt and 19 other FRG members of congress were accused of secretly altering a liquor tax law, which had already been passed by congress, at the behest of powerful liquor interests. The altered rate lowered the tariffs by as much as 50 percent. When opposition parties denounced the illegal changes to the law, congressional records from the meeting disappeared, while other documents were falsified. Although a popular outcry arose to have Montt and the other members of congress stripped of their diplomatic immunity to stand trial for their actions, the crime remained in impunity, as is so often the case in Guatemala.
In May 2003, the FRG nominated Ríos Montt as its presidential candidate in the elections to be held in November of that year. Once again, his candidacy was rejected by the electoral authorities and by two lower courts, in accordance with the constitutional ban on coup participants’ running for presidential office. In July 2003 the Constitutional Court, with several judges appointed by the FRG, approved his candidacy for president, ignoring the constitutional ban that had prevented him from running in previous elections. Adding insult to injury, Ríos Montt had publicly (and correctly) predicted the margin by which he would win the decision prior to its announcement. Days later, the Supreme Court suspended his campaign for the presidency and agreed to hear a complaint presented by two opposition parties.
Ríos Montt denounced the ruling as tampering with the judicial hierarchy and issued veiled threats concerning possible agitation by supporters of his candidacy. Days later, on July 24, a day known as Black Thursday, thousands of ski-masked and hooded FRG supporters invaded the Guatemala City streets armed with machetes, guns, and clubs. They had been bused in from the interior by the FRG and were led in organized fashion by well-known FRG militants, including several members of congress, who were photographed by the press while coordinating the actions.
The demonstrators quickly targeted the offices of outspoken media opposing Ríos Montt’s candidacy, holding an entire building hostage for several hours after trying to occupy it. They also marched on the courts and opposition party headquarters, shooting out windows and burning tires in city streets. Journalists were attacked, including a TV cameraman who died of a heart attack while running away from an angry mob. The rioters finally disbanded after the second day of riots when Ríos Montt publicly called on them to return to their homes.
Following the unrest, the Constitutional Court, laden with allies of Ríos Montt and Portillo, overturned the Supreme Court decision and cleared the way for Ríos Montt to run for president. A majority of Guatemalans were disgusted with his actions and the corrupt legacy of his party. They expressed their discontent at the polls, where Ríos Montt finished a distant third in the presidential race.
The winner after a second, run-off election between the top two candidates was Óscar Berger Perdomo of GANA (Gran Alianza Nacional or Grand National Alliance), a former Guatemala City mayor who represented the interests of the economic elite but surrounded himself with a diverse cabinet. Among them was Rigoberta Menchú, who was named the governmental goodwill ambassador for the peace accords, which the government promised to take up again.
The new government’s first priority quickly became cleaning up the mess left behind by the FRG. The national treasury had been ransacked of more than US$1 billion, with corruption on an unprecedented scale involving theft, money laundering, monetary transfers to the army, and creation of secret bank accounts in Panama, Mexico, and the United States by members of Portillo’s staff. Berger promised to bring corrupt officials from the FRG government to justice. Remarkably, he was able to make good on his promises, and many corrupt officials are now behind bars awaiting trial, although some have managed to escape prosecution due to the inefficiency and corruption still rampant in the country’s judicial system. As of February 2010, Portillo was in a Guatemalan prison cell awaiting extradition to the U.S. to face charges.
Crime and lack of security continued to be problems affecting a wide spectrum of the population. Gang violence plagued Guatemala City and numerous other cities and towns. The police force increasingly came under fire for corruption, initiating a long process of cleansing out its corrupt elements in the hopes of making it more effective. In the face of the police force’s inability to abate the continuing upswing in violent crime, which included 16 daily homicides, Berger was forced to integrate joint police-military patrols. These came under fire as evidence of increasing militarization, contrary to the 1996 peace accords.
The economic picture was severely disrupted when thousands of rural peasant farmers had their crops annihilated and their villages destroyed by Hurricane Stan in October 2005. Government reconstruction efforts in the storm’s aftermath were slow in making it to affected communities.
Despite some public opposition, Berger was able to implement many of his neoliberal economic policies, including laws governing the concession of government services and construction projects to private entities, securing mining rights for multinational mining conglomerates, and the ratification of DR-CAFTA, the Central American Free Trade Agreement.
The judicial and legislative branches continued to come under fire for gross inefficiency and corruption charges. The existence of clandestine groups, a legacy of the corporate mafia state with links to state agents and organized crime, continued to plague the government. Meanwhile, the creation of a U.N.-sponsored Commission for the Investigation of Illegal Groups and Clandestine Security Organizations (CICIACS) was blocked by Constitutional Court rulings. A second, reworked version of the proposal, known as the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), was the product of an agreement signed between the United Nations and Guatemalan government in December 2006, though it would need congressional approval. The United States and other foreign governments offered financial support for the program, which was to be composed of expert international detectives providing material support to the Public Ministry in its investigations of parallel power structures.
In February 2007, the urgent need to get CICIG up and running was demonstrated by a heinous crime perpetrated against three visiting Salvadoran diplomats and their chauffeur, who were found dead, shot execution-style and burned in their car on the outskirts of Guatemala City. Following an unprecedented investigation fueled by outrage from Salvadoran authorities, the perpetrators turned out to be high-ranking police officers from the Department of Criminal Investigations operating as contract killers. Things really came to a head when the captured policemen were executed by a death squad while awaiting questioning in a high-security prison just days later. Initial government statements and doublespeak had pinned the blame for the executions on fellow prison inmates, including gang members. The incident opened a can of worms in which high-ranking government officials have been implicated in the continued operation of death squads and ties to organized crime. The reconstruction of the Policía Nacional Civil, already a matter of national concern, came to the forefront following these incidents.
As Berger’s presidency drew to a close, the general consensus was that his time as president was marked by mostly good intentions but also some modest gains, particularly in terms of a redress of Guatemala’s historical ills. Among the glaring omissions was a long-term, inclusive strategy to develop rural areas, where the majority of Guatemala’s indigenous peoples live. Delays in the reconstruction process after Hurricane Stan were continually cited as symptoms of weak leadership and an inability to coordinate efforts to reach a common goal. Among the positive aspects of his presidency were infrastructural projects, or megaproyectos, including new roads and airports to make Guatemala more attractive to investors. The creation of so-called gabinetes móviles (mobile cabinets) was also a welcome aspect of Berger’s administration, allowing those in rural areas the opportunity to have their demands personally addressed by the president and his cabinet members during visits to their towns and cities. Continued economic growth and a more favorable investment climate were duly recognized by international financial organizations. The full effect of DR-CAFTA, which officially took effect on July 1, 2006, remains to be seen.
© Al Argueta from Moon Guatemala, 3rd Edition. Photos © Al Argueta www.alargueta.com