State Department sanctions Guatemalan officials over post-election interference


The State Department on Tuesday announced it is pulling the U.S. visas of “a dozen individuals, and their immediate family members” in Guatemala over ongoing attempts to interfere with President-elect Bernardo Arévalo’s ascent to power.

Guatemala’s outgoing government has, since July, taken a series of legal actions against Arévalo and his party, jeopardizing a peaceful transition.

“The United States rejects the continued efforts to undermine Guatemala’s peaceful transition of power to President-elect Arévalo,” Matthew Miller, a State Department spokesperson, said in a statement.

“Most recently, the Guatemalan Public Ministry seized electoral materials under the custody of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, called for the forced removal of peaceful protestors, pressed for the removal of the Minister of Governance who protected the right to peaceful protest, and sought to lift the immunity of a member of Congress who publicly expressed concern about these anti-democratic measures,” said Miller.

Though the State Department did not make public the names of the sanctioned individuals, the latest round is targeted to hit where it hurts — at the ability of government officials and their allies among the country’s elite to visit the United States.

In a separate announcement, the State Department did name three individuals who are close to President Alejandro Giammattei. Gendri Rocael Reyes Mazariegos, former minister of the interior; Alberto Pimentel Mata, the former minister of energy and mines; and Oscar Rafael Perez Ramirez, the current vice minister of sustainable development were barred from entry into the United States “due to their involvement in significant corruption.”

“The threats against the popular will are strengthening, so the hope is these sanctions won’t be just sending a message, but preventing a continued alteration to constitutional order,” said Ana María Méndez Dardón, director for Central America at the Washington Office on Latin America.

The Hill has reached out to the Guatemalan Embassy in Washington for comment.

Since Arévalo’s surprise win in August, Guatemalan officials have been ratcheting up pressure on his supporters.

Attorney General María Consuelo Porras — herself sanctioned in 2022 over corruption allegations — has become the face of the government’s alleged efforts to stop the transition.

Porras first drew international attention after ordering investigations against lawyers, judges and advocates linked to anti corruption efforts in the country, leading to the sanctions against her.

U.S. officials see her actions, at least implicitly supported by Giammattei, as a threat to stability in the country, which is both a major source of migration to the United States and a necessary pathway for other migrants from South and Central America.

As conditions in Guatemala have deteriorated, the number of Guatemalan migrants encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border has skyrocketed.

In the first nine months of fiscal 2023, encounters with Guatemalans hovered between 10,000 and 15,000 per month. In July, Customs and Border Protection reported 22,127 such encounters, followed by 37,937 in August and 34,537 in September.

And Guatemala has the potential to be a key democratic ally in Central America — U.S. officials are wary of El Salvador’s creeping authoritarianism, Nicaragua’s full descent into dictatorship, and signs of dwindling anti-corruption efforts in Honduras.

Guatemala’s own anti-corruption initiatives have been faltering since 2019, when former President Jimmy Morales terminated a U.N.-sanctioned investigative body, but Arévalo’s election raised hopes of a course correction among external observers

“A peaceful transfer of power is critical to Guatemala’s democratic future, and I pledge to stand against those upholding systemic corruption in Guatemala. It is my hope other agencies — including the Department of Treasury — will follow suit with equally strong actions against these anti-democratic actors in Guatemala,” said Rep. Norma Torres (D-Calif.), who was born in Guatemala.

The threats against Arévalo are not limited to the alleged prosecutorial harassment led by Porras: Since August, he and Vice President-elect Karin Herrera are under the protection of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), part of the Organization of American States.

The IACHR extended its protection after plans to assassinate Arévalo surfaced, including one named “Plan Colosio,” in reference to Luis Donaldo Colosio, a reformist Mexican presidential candidate assassinated in 1994.

According to the IACHR resolution granting Arévalo and Herrera protection, Arévalo “received worrying information about a plan to assassinate him with the participation of state agents and private individuals.”

Giammattei’s critics have long alleged his government is beholden to the interests of an elite minority with outsize influence.

The new U.S. sanctions are targeted to individuals both in government and in the private sector.

“These individuals include Public Ministry officials and other public and private sector actors engaging in undermining democracy or the rule of law in Guatemala. The Guatemalan people have spoken. Their voices must be respected,” said Miller.

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