CIVICUS speaks with Jordán Rodas Andrade about Guatemala’s general elections – where a candidate promising reform has surprisingly made the second round of the presidential race – and the prospects for democratic change and opening up civic space.
Jordán Rodas is a lawyer specialising in constitutional guarantees and fundamental rights, transparency and anti-corruption. In addition to being a university professor, in 2015 he was elected vice-president of the Guatemalan Bar Association and between 2017 and 2022 he was Guatemala’s Human Rights Ombudsman. In exercising this role he was repeatedly criminalised and threatened, as a result of which he had to go into exile.
How have civic space conditions changed in Guatemala in recent years?
In recent years there has been a very worrying deterioration of civic space in Guatemala, which has worsened under the current president, Alejandro Giammattei. His predecessor, Jimmy Morales, a comedian-turned-president, left very bad practices in place, but these reached extreme levels under Giammattei.
In recent years, many human rights defenders, land rights defenders, journalists and justice defenders have had to leave our country, forced by a hostile climate of persecution and criminalisation. This closure of spaces and the absence of an independent press have produced fertile ground for the advance of an authoritarian regime. These elections are key because they give us Guatemalans a chance to take a different path for the good of our country.
What drove you into exile?
In my five years as prosecutor, I was criminalised with 18 pretrial proceedings, all of which were rejected. It is exhausting to have to constantly defend yourself against such a succession of spurious accusations. Then I had eight requests for removal from office by members of congress, in addition to a crippling financial suffocation.
Above all, I have witnessed the weakening of justice. Many had to take the difficult decision to leave the country to save their lives, their freedom or their integrity. Among them are Juan Francisco Sandoval, former head of the Special Prosecutor’s Office against Impunity (FECI), Erika Aifán, an independent judge, Judge Miguel Ángel Gálvez and many others who in one way or another touched the heartstrings of political and economic power.
It is no coincidence that behind the persecution of justice operators and journalists is often the Foundation Against Terrorism, directed by business leader Ricardo Méndez Ruiz, who has been accused by the US government of acts of corruption and acts against democratic institutions. This organisation was a plaintiff in the criminal proceedings against Virginia Laparra, former FECI prosecutor in Quetzaltenango, who has been in prison for more than a year and who should never have been detained for denouncing cases of corruption of a judge. Whistleblowing is not a crime anywhere in the world.
The same organisation criminally prosecuted José Rubén Zamora, the founder of newspaper elPeriódico, one of the government’s main critics who for years has denounced corruption. Zamora was recently sentenced to six years in prison for several alleged crimes, including money laundering. This sent a very serious message against press freedom. The independent press has had to self-censor and yet it continues to fight this battle.
I was still in Guatemala when Zamora was captured, and so I decided to distance myself. I left in August but returned in December, by land, to participate in the assembly of the People’s Liberation Movement (MLP), which proclaimed Thelma Cabrera, an Indigenous Maya Mam woman, as its presidential candidate and myself as its vice-presidential candidate. Four years ago, the MLP came in fourth place, but in a context of social malaise in the face of corruption and thanks to its opening up to mestizo people – people of mixed European and Indigenous heritage – I thought it had a good chance of entering the second-round race.
But my successor in the prosecutor’s office filed a spurious complaint against me, as a result of which our presidential ticket was blocked. I was systematically refused information about the content of the complaint. In other words, this was used to take us out of the race. Since then, I have continued the struggle from exile. This may not be what you want, but it is what you have to do.
Under what conditions would you decide to return to Guatemala permanently?
I was just talking about this last week following a work meeting with the Guatemalan state mediated by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). I have been the beneficiary of a precautionary measure from the IACHR since 2017. These measures establish that the state has the obligation to ensure and guarantee a person’s life, integrity, security and liberty, and in my case the state of Guatemala has not complied with it. In order to return, I would need as the minimum that the state does not persecute or criminalise me.
There are currently two accusations against me, one filed by the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office and another by the Comptroller General’s Office. I have no official knowledge of what the accusations are because I don’t have access to the documents; I have requested them through access to information requests. But it seems to me they are related to the fact that in my declaration of assets I said that I had handed over on 20 August, which is when my constitutionally established term ended, but I left the country on 18 August, leaving the deputy attorney general in charge, as the law dictates. In other words, there was no falsehood or crime. This case is under reserve, and I have asked the state, as a sign of goodwill, not to extend this reserve but to hand over a copy of the complaint so I can defend myself, and to guarantee my life and safety, and that of my family in Guatemala.
Has the fight against corruption in Guatemala failed?
The fight against corruption has not failed, but it has stalled as a result of a well-thought-out strategy of a corrupt alliance of political officials and private sector actors.
However, today more than ever I hope that we will learn the painful but positive lessons from the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), which I believe has more lights than shadows. I hope that from that learning we can, sooner rather than later, take up the fight against corruption again.
International support will continue to be indispensable because our justice system is very porous, permeated by organised crime and lacking institutionality. Three of the nine magistrates of the Supreme Court of Justice and several other judges and judicial officials are on the US State Department’s Engel List of people who have committed acts of corruption or have participated in actions to undermine democracy in their countries. Members of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal have been accused of falsifying their doctoral degrees to get elected and the Human Rights Ombudsman was Giammattei’s human rights officer in the prison system at the time he launched ‘Operation Peacock’, a police operation that resulted in a massacre and eventually cost Giammattei 10 months in prison, but also launched its presidential bid. Hence the trust that exists between these two officials.
But it is clear that people are tired of all this and they showed it at the ballot box on 25 June, when they said no to a return to the past and yes to a proposal that sends a message of hope for the fight against corruption. This was clearly put by the candidate who represents this hope, Bernardo Arévalo, who made it to the second round against all odds.
Do you consider these elections to have been free and competitive?
The presidential election was not free and competitive, because a fair election requires not only that there be no fraud on voting day, but also that a series of elements are present throughout the process, from the moment the elections are called. The election was called on 20 January, and on 27 January the state closed the door on us and prevented our participation. Not only did this violate our right to stand for election, but it also restricted citizens’ right to have a full range of options.
In reaction to this exclusion, Thelma Cabrera called for a null vote, and numbers don’t lie. The null vote actually won, with 17 per cent, a higher share than that received by the candidate who came first, Sandra Torres, who got around 15 per cent. People are clearly fed up.
The unfairness of the competition also manifested itself in the official party’s handling of public resources and the government’s extremely close relationship with some Supreme Electoral Tribunal magistrates.
But the fact that Bernardo Arévalo managed to enter the second round is, alongside the mass of null votes, blank votes and abstentions, a sign of enormous rejection of the system. I have high expectations for the second round, in which I hope that the Guatemalan people will participate massively and take advantage of this opportunity to choose a better future.
What would Guatemala’s new government need to do to put the country back on the road to democracy?
Above all, the anti-corruption message must be accompanied by real action. Revenge against justice operators must stop, the rule of law must be restored and the freedom of the independent press must be guaranteed.
The new president should form a cabinet inclusive of progressive sectors. He should convene political parties, social forces and Indigenous peoples’ movements to jointly make a proposal that ensures public policies benefit those most in need.
The new government should totally dissociate itself from the malpractices of the past and be very careful about power’s temptations. Its responsibility to those who have placed their trust in it must prevail. There will be temptations along the way, so it is essential that it place its bets on people who are ethical, capable and consistent with the values projected in the electoral campaign, as people voted for them because they recognised them first and foremost as an honest party. Bernardo is surely the most interested in honouring the legacy of his father, former president Juan José Arévalo. His government could become a third government of the revolution, taking up and improving on the great achievements of that democratic springtime that took place between 1944 and 1955.
Civic space in Guatemala is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.