Thelma Aldana, Barred from Guatemala Presidential Election, Says Country Is “Captured” by Corruption

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Guatemala’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal announced Thursday it will hold a recount amid fraud allegations following last Sunday’s presidential and legislative elections. The country’s former Attorney General Thelma Aldana, who was a leading presidential candidate with the center-left party Movimiento Semilla, was barred from participating in the race and was forced to flee the country after receiving death threats and a warrant for her arrest. During her time as Guatemala’s top prosecutor, Aldana, alongside the U.N.-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, known as CICIG, helped investigate hundreds of politicians and businessmen on corruption charges. Aldana says the criminal accusations against her are retaliation for her work with Guatemala’s anti-corruption movement. We spoke with Aldana earlier this week.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn to Guatemala, where the Supreme Electoral Tribunal announced Thursday it will hold a recount amidst fraud allegations following last Sunday’s presidential and legislative elections. Former first lady Sandra Torres of the party UNE currently leads the presidential race with nearly 26% of the vote. Before the recount was announced, a runoff was expected between Torres and Alejandro Giammattei, the candidate for the ultraconservative Vamos. Both of them have been accused of money laundering and ties to drug traffickers.

Guatemala’s former Attorney General Thelma Aldana, a leading presidential candidate, was barred from participating in the race and was forced to flee Guatemala after receiving death threats. During her time as Guatemala’s top prosecutor, Thelma Aldana helped investigate hundreds of politicians and businessmen on corruption charges, including former President Otto Pérez Molina, who was forced to resign in 2015, is now in jail as he awaits trial. In March, shortly before Aldana announced her candidacy for president with the center-left political party Movimiento Semilla, she was barred from the race after criminal charges and an arrest warrant were issued against her. She says the accusations are retaliation for her work with Guatemala’s anti-corruption movement. Last year, she was awarded the 2018 Right Livelihood Honorary Award.

Well, I spoke with Thelma Aldana earlier this week, shortly after Guatemalans headed to the polls. I began by asking her about the outcome of the election.

THELMA ALDANA: [translated] In Guatemala, there is a captured state. This is something which I have verified with Iván Velásquez, who is the commissioner of the International Commission Against Impunity and Corruption. In the investigations we carried out, we found out that there were illicit economic and political networks encrusted in the Guatemalan state. The institutions, particularly the institutions of justice or key institutions in the country that are part of the Guatemalan state, have been captured.

In that context, the elections recently held in Guatemala lack any legitimacy. It is an election which has no possibility of being democratic, because the state has been captured, and everything that emanates from dark institutions, institutions that lend themselves to manipulation, cannot yield a transparent process. I am referring to the Office of General Accounts, the Supreme Court of Justice, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, the Constitutional Court. All of these institutions have persons within who answer to the interests of any number of sectors, but not the national interest.

I was a victim of those institutions, which, for no reason and for no basis, left me outside of the election contest, because I represented some disturbance to that corrupt and captured system. And I was a bother, because I fought corruption. Now I am accuse of absolutely false—facing absolutely false accusations and I’m suffering death threats, merely because I fought against corruption. I believe that in Guatemala the conditions do not exist to be able to speak of a legitimate election.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about who the pacto de corruptos is, what some call the “corrupt wolf pack”?

THELMA ALDANA: [translated] The pact of the corrupt, or corrupt wolf pack, is a criminal and perverse alliance that has been operating in Guatemala for many years, especially through the old traditional politics whereby every four years we are made to choose among the same. And the people go to the polls with hopes that everything will change, and nothing changes, because that criminal pact exists, that criminal alliance.

This pact of the corrupt came about, in particular, of an action by the Congress of the Republic, which was legislating and indeed adopted laws that favored impunity and that favored themselves, the very legislators who were indicated by the CICIG, the international commission, and the Attorney General’s Office. They were accused of several anomalous acts. So, there is alliance among several legislators in the national Congress, President Jimmy Morales, an important sector of the political class, and various interests, who have all formed this corrupt wolf pack that has brought Guatemalan democracy to its knees at this time.

AMY GOODMAN: Thelma Aldana, do you believe they are responsible for driving you out of the country? Are they responsible, including the president, Jimmy Morales, for the death threats against you?

THELMA ALDANA: [translated] They are the ones who are responsible for having brought the work of the International Commission Against Impunity to a halt. They are responsible for having expelled Commissioner Iván Velásquez. And, of course, they are responsible for what I am experiencing at this time outside of Guatemala. They are responsible for having captured the Guatemalan state and having left me out of the electoral contest and favoring several sectors. They are also responsible for the whole manipulation and everything that was done in this election process. There are complaints in Guatemala that many people were brought to vote through illicit payments and any number of manipulative actions, this corrupt wolf pack.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you describe who Sandra Torres is, the front-runner in the presidential race, in the runoff, as well as Alejandro Giammattei?

THELMA ALDANA: [translated] I know the history of Sandra Torres to some extent. I have met her personally, perhaps once. But we, the majority of Guatemalans, know that since she was first lady, wife of former President Álvaro Colom, she exercised a strong de facto power in the country. She had a clientelistic agenda. And according to one case that was brought by the International Commission Against Impunity, she has been involved in illegal campaign financing. But she’s been protected by the attorney general, by the Supreme Court of Justice, by the Constitutional Court. And also, through her, several institutions of the state have been manipulated. It would be nefarious for the country for her to become the president of Guatemala, because her antecedents don’t really speak of transparent work; rather, there are indications that there’s been corruption around her political movement and her activity in the government in Guatemala.

Now, in terms of Mr. Giammattei, I don’t know him. I just came to learn, because this was known nationally and internationally, that there was an incident involving extrajudicial executions in a prison of Guatemala, but he was acquitted of those charges. He is a person who has run for president of the republic four times, I believe.

AMY GOODMAN: Once you were unfairly tossed out, barred from running, do you think the progressives in Guatemala made a mistake in not uniting behind Thelma Cabrera, the indigenous presidential candidate, who shocked many by coming in fourth? If the left and progressive parties had joined together, including you, once you were pushed out, might she have won the presidency or at least entered the runoff?

THELMA ALDANA: [translated] I think that the way to defeat the traditional politics, the old politics, and the pact of the corrupt in Guatemala was precisely to achieve unity of those parties with a progressive ideology. It was necessary for them to come together and to come to agreement on a single candidate. It could have been Thelma Cabrera. It could have been Mr. Villacorta. It could have been another progressive candidate not implicated in corruption cases and illegal campaign financing cases.

It seems to me that it is unfortunate that the progressive sectors in Guatemala have been unable to unite. The problem in Guatemala is not of left or right; it is a problem of corruption and impunity. And around that struggle against corruption and impunity, several sectors—progressive sectors, right-wing sectors, transparent sectors—should have come together to struggle for a better country.

AMY GOODMAN: For our audience, who is not familiar with Thelma Cabrera, she ran for president with the leftist political party Movement for the Liberation of the People, known as the MLP. The party seeks to declare Guatemala a plurinational state to recognize its more than 20 indigenous and Afro-Guatemalan groups, wants to nationalize Guatemala’s natural resources, and runs on a platform of inclusion and diversity. This is Thelma Cabrera speaking to hundreds of supporters in Guatemala City’s Constitutional Plaza for MLP’s campaign closing right before the election.

THELMA CABRERA: [translated] We have been governed by businessmen, military men, academics and, most recently, by a comedian. We bring a struggle from within the social movements, from our territories, and we say we are going to fight for progress of the popular constitutional assembly and a plurinational state. It is urgent to create a plurinational state, to replace a failed state, a putrid state. We have to build a new state through the participation of the Mayan people, Garífunas, Xincas and Mestizos.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Thelma Cabrera, who came in fourth in the presidential race and did not make the runoff. But she got 11% of the vote, shocking many. I mean, she was the second indigenous woman to run for president. Rigoberta Menchú, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, ran. She didn’t receive anything like this. Thelma Aldana, did it also surprise you, the level of support she got across the country, across Guatemala?

THELMA ALDANA: [translated] Yes, it did surprise me, because Guatemala, unfortunately, is a patriarchal country where discrimination is constant, discrediting, as well, and the political space is closed to women, particularly us women who act transparently and are progressive. All the more so, the political space is closed for an indigenous woman, a woman like Thelma Cabrera, who was trained as a leader in her community and who is fully familiar with the reality of the indigenous peoples, their reality of poverty, extreme poverty, lack of opportunity, and which has spurred migration. It’s spurred millions of Guatemalans to migrate, especially to the United States. So, Thelma Cabrera today has emerged as a leader, a leader on the left who certainly will have quite a future in Guatemala.

AMY GOODMAN: Thelma Aldana, would you have won if you had been allowed to run for presidency?

THELMA ALDANA: [translated] I think that right now I would have made it to the second round.

AMY GOODMAN:What do you believe Guatemala needs? If you had not been barred from running, what was your platform? And talk about the Movimiento Semilla, your party.

THELMA ALDANA: [translated] Yes, the Movimiento Semilla is a citizen platform, a progressive movement, ready and willing to fight poverty, hunger, extreme poverty, that Guatemala experiences. We want to open up opportunities for indigenous peoples, for women, for the peasant population, for children, for youths. And we need to create that space for inclusion that is so badly needed in Guatemala. No doubt, had we participated, we’d be in the second round and with a good possibility of reaching the presidency. And our most important goal was to rescue the Guatemalan state from the criminal structures that have captured it at this time and to put in place a government at the service of the people.

AMY GOODMAN: Thelma Aldana, the former attorney general of Guatemala, leader in the country’s anti-corruption movement, former presidential candidate in this year’s election until she was barred, now has fled the country, facing death threats. Back with her in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Guatemalan hip-hop artist Rebecca Lane. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue our conversation with Thelma Aldana, the former attorney general of Guatemala, leader in the country’s anti-corruption movement, former presidential candidate, who was barred from running in last Sunday’s Guatemalan elections, fled the country, facing death threats. In this exclusive interview, I asked her about the factors leading Guatemalans to flee the country for the U.S.-Mexico border in record numbers.

THELMA ALDANA: [translated] In a country where 27% of the population is living in extreme poverty—that’s 3.8 million Guatemalans who today don’t have enough to eat—in a country where 60% of the population is living in poverty, in a country that is governed by a pact of the corrupt, where there is a criminal alliance, there are no opportunities, there is no security, and there are no opportunities for leading a life with dignity. And this forces people to migrate, to leave to look for better living conditions in the United States. And the migration will never be brought to a halt until the underlying problem of Guatemala is resolved. And El Salvador and Honduras find themselves in the same situation. The problem is structural. The problem is one of lack of opportunity, discrimination, racism and corruption. The rule for governing in Guatemala is corruption. It’s no exception. They steal everything, and the people are left hungry.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the role of the United States? President Trump recently announced that he was cutting off all aid to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador because of the outflow of migrants into the United States. How will that affect Guatemala?

THELMA ALDANA: [translated] Guatemala has had a lot of support from the international community, including the United States. The setting up of the International Commission Against Impunity, the CICIG, is an effort by the United Nations. Nonetheless, it is not appreciated in Guatemala. I think that beyond U.S. policy and beyond the support of the international community, which is extremely valuable, our problem is in Guatemala, and it needs to be resolved democratically in Guatemala.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about what the CICIG did and what you did as attorney general, as well as after in working with CICIG. Talk about the threats faced by the investigators, who was held accountable for corruption, and what it means for CICIG to be ending in Guatemala right now.

THELMA ALDANA: [translated] In my view, the establishment of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala is the best contribution that the United Nations has made to my country. It is the greatest effort, and it is a successful mechanism, a mechanism that does work. I can tell you that I worked hand in hand with the International Commission Against Impunity. It does work. And that is why the criminal alliance in Guatemala is bothered by this, and perhaps there might be some other countries that don’t want a similar mechanism for the same reason. If a president of the republic, if a national Congress sector is committed to transparency, if this is what we had, then they’d be supporting the work of the CICIG and the work of Commissioner Iván Velásquez.

During our joint effort, we were able to dismantle hundreds of criminal structures. And we showed the population the face of those who have directed the clandestine security apparatuses and those that have been in the Guatemalan state. We showed the Guatemalan population how these structures became illicit political and economic structures, and those are the ones that have captured the Guatemalan state.

The cases that we investigated are a sample, a show of how we could make a contribution to the Guatemalan justice system in these conditions. We understand that a people with a solid justice system can think about democracy and can think about making progress in human rights and in serving the neediest persons. If a justice system like that in Guatemala suffers backsliding, which is indeed what is happening, then, at the end of the day, the people will pay the consequences, and the criminal alliance will continue with its status quo, with its illicit financing, and with worse living conditions in Guatemala.

AMY GOODMAN: So, at this point, Thelma Aldana, what happens to you? You are outside of Guatemala. Can you talk about why and what your plans are for the future? What about these charges that have been brought against you, of embezzlement and crimes around taxes? What do you say about them?

THELMA ALDANA: [translated] I am suffering this vengeful harassment by the criminal structures of Guatemala because of the work that we did with the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala. So, what I hope now is for the country to give me the security conditions to make it possible for me to return to Guatemala. It would be very easy for them to take me into a prison and murder me, because I’ve gone after gangs. I’ve gone after all kinds of crime in the country. And if I go back to the country, it’s most likely that the next day I would show up dead.

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