Meet Alejandro Giammattei, the “Guatemalan Bolsonaro”

. Mar 01, 2020
Alejandro Giammattei Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei. Photo: WikiCommons

The script will be familiar to Brazilians: a country with a struggling economy, a deeply ingrained culture of corruption, and a public perception of worsening public security heads to the polls. Among campaign promises of “draining the swamp,” fighting violence, and even planning to bring back the death penalty, a hard-line right-wing candidate gets elected. With a couple of alterations, this scene could have been Brazil in 2018, but this was how Alejandro Giammattei became president of Guatemala, Central America’s most populous country.

</p> <p>The 63-year-old doctor and former head of the <a href="https://www.prison-insider.com/countryprofile/prisonsinguatemala">Guatemalan prison system</a> ascended to the highest office in the country helped by a <a href="https://brazilian.report/latin-america/2018/08/19/fall-south-america-pink-tide/">conjunction of factors</a>. Constitutional courts had barred ex-Attorney General Thelma Aldana and Zury Ríos—daughter of late dictator Efraín Ríos Montt—from running, and a wave of political apathy swept Guatemala. His biggest opponent, former First Lady Sandra Torres, was also troubled with legal challenges to her candidacy, eventually being arrested after the election for campaign financing violations.</p> <p>In the June 2019 ballots, the abstention rate exceeded 40 percent, giving a clear path for the leader of the right-wing Vamos party to waltz into government and set about implementing some of his campaign pledges, which include opposing gay marriage and abortion and creating a “prosperity wall” to curtail migration from Guatemala to the U.S.</p> <h2>Murky past</h2> <p>The foundations for President Giammattei’s path to victory were clearly laid by the corruption allegations surrounding his closest opponent. However, the right-wing leader is not exactly squeaky-clean, having spent some months behind bars in 2010. While working as the head of Guatemala&#8217;s prison system in 2006, Mr. Giammattei was accused of ordering the extrajudicial killings of seven inmates of the Pavón Prison near Guatemala City. Despite being arrested four years later, he was never officially charged, leading judges to dismiss his case due to a lack of evidence.</p> <p>One year later after the Pavón case, another dark cloud formed over Mr. Giammattei’s head. Four arrested policemen, suspected of murdering three Salvadoran politicians, were killed inside another of Mr. Giammattei&#8217;s prisons not long after showing an inclination to reveal who had ordered the original assassinations.</p> <p>According to Jorge E. Cuéllar, professor of Central America studies at Dartmouth College, Alejandro Giammattei&#8217;s form of extremism is not exactly unknown in Central America. &#8220;His beliefs in ‘biblical values’ and <em>manodurismo</em> [<a href="https://brazilian.report/latin-america/2019/03/23/prosur-south-america-right-turn/">strong hand politics</a>] are a strategy of social control, not overly different from presidents in neighboring countries. He sees Guatemala as a big prison,” he adds.</p> <p>Though Mr. Giammattei escaped conviction, his controversial past is seen as another product of Guatemala’s most urgent issues: drug trafficking, impunity, corruption, and the absence of solid institutions. Now, the people have turned to him to solve it, not unlike Brazil&#8217;s turn to Jair Bolsonaro.&nbsp;</p> <h2>Is Giammattei the Guatemalan Bolsonaro?</h2> <p>The similarities are numerous: Mr. Giammattei has pledged his allegiance to U.S. President Donald Trump, and also went to Israel promising to move Guatemala’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.&nbsp;</p> <p>“Mr. Giammattei’s platform has similarities with Mr. Bolsonaro’s. He also appoints ex-military and people with little respect for human rights to positions in the state, which creates enormous uncertainty. In addition, he has shown the country&#8217;s foreign policy will be geared toward pleasing the United States,” Mr. Cuéllar told <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>.&nbsp;</p> <p>But as Brazil bows down to Washington D.C. based on pure admiration from the Bolsonaro family, at least Mr. Giammattei does have a serious immigration crisis involving the U.S. to contend with. Since 2019, an agreement between Guatemala and the Trump administration has made the Central American nation a &#8220;Safe Third Country&#8221; which may receive people seeking asylum in the U.S. whose cases are awaiting definition.&nbsp;</p> <p>In 2018 alone, according to data from Guatemala&#8217;s customs and border protection authority, the number of Guatemalans detained by authorities attempting to enter the U.S. exceeded 50,000, the most of any Mesoamerican country.</p> <p>A meeting between Mr. Giammattei and Jair Bolsonaro is not yet on the schedule, but their respective rises to power may yet set a precedent for the surge of more far-right radicals across Latin America.

 
Lucas Berti

Lucas Berti covers international affairs—specializing Latin American politics and markets. He has been published by Opera Mundi, Revista VIP, and The Intercept Brasil, among others.

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