New Internationalist

Politics is a death sentence in Guatemala

Pick a number – any –number – from one to 29 and I’ll give you a name; the name of a political candidate assassinated in the run up to this year’s presidential elections in Guatemala.

As preparations for the September polls step up, so too does election-related violence. According to Rolando Loc, Director of  Human Rights in Guatemala, 29 people have already been killed and many more injured in political violence in 2011, prompting bulletproof vests to become the clothing of choice for many candidates.

Last month one politician, Luis Marroquin, was saved by wearing his vest after unidentified gunmen opened fire on him while he was driving just outside the capital, Guatemala City. The Líder party contender has since left the country for medical treatment but insists this latest act of violence will not persuade him to stand down. However, the police have since arrested him on suspicion of staging the attack and being responsible for the killing of his rival candidates.

Empty seats

San José Pinula, the municipality east of the capital where Marroquin was campaigning, already has two vacant places among its candidates for mayor, after both were shot dead in actions that local authorities said were ‘not politically motivated’. Another mayoral candidate for the same town recently announced he was suspending his election campaign due to the large volume of death threats he had received.


San José Pinula currently has a high military presence.

Human rights groups are joining together to urge authorities in Guatemala to fully investigate the series of alleged politically motivated killings. Amnesty International (AI) fears that, unless the government reacts to the atrocities, the growing death toll will soon surpass that of the 2007 campaign, which registered 68 fatalities.

‘The increase in politically related violence in the run-up to elections is a consequence of the state’s failure to tackle the persistent problem of impunity,’ said Sebastian Elgueta, Central America Researcher at AI.  ‘The authorities must send a clear message that political violence will not be tolerated, by promptly identifying all those responsible and bringing them to justice in fair trials that meet international standards.’

However, the current president, Álvaro Colom, refuses to acknowledge that the murders are in any way connected to the election campaign. Consequently, nothing has been done to address the brutal behaviour; violence and unregulated campaign financing continue to imperil the country’s political institutions.

The stakes are high

Recent reforms of the political system require parties to limit campaign spending and reveal their financial backers, but politicians have refused to disclose their financial records. Instead, they have entered into an exorbitant campaign that is expected to see record amounts of cash changing hands.

It’s an ugly fight of potentially dirty money, and it threatens to leave office-holders indebted to unregulated financiers. And with authorities cowering in the shadows of impunity, can anything be done to halt the violence and corruption that typifies these elections?

With two and a half months left before Guatemalans head to the polls to elect a new government, many expect the bloodshed to proliferate. Agencies need to recognize and react to the alleged political murders, or politicians will be left wondering who will be the next victim of Guatemala’s 2011 elections.

Photos by Anna-Claire Bevan.

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