Last spring, a Guatemalan judge entered a meeting held at the American Embassy and produced a large amount of cash. She claimed that the money was a bribe paid by one of the president’s closest allies.
Blanca Alfaro is a judge who helps oversee the elections in the country. According to an official who has been briefed about the meeting and to a person present, she claimed that the money was given to her in order to influence the electoral agency.
The brazenness of this episode shocked American diplomats, but not the accusations. The tense political climate in Guatemala, which is rife with tensions ahead of Sunday's presidential elections, has one constant: the steady drumbeat by the power-brokers against democratic institutions.
The first round of voting in a country where corruption has been eradicated and dozens of officials who fight it have been exiled will focus as much on who's not on the ballot than who is.
The country's electoral agency disqualified all serious candidates in the race that could challenge the status-quo. This is represented by President Alejandro Giammattei. A conservative whom critics claim is pushing the nation towards autocracy, and who has been barred from seeking a second term.
There are still a few frontrunners who have ties to the political or economic establishment. There will be four blank boxes next to their names, which represent the candidates who were excluded by the electoral authority.
The person who attended the meeting, as well as the U.S. representative, both said that Judge Alfaro informed American officials she received the bribe by Miguel Martinez, Mr. Giammattei’s close confidant and a top official in his political party.
According to the person present, she said that the money in her possession amounted 50,000 Guatemalan Quetzales (which is more than $6000).
The Times hasn't substantiated the claim of Judge Alfaro that she was bribed. In an interview with The Times, Ms. Alfaro denied going to the embassy in order to make the allegation.
She told The New York Times that she had no connection with Miguel Martinez. I doubt that 50,000 Quetzales could be brought into an embassy, because of the security measures.
Martinez said he never met Judge Alfaro and denied paying her a bribe. He claimed he knew of an attempt by those who could not participate in the election 'to involve me in some legal situations' with the American Embassy.
"Now we realize that this is the situation that they are trying me to get involved in," Mr. Martinez said. "To affect the electoral process which is being conducted in a clean, democratic way."
Martinez then told reporters The Times was going to publish a video of Ms. Alfaro’s visit to the Embassy in a later statement. The video has been widely circulated on social media. In the video, Mr. Martinez stated that the purpose of the statement was to disrupt the elections.
Christina Tilghman said that the State Department does not confirm or deny the existence of any alleged meetings, nor do they discuss the content of diplomatic discussions.
Ms. Tilghman stated that when the American government receives corruption allegations that "meet the evidentiary requirements of U.S. Regulations and Law, it imposes sanctions on those involved or punishes them in other ways.
Civil rights groups have questioned whether the Sunday presidential election can be truly considered fair and free.
Juan Francisco Sandoval is a former prosecutor for anti-corruption who lives now in the United States. He is one of the dozens prosecutors and judge who have been exiled in the last few years.
He said that the vote would be marred by both 'arbitrary decisions' about who could run and an increase in illicit campaign funding using public funds.
Three of the candidates who were excluded, despite their different ideologies, were considered unsettling by Guatemala's political establishment.
Carlos Pineda positioned himself in the polls as a businessman who was an outsider. He used TikTok.
"They went after us, because we were so high in the polls, that we could have made history by winning the first round," said Mr. Pineda. He was referring to the reality that if nobody wins more than 50% of the votes, there will be a runoff between the two top candidates. This election is illegal.
Thelma Cabra, a Maya Mam leftist, is trying to unite Guatemala's Indigenous Peoples (who make up roughly half of the population) into a united political force. Roberto Arzu is the right-wing scion from a family of politicians who has positioned himself to be an enemy of the elites of Guatemala.
Mr. Giammattei has not spoken out about the exclusion of some top candidates, despite being prohibited from running for re-election by law. The race is largely a contest between three top candidates, who are seen as offering some continuity to the status quo.
Sandra Torres served as the first lady of Guatemala from 2008 until 2011, during which time she was married to Alvaro Colom. When Ms. Torres ran for president for the first time in 2011, they divorced (Guatemalan Law prohibits a president or his relatives from running for office).
Ms. Torres, who was arrested for campaign finance violations in 2019, was cleared by a court in 2022, just weeks before the official campaigning began, and was allowed to run. Her platform promises to expand social programmes, including cash transfers for poor people.
Zury Rios is another leading candidate. She's the daughter of Efrain Ros Montt. He was the dictator of Guatemala during the early 1980s. He ordered extreme tactics to suppress a guerrilla movement and was convicted in 2013 of genocide for trying to eliminate the Ixil people, an indigenous Mayan group in Guatemala.
Ms. Rios is unrepentant of her father's actions. She even went so far this year as to deny that a genocide took place. She is an evangelical Christian who gained conservative popularity after she allied with those seeking to undermine anticorruption efforts. While she was in Congress, her focus was on women's issues. However, during the campaign for president, she focused more on adopting strict security policies.
Edmond Mulet is another top candidate who holds conservative views. Edmond Mulet is another top contender. He's a former diplomat who generally holds conservative views.
Recent polls suggest that no one of the three candidates is likely to win a majority on Sunday. This would require a run-off on August 30.
Experts said that the contest reveals how Guatemala's powerful have suppressed any source of real dissent.
The weaponization of the justice system is forcing some of the brightest minds to leave the country and intimidating those who are left, said Regina Bateson. She is a Guatemala specialist at the University of Ottawa. She said that the result is an "election undermining democratic values."