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Guatemalans See Little Hope Even as They Elect a New President in Runoff

Thousands of Guatemalans, bereft of hope, leave their country each month, choosing the uncertainty of migration over the poverty, violence and corruption they know at home.

That is not expected to change even after Guatemalans vote on Sunday for a new president.

The election is a runoff between a former first lady and a former prisons director, neither of whom inspires much confidence beyond their die-hard supporters.

“The population that is aware is feeling profound apathy and frustration because they know that the elections are a farce,” Irma A. Velásquez Nimatuj, an anthropologist and journalist, wrote in an interview conducted by text.

And on top of the country’s problems, it is one of the Central American nations in the cross hairs of the Trump administration as it tries to transfer the burdens of curbing immigration in the United States to the countries where most immigrants come from.

Not so long ago, an extraordinary popular movement in Guatemala inspired all of Latin America. Hundreds of thousands poured into the capital city’s main plaza to protest corruption, inspired by hard-hitting investigations that ran all the way to the nation’s president.

Today, those investigations are drawing to an end, the endemic corruption persists, and a fatigue and cynicism has set upon the nation. All the hard work of a few years back seems to be just that: a thing of the past.

Sunday’s election seems a mere formality.

Although Guatemala posts steady economic growth, the World Bank says it has one of the highest rates of inequality in Latin America, with some of the worst poverty, malnutrition and maternal-child mortality rates in the region — particularly in Indigenous communities.

“Guatemala is the most feudal, the most colonial country in Latin America,” with economic power in the hands of just a few families, said Daniel Zovatto, the director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.

When Jimmy Morales, a former comedian who is the current president, came to office in 2015, he promised to rid the country of its corruption. At the time, an international panel of prosecutors, allied with a tough-minded attorney general, was uncovering vast networks of graft.

The investigations proved to be a model for Latin America. They reached high, eventually ensnaring many legislators, business oligarchs and Mr. Morales himself. And the pushback was fierce; for the past two years, the government has been trying to reverse the results of the fight against corruption.

Ordered out by Mr. Morales, the United Nations-backed prosecutors fighting corruption are leaving Guatemala next month. Neither of the two presidential candidates is seeking to keep the group, the Commission against Impunity in Guatemala and known by its Spanish initials as Cicig.

The former first lady, Sandra Torres, 63, is best known for running social programs during the presidency of her ex-husband, Álvaro Colom. While she is popular in the countryside, polls show that a significant number of voters say they would never vote for her.

Alejandro Giammattei, the former prisons director, 63, a conservative making his fourth run for the presidency, may capitalize on Ms. Torres’s unpopularity in cities. Turnout is expected to be low.

Thelma Aldana, the attorney general who led the anti-corruption fight with the commission, was barred from running after opponents filed misconduct accusations against her, none of which has been proved.

With the commission gone, protections for prosecutors and judges fighting the powerful groups driving corruption — those who siphon public money into their businesses or buy impunity for organized crime — will drop, analysts say.

“Guatemala will pay dearly for Cicig leaving,” Mr. Zovatto said. “Everything Cicig did will be debilitated.”

Both candidates have faced accusations from the commission. Ms. Torres is accused of campaign finance violations in her failed 2015 presidential bid but as a candidate has immunity.

Mr. Giammattei was charged in a case involving extrajudicial killings while he led Guatemala’s prison system, but the case against him was dismissed.

“The truth is that the possibility of a change or reform to the system looks more and more distant,” said Manfredo Marroquín, the former director of the Guatemala chapter of Transparency International.

“This strengthens the idea that Guatemala has no exit to its permanent crisis,” said Mr. Marroquín, who ran for president in the first round of voting in June. “The most immediate solution is to leave the country.”

An increasing number of Guatemalans are doing just that.

In the 10 months since last October, 250,000 Guatemalans have been caught or turned themselves in at the border with the United States, more than twice the number who arrived in the 12 months before that. Mexico is also apprehending an increasing number of Guatemalan migrants.

Many of them are fleeing rural areas where the state is virtually absent, providing no services, and in some regions allowing organized crime to take control.

There are other signs of a widening breakdown.

Human rights violations are increasing. In the countryside, communities opposing mining and hydroelectric projects have faced violence. Last year, 16 environmental and land defenders were killed in Guatemala, according to Global Witness, making it the deadliest country in the world per capita for such activists.

And under Mr. Morales, the top police command, much of it trained by the United States, has been replaced. American diplomats fear that murder rates, which have fallen in recent years, could begin to climb again.

Whoever wins Sunday’s election will also face demands by President Trump to curtail Guatemala’s exodus.

After Mr. Trump threatened to tax Guatemalan migrants’ remittances home, impose tariffs and ban travel to the United States, Mr. Morales’s government signed an agreement last month that would force migrants from countries to the south who pass through Guatemala to seek asylum there instead of continuing toward the United States.

Polls in Guatemala show that the deal, which will need approval by lawmakers, is widely unpopular, and few believe that it can be implemented. Both Ms. Torres and Mr. Giammattei have opposed it — but the pressure from Mr. Trump is unlikely to relent after Mr. Morales, who is limited by law to one term, leaves office in January.

“The outlook is chaotic,” Ms. Velásquez wrote. “Uncertainty is permanent. In all that, young people and adults only dream of migrating.”


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