Guatemala’s Anti-Corruption Fight Goes On, Despite Morales’ Flaws

Guatemala’s Anti-Corruption Fight Goes On, Despite Morales’ Flaws
Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales and Defense Minister Williams Mansilla reviewing troops, Guatemala City, Jan. 15, 2016 (AP photo by Moises Castillo).

On Jan. 14, comedian Jimmy Morales was inaugurated as president of Guatemala, unexpectedly sweeping to power after successfully tapping into the public’s repudiation of the political establishment to win the country’s election last fall. Running under the slogan “neither corrupt nor a thief,” Morales was able to appeal to a citizenry that, following revelations of massive corruption scandals, had taken to the streets to demand greater government accountability and forced the resignation of then-President Otto Perez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti. Voters were willing to overlook Morales’ lack of concrete policy proposals, handing him a landslide victory over former First Lady Sandra Torres with nearly 70 percent of the popular vote in the second-round runoff in October, the largest margin of victory in a Guatemalan presidential election since 1999.

But six months into his presidency, Morales’ lack of political experience and leadership have raised questions about his ability to deliver on his campaign promises to break from the corruption and clientelism that have long characterized Guatemalan politics. His close ties with ex-military officers, in particular, have many Guatemalans wondering if he can guide the political transformation that people are demanding.

Morales’ choice to align himself with the National Convergence Front (FCN-N), a party founded by retired military officers with connections to grave atrocities during Guatemala’s long civil war, has prompted concerns on who makes up his inner circle. One of Morales’ closest advisers is a retired colonel, Edgar Justino Ovalle, who was elected to Congress in 2015. Widely referred to as Morales’ “right-hand man,” Ovalle served as a military operations officer in the Ixil region and at the notorious Coban military base during the most brutal years of the civil war; he now faces charges of crimes against humanity. The Public Prosecutor’s Office’s request to lift his legislative immunity from prosecution was denied by Guatemala’s Supreme Court in January and is now being heard before the Constitutional Court.

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