For Guatemalans, New President Alejandro Giammattei Represents More of the Same

Lead Photo: Art by Stephany Torres for Remezcla
Art by Stephany Torres for Remezcla
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Last week, former Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales turned over leadership of the Central American country — leaving a legacy of increased poverty, malnutrition, violence, political corruption and emigration — to newly-sworn in President Alejandro Giammattei, who many fear will deliver more of the same in the top spot.

Morales, a former comedian, was elected president in 2015 following the aftermath of a euphoric and hopeful era where mass protests forced ex-President Otto Pérez Molina to resign over corruption charges. Like President Donald Trump in the United States, the leader touted himself as a fresh face who didn’t have ties to the oligarchy and quickly rose to national political fame. A right-wing Evangelical Christian, Morales is widely seen among his opponents in Guatemala as a Trump puppet. When Trump announced the U.S. would move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, for instance, Morales was the first world leader to say he’d do the same. In recent months, the Morales government also quietly signed an asylum agreement with the U.S., allowing the Trump administration to send asylum seekers from El Salvador and Honduras to Guatemala, where violence and poverty are similar to the countries the immigrants are fleeing from and where legal and social resources are scarce. 

Under Morales’ term, Guatemala also witnessed the destruction of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), the United Nations-backed anti-corruption commission that prosecuted more than 100 cases, bringing charges against at least 700 politicians and business elites involved in dozens of criminal networks. After 12 years in the country, CICIG left Guatemala last August, issuing a damning report that said the country is being held hostage by a criminal and corrupt elite that refuses to let go of its power. The most condemnatory result of Morales’ presidency, however, is arguably the rise in violence. From the March 8, 2017 massacre of 41 girls who were burnt alive during a fire at the Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asunción orphanage to the growth in femicides, thousands of women and girls have been violently killed in Guatemala since the start of Morales’ term. Indigenous leaders as well as land and water protectors also continue to be heavily targeted. 

While Morales is no longer the head of state — he was sworn into the Central American Parliament in an effort to hold onto immunity and avoid arrest for corruption allegations — many Guatemalans fear that life under current President Alejandro Giammattei won’t look too differently. The former director of Guatemala’s penitentiary system and the leader of the conservative political party Vamos, Giammattei –nicknamed Morales 2.0 — has vowed to bring back the death penalty and push back against same-sex marriage and abortion.

Here, a look at Giammattei’s political history and what to expect from his presidency.


He was prosecuted in connection to extrajudicial prison killings.


Giammattei was arrested in 2010 over accusations of orchestrating the executions of seven inmates detained in Guatemala’s largest all-male prison, Pavón, during a government raid in 2006. At the time, Giammattei was the director of Guatemala’s penitentiary system and helped organize the raid, which involved thousands of police and soldiers storming into the prison and engaging in a shootout with alleged gang leaders. Three other inmates who escaped Pavón were also killed. The arrest warrant and criminal case against Giammattei were issued by CICIG, the now-obsolete anti-corruption commission. Giammattei was locked up for nearly a year. A judge in 2011 dismissed the case against him.


He is friends with several controversial figures.


Giammattei ran for president in 2007, 2011 and 2015 with three different political parties. In 2011, while Giammattei ran under the political party Centro de Acción Social, or CASA, one of the most prominent names within the party bidding for a seat in the Central American Parliament was Ingmar Iten Rodriguez, who in the past was accused of managing bribes to Guatemala’s tax administration to expedite tax refund payments to private companies. According to the Guatemala newspaper El Periódico, Rodriguez may have partially financed Giammattei’s 2011 presidential campaign. Even more, in 2019, one of the nominees for Congress in Giammattei’s political party Vamos was the son of retired military general Francisco Ortega Menaldo, considered one of the most feared and brutal members of the Guatemalan military during the country’s civil war. 


He wants to build an “economic wall” in Guatemala.


Giammattei has said he’d like to make changes to the “safe third country” agreement that was signed between the Morales and Trump administrations under the threat of economic sanctions against Guatemala. In an exclusive interview with Reuters last August, Giammattei said he’d like to amend the agreement. “They are looking for asylum in the United States,” he told Reuters. “I don’t think there are a lot of people from El Salvador and Honduras who want to seek asylum in Guatemala, especially if they are fleeing poverty.” During his campaign, he pledged to build a so-called “economic wall” of job opportunities that would prevent more people from fleeing. Much of Giammattei’s term may revolve around immigration and the political dynamics between the U.S. and Guatemala. 


He’s promised economic development and investment in social programs.


In Giammattei’s hope to build a “new Guatemala,” he aims to create jobs and make the country’s economy more competitive by establishing an alliance between public and private economic entities. In the past, he has supported the mining and petroleum industries yet said he plans to foster “clean” electric energy in the country. He wants to grow and fortify corporations, increase tourism to Guatemala and incentivize the exporting industry. Giammattei’s social platform includes investing in programs that will combat malnutrition and food insecurity, improve the infrastructure of hospitals as well as oversee the construction of more public schools across rural regions. 


He wants to fight corruption but doesn’t plan on bringing back CICIG.


While Giammattei has pledged to fight against corruption, he also said his administration won’t revive CICIG, which at one point investigated Giammattei. For many in Guatemala, the new president symbolizes the continuity of the political status quo rather than radical change. Throughout his career in politics, Giammattei has surrounded himself with people linked to corruption and organized crime.