A conservative former prisons director was elected Guatemala’s president on Sunday, in a race that took place against the backdrop of a migration crisis in which thousands of Guatemalans leave the country each month.
Alejandro Giammattei, 63, who was making his fourth run for the presidency, won nearly three-fifths of the vote in beating Sandra Torres, the former first lady, according to preliminary results from Guatemala’s election board.
Neither candidate inspired much confidence and just over 42 percent of eligible voters cast ballots.
That so many Guatemalans choose the uncertainty of migration over the poverty, violence and corruption they know at home is a sign of the challenges facing Mr. Giammattei, who has little political experience.
On top of those problems, Guatemala 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 long ago, Guatemala seemed poised for a transformation.
In 2015, an extraordinary popular movement in Guatemala inspired all of Latin America. Hundreds of thousands of people poured into the main plaza of the capital, Guatemala City, to protest corruption, prompted 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 fatigue and cynicism have set upon the nation.
As Mr. Giammattei declared victory, he made no mention of corruption, promising instead that Guatemalans “will find a president close to the people.”
Although Guatemala has posted 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.
CreditOliver De Ros/Associated Press
“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.
Although the commission of prosecutors enjoys widespread approval, Mr. Giammattei has said that he will not bring it back.
With the panel 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, referring to the Spanish initials of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala. “Everything Cicig did will be debilitated.”
Mr. Giammettei was himself accused by Cicig, charged in a case involving extrajudicial killings while he led Guatemala’s prison system. The case against him was dismissed.
His victory appeared to be the result of Ms. Torres’ unpopularity with urban voters rather than any enthusiasm for his proposals. Few expect him to undertake any significant reforms.
Juan Antonio Durán, 48, a businessman in the town of Antigua, said that he voted for Mr. Giammattei and his party VAMOS “because I consider them the least worse,” adding that “there will be no sudden changes but you have to understand that how Guatemala is now, it’s difficult to be much worse.”
Jared de León, 23, a Guatemala City student in San Lucas Sacatepéquez, said that he voted for Mr. Giammettei but he still worried that “it will be another difficult four years for us.”
Manfredo Marroquín, the former director of the Guatemala chapter of Transparency International, said the incoming president’s inner circle includes figures who are suspected of corruption.
“Giammattei looks a lot like Jimmy Morales,” he said.
“The truth is that the possibility of a change or reform to the system looks more and more distant,” Mr. Marroquín added. “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.
Mr. Giammattei has promised to open up Indigenous lands to more of these projects.
“We will have four years of war between the government and the communities who will give their life before ceding their few natural resources,” wrote Irma A. Velásquez Nimatuj, an anthropologist and journalist, in an interview conducted by text. “And if it’s done with blood and arms, migration and violence will increase.”
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.
Mr. Giammattei’s first decision will be what to do with a deal that Mr. Morales agreed to with the United States that is designed to stem migration.
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.
Mr. Giammattei has opposed the deal, which is widely unpopular, 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.”