Guatemala's president-elect, Bernardo Arévalo leaves at the end of a press conference in the Plaza of Human Rights in Guatemala City, Thursday, Nov. 16, 2023.

Guatemala's newly elected president faces legal challenges

Guatemala is facing political turmoil following legal challenges posed to the country's president-elect, Bernardo Arévalo. On Thursday, prosecutors moved to remove him and his party members of their immunity for allegedly making social media posts encouraging students to take over a university last year. Will Freeman, a fellow for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, joined The World to talk about why and how this political development has unfolded and what it means for the country.

The World

There's political turmoil in Guatemala this week. Prosecutors there have filed legal challenges against president-elect Bernardo Arévalo, the "underdog" who shocked Guatemalans when he won the August presidential election.

Since then, he's faced a number of legal challenges. Members of Arévalo's party have also been subject to raids and arrests.

Will Freeman, a fellow for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, joined The World's host Carol Hills from a taxicab in Mexico City, to learn more about why and how this political development has unfolded and what it means for the country.

Carol Hills: Will, what exactly is the motive for prosecutors to file these legal challenges against Guatemala's president-elect?
Will Freeman: To me, it's pretty clear, in Guatemala, prosecutors and judges collude to sell impunity to the highest bidder to allow narco-traffickers, organized crime, corrupt politicians to operate with no consequences. Now, Arévalo ran on promises of changing that status quo. He captured a huge amount of popular support. He beat his competitor, who was aligned with the establishment by more than 20 percentage points. So, you know, I think there's a lot of fear among these actors in Guatemala who profit so much for impunity that very soon things are going to change. 
 Arévalo is due to be inaugurated as president of Guatemala in January. First of all, is that normal that there's a four-month period between getting elected and taking office in Guatemala, or is it because of the pushback?
No, this is normal that there's a gap and a transition period. What's abnormal is all the legal challenges that you're seeing. And even, I would say, the judicial persecution of the incoming president's party. That's not something Guatemala has seen in any recent electoral cycle.
How are prosecutors going about trying to take away Arévalo's political immunity? I mean, what are they basing that on? 
They're trying to strip his immunity from prosecution. For a tweet a few months ago, Arévalo tweeted that he thought a student protest movement in Guatemala at the only public university was a sign of hope for the country. And apparently prosecutors are taking that as the basis to try to strip him of his immunity and prosecute him for usurpation, sedition and illegal association. I mean, these are legal figures, illegal association, for instance, that were created to prosecute narco trafficking, a very serious issue in Guatemala. Now they're being turned on a politician who corrupt prosecutors and judges who just simply don't like.
So, are the charges against them that his tweets were somehow a crime?
We haven't seen all of it yet. I doubt that the prosecutor's office will stop there. Their strategy has been to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks in terms of legal charges. So they were involved in a monthlong campaign to try to suspend legally Arévalo's party. They tried a number of different avenues to get to that outcome. So I think we're at a point where it's not really the legal arguments that matter. It's a sort of raw power and how far the prosecutors are willing to go in terms of defying the constitution, defying popular will.
Arévelo says these moves against him are effectively an "ongoing coup." Do you think that's a fair description? 
I do. You know, I myself I'm often skeptical when I hear presidents talk about soft coups or legal coups. So often, you know, that becomes a way to deflect very real and merited investigations of malfeasance, corruption. In this case, it's maybe the one that I'd point out as where this rhetoric is very valid. Again, I mean, we're talking about a legal process for tweeting, right? A prosecution for tweeting or the suspension of a party supposedly for having collected a few signatures that didn't match up to the people who supposedly signed them. But obviously, it all comes from this attempt to stop a popularly elected president from coming into office and ultimately beginning to dismantle this business of selling impunity that is so powerful in Guatemala.
What do you mean by selling impunity? What does that mean?
I mean that prosecutors and some judges collude with organized crime, narco traffickers, corrupt politicians. They offer to get rid of investigations. They offer to give them lenient treatment or even clean their legal records, allow them to walk free when there's evidence of crimes. That's been the pattern in Guatemala.
Bottom line, Will, do you think that Bernardo Arévalo will take office in January as expected?
I'm still hopeful, but I have to be honest, less hopeful than I was a few weeks ago. I saw these efforts by prosecutors for the longest time as simply an attempt to tie Rivera's hands. Now, I'm really worried that they are going for broke and that they will try to stop him no matter what it takes from the office.

This interview has been edited and lightly condensed for clarity.

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