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US Sanctions Guatemalan Officials Over ‘Undemocratic’ Activity

US State Department accuses Guatemalan judicial officials of targeting journalists and undermining democracy.

The United States government has slapped sanctions on 10 Guatemalan officials, including several accused of undermining democracy and targeting journalists, as the country contends with an ongoing electoral crisis.

The sanctions come as part of a report issued on Wednesday, which names individuals accused of anti-democratic activity and corruption in Central America.

Those identified in the report have become ineligible to enter the US, and any visa they have from the country is revoked.

“This list identifies individuals who have knowingly engaged in acts that undermine democratic processes or institutions, in significant corruption, or in obstruction of investigations into such acts of corruption in Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador,” reads a press release from the US Department of State.

The State Department’s report includes 13 officials and public figures from Nicaragua, 10 from Honduras and six from El Salvador, as well as the 10 from Guatemala.

They include Mauricio Funes and Salvador Sanchez Ceran, two successive presidents of El Salvador who served in office from 2009 to 2014 and from 2014 to 2019, respectively.

An election in crisis

The report amplifies existing concerns over Guatemala’s fragile democracy, which has faced scrutiny in recent weeks as the country prepares for the second round of voting in its presidential election.

Last week, Guatemala’s top prosecutor successfully pushed to suspend a progressive political party that had defied expectations in the first round of voting on June 25, securing one of two spots in the August run-off.

The party, known as Movimiento Semilla or Seed Movement, had campaigned against what it characterised as a corrupt elite working to roll back democracy.

Guatemala’s Constitutional Court has since intervened with an injunction against the Seed Movement’s suspension.

But the order to cease campaigning drew scrutiny and protest over the potential for election interference. Some human rights observers speculate the Seed Movement and its candidate, Bernardo Arevalo, are perceived as threats to Guatemala’s political establishment.

On Wednesday, the Organization of American States (OAS) issued a statement alleging that “actors unsatisfied” with June’s election results had abused legal pathways to introduce a “high degree of uncertainty in the electoral process”.

Those efforts, it said, “put at risk the country’s democratic stability”.

The public prosecutor’s office, however, has since defended its actions, denying that it is interfering in the electoral process.

Accusations of eroding democracy

Concerns about Guatemala’s democracy, however, extend beyond the election cycle.

Wednesday’s report from the US State Department listed several judges and prosecutors accused of “authorizing politically motivated criminal charges against journalists for exercising their freedom of expression as protected by Guatemalan law”.

Prosecutor Cinthia Monterroso is among those included. She helped prosecute Guatemalan journalist Jose Ruben Zamora on what are largely believed to be politically motivated charges of money laundering. In June, he was sentenced to six years in prison.

Judges Fredy Orellana and Jimi Bremer, who were both involved in Zamora’s trial and detention, are also listed.

El Periodico, an investigative outlet founded by Zamora in 1994, closed its doors in May due to what it termed a campaign of government “harassment”. It had reported on government corruption and abuses of power.

Most of the other individuals listed in Wednesday’s report are accused of acts such as bribery and corruption.

Guatemalan politics are still shaped by the repercussions of a brutal civil conflict that ended after 36 years in 1996. It stemmed, in part, from a US-backed coup that led to a series of dictatorships, accused of carrying out widespread abuses and an anti-Indigenous genocide.