What Does Guatemala’s Presidential Election Mean for Trials of Grave Crimes? Part II: Sandra Torres

In Guatemala’s national elections, held on September 6, no candidate achieved the necessary majority to win the presidency outright. The top two candidates, Jimmy Morales and Sandra Torres, will face each other in a runoff election on October 25.  Last week, International Justice Monitor looked at what the election of Jimmy Morales might mean for the future of trials for grave crimes committed during Guatemala’s 36-year conflict.  This week, we look at what a victory by Sandra Torres could mean.

With 19.76% of the vote, Sandra Torres edged out Manuel Baldizon for second place and secured her participation in the runoff elections. Baldizon, who had led in opinion polls just a few months prior to the election, lost popularity when joint investigations by the UN-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) and the Attorney General’s office accused his running mate and other candidates from his Lider party of corruption.

Sandra Torres is no stranger to Guatemalan politics. She was first lady from 2008 to 2012, during the presidency of her then-husband, Alvaro Colom. Torres and Colom divorced in March 2011, two months prior to the start of a political campaign in which Torres sought to run for president. Guatemala’s Constitution prohibits family members of sitting presidents, including spouses, from running for president. For this reason, despite the divorce, the Constitutional Court ultimately rejected her candidacy.

Torres is the candidate of the social-democratic political party she founded with Colom in 2001, the National Unity of Hope (Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza or UNE). The party’s platform focuses on providing employment for all, fighting poverty, and improving the educational and health systems.

Like her opponent Jimmy Morales, Sandra Torres has underlined the importance of CICIG’s continuity in the country and congratulated it on its anti-corruption work.  CICIG investigations played an important role during the term of Torres’s ex-husband.  Following the May 2009 killing of attorney Rodrigo Rosenberg in Guatemala City, a video emerged in which Rosenberg declared that if something ever happened to him, President Colom and his then-wife Sandra Torres would be responsible for his death. The story threatened to topple the Colom administration until an investigation by CICIG concluded that Rosenberg had organized his own murder.

But not all CICIG activities have been beneficial for Torres.  In a report presented in July of this year regarding corruption in campaign finance, CICIG concluded that the UNE, Sandra Torres’s political party, has been funded, in part, by drug trafficking, money laundering, and corruption.

The report made specific mention of two persons close to Torres: Gustavo Alejos and her own sister, Gloria Torres. Alejos is a powerful businessman, who was the main funder of the UNE political party when Alvaro Colom was elected. During Colom’s presidency, various public contracts were awarded to Alejos’ companies and he allegedly influenced political decisions. Alejos has said that he has also contributed to Torres’s current political campaign, although she denies it.

With regard to Gloria Torres, the candidate’s sister, the CICIG report claims that she led a corruption network close to the presidency while acting as UNE secretary. According to the report, this structure received money from the convicted drug trafficker Juan Ortiz Chamalé. In November 2011, prosecutors indicted Gloria Torres for money laundering and fraud, but the case was later closed. Sandra Torres has distanced herself from her sister’s activities. Further, during the campaign, Sandra Torres has repeatedly emphasized the importance of fighting corruption and pledged transparency in government if she wins.

On the campaign trail, Torres has not directly addressed the topic of investigations and trials for atrocities committed during Guatemala’s 36-year long conflict.  She does have links, however, to opponents of the 2013 trial of Efrain Rios Montt and Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.

Mario Leal, an influential businessman, is Torres’s vice-presidential running mate. Leal has had a close relationship with the Central Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial and Financial Associations (CACIF), Guatemala’s powerful business lobby. In 2013, during the trial of Rios Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez, CACIF publically denied the existence of genocide in Guatemala. Furthermore, after a trial chamber found Rios Montt guilty on May 10, 2013, CACIF called on the Constitutional Court to annul the verdict. In a divided decision just days later, the Constitutional Court overturned the guilty verdict and ordered a new trial.

Their retrial of Rios Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez has faced repeated delays, but is now scheduled to begin on January 11, 2016, close to the inauguration of Guatemala’s next president on January 14, 2016. If Sandra Torres and Mario Leal win the second round of Guatemala’s elections, it remains to be seen whether CACIF or others would attempt to use their connections to influence policies and appointments relevant to the Rios Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez case, or other grave crimes cases under investigation.