Opinion | Guatemala’s Democracy Is Dead. Long Live Democracy!

When I visited Guatemala in May 2022, the feeling of hopelessness was palpable. The government of President Alejandro Giammattei had unleashed a ferocious persecution of anti-corruption justice officials. That February, Virginia Laparra, a prosecutor in the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity, had been arrested along with four other anti-corruption lawyers; they were all put in the same cell at the Mariscal Zavala military prison in Guatemala City.

In 2017, Ms. Laparra had lodged an administrative complaint against Lesther Castellanos, a judge she suspected of leaking details from a sealed corruption case to a colleague. Now Mr. Castellanos had brought a case against her for abuse of authority.

By the time I arrived, all but Ms. Laparra had been released to await trial. During our conversation at the prison, she recited legal arguments: “Article 208: Officials who know of wrongdoing are obligated to present a complaint.” It was a heartbreaking display of erudition. She wasn’t being held because anyone seriously thought she’d committed a crime. She was jailed in retaliation for her efforts to fight corruption; in December, she was sentenced to four years in prison.

Last month Guatemalan voters unexpectedly broke through their country’s corrupt elite’s hold on power, electing an outsider. Until now the Biden administration has mostly had a hands-off approach toward corruption in Guatemala, stopping short of issuing economic sanctions or otherwise strongly condemning the Giammattei government. President Biden should seize this opportunity to help real democracy succeed by publicly supporting the new president-elect, Bernardo Arévalo.

In 1944, a student led revolution, which my mother and uncle were part of, helped usher in Guatemala’s decade of democracy after a century of dictators. Soon after, she migrated to the United States.

I was born in Boston in 1954, the year a C.I.A.-led coup overthrew Guatemala’s elected government. The three-decade-long civil war that followed was marked by genocidal massacres of Maya groups in the countryside and ended with peace accords in 1996. Hopes for a peaceful, democratic future seemed dashed in 1998, when the human rights leader Bishop Juan Gerardi was murdered by military intelligence operatives. But in 2001, three military officers were convicted of participating in his state-sponsored extrajudicial execution, a landmark verdict that seemed to herald a new era of justice.

Efforts to build a working democracy by defending the rule of law and fighting corruption has been the central struggle of 21st-century Guatemalan politics. From 2007 to 2019, a panel of international investigators known as Cicig, backed by the United Nations and operating alongside the Guatemalan Public Ministry, led one of the most effective fights against corruption in Latin America. The commission dismantled 70 organized crime and corruption structures, and charged some 680 people, including two former presidents. That fight lasted until 2019, when President Jimmy Morales, who was under investigation for corruption, expelled Cicig with the backing of Republicans in the United States, leaving the country adrift.

Under Mr. Morales and his successor, Mr. Giammattei, an alliance of politicians, military officers, economic elites and organized crime that Guatemalans call the “Pact of the Corrupt,” quickly seized control of the justice system and other institutions. Attorney General Consuelo Porras, along with several prosecutors and judges, were placed on the U.S. State Department’s official list of “undemocratic and corrupt actors.”

Many of the prosecutors and judges who had fought corruption were punished. José Rubén Zamora, an investigative journalist and founder of the newspaper elPeriódico, who was arrested in July 2022 on trumped-up charges the international community denounced as an attempt to silence him, now occupies Ms. Laparra’s former cell in Mariscal Zavala.

In June he was convicted of money laundering and sentenced to six years in prison; his newspaper closed in May. Last February, two of the other women initially held with Ms. Laparra — Siomara Sosa, a prosecutor and Leyli Santizo, a lawyer for Cicig — crossed the Suchiate River on inner-tube rafts into Mexico.

They are among the at least 39 Guatemalan anti-corruption prosecutors and judges who have gone into exile; most have left in the last three years. Together they represent a generation that came of age in the decades after the peace accords, believing in the rule of law as the foundation of democratic governance.

Ms. Sosa once told me that her work at the anti-corruption office made her feel as though the country had a way to make sure that taxes went toward the health system and schools, instead of being siphoned off by graft. “I liked unmasking those who shamelessly stole millions, because while they were getting rich, children were dying of hunger,” she said.

My guide on that prison visit in 2022 was Jennifer Torres, a 26-year-old human rights group volunteer and a brilliant Maya law student at San Carlos University. The presidential elections were a year away and everyone I spoke to was pessimistic.

Ms. Torres told me then that she and her friends were going to cast their vote for Mr. Arévalo, a 64-year-old professor and candidate for the Semilla party. Though he is the son of Juan Jose Arévalo — Guatemala’s beloved first democratically elected president, who held office from 1945 to 1951 — few then knew of him, or his party. When I mentioned his name to experts in Guatemalan politics, they scoffed. “He lacks charisma,” one told me.

In the lead-up to the election, Guatemalan judges ejected from the race four presidential candidates deemed unlikely to support the Pact of the Corrupt. Mr. Arévalo, who vowed to resurrect the battle against corruption, was allowed to stay in the race because no one thought he could win. He was polling at a mere 3 percent, but the polls didn’t account for young and Indigenous voters like Ms. Torres.

In a stunning outcome, Mr. Arévalo qualified for the Aug. 20 runoff vote, which he won in a landslide. Many Guatemalans hadn’t felt so optimistic since 1944. My mother, who was a teenager at the time, handed out campaign fliers for Mr. Arévalo’s father on the sidewalk in front of our family toy store. The younger Arévalo’s victory unites the historical memories of elderly grandparents with the hopes of the young today.

Last Monday, Mr. Arévalo was confirmed the winner by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal. But it also, at the behest of Attorney General Porras, suspended his party. He will face a legislature and courts packed with members of the corrupt establishment; assassinations plots against the president-elect are a constant threat. On Friday, Mr. Arévalo denounced Ms. Porras for orchestrating a coup to keep his government from taking power. All over the country, protesters are demanding Ms. Porras’s resignation.

The international community, including the Biden administration, needs to be vigilant, ready to supply whatever support it can to this new government. But Guatemalans, on their own, created this extraordinary democratic opportunity, and so far, they seem determined to protect it.

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Francisco Goldman, a novelist and journalist, is the author, most recently, of the book “Monkey Boy,” which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

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