Earlier this week, Sandra Torres—one of Guatemala’s most prominent politicians who less than a month ago lost a presidential run-off election—was arrested in her home. Prosecutors charged Torres with illegal campaign financing in a previous election. The candidate, who twice came close to becoming the country’s first female president, now faces a lengthy judicial process. Her party, the social-democratic National Unity of Hope (UNE), the largest opposition bloc in congress, could also be dissolved.
Coincidentally, Torres’ arrest took place the day before the mandate of the United Nations-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) came to a premature end. While Guatemalans tired of corruption welcomed Torres’ entry to Mariscal Zavala (a VIP prison) her fall sheds light on what the fight against corruption will look like in a post-CICIG era: justice will be served, but only to those who lose political power.
Torres’ judicial problems add a new chapter to her short but embattled political career. The former wife of Álvaro Colom, president from 2008 to 2012, Torres set her eyes on the country’s top executive post while serving as first lady.
In 2011, Torres’ first presidential bid came to an abrupt end after Guatemala’s Constitutional Court ruled against her candidacy. The country’s magna carta establishes that relatives of sitting presidents cannot run for the presidency. Though Torres hoped to bypass the law by filing for divorce, the court labeled the move as unconstitutional. In the aftermath of the election, she became the leader of UNE.
In 2015, the former first lady ran for the presidency again. Although she defeated most candidates in a crowded field of presidential hopefuls, Torres lost the run-off by a landslide margin to Jimmy Morales, an outsider comedian-turned-politician. After failing for a second time, Torres vowed not to run again; a promise she all-to-easily was unable to keep.
Morales’ (2016-2020) disastrous tenure provided Torres with a new opportunity to become president. Morales, who ran on an anti-corruption platform, led a public confrontation against the CICIG when it began investigating his political party and inner-family circle. In the end, the former comedian refused to renew the CICIG’s mandate, which brought the successful commission’s stay in the country to an early end.
Morales’ unpopularity, added to recurrent interventions from the Constitutional Court—which barred the candidacies of two front-runners, the conservative Zury Ríos and anti-corruption champion, Thelma Aldana—paved the way for Torres’ presidential goals. Torres had the upper hand in this year’s presidential contest. None of the candidates could compete with her in terms of brand recognition and nation-wide party apparatus.
For a moment the stars seemed to align for Torres, who was on the verge of becoming president. But the first-round vote revealed her unpopularity among voters, which she won by a closer-than-expected margin. A series of campaign errors—such as refusing to debate her rival, Alejandro Giammattei—turned her run for president into an uphill battle. When voters headed to the polls again on August 11, Torres lost by another landslide: 58 percent versus 42 percent of votes.
This time, however, the stakes were higher for the UNE candidate. Torres was well aware of investigations led by local prosecutors and the CICIG into her party’s shady finances. Although charges were looming, Torres was immune from prosecution due to her status as a presidential candidate. With the CICIG out of the picture—which translates into a weakened anti-corruption mandate for local prosecutors—Torres’ immunity would have continued if elected president.
Torres’ failure to win the presidency left her vulnerable. In the wake of the election, the arrest of UNE’s leader became imminent. Now, Torres faces charges for allegedly keeping $2.5 million in campaign contributions off the books in her 2015 presidential bid. That amount could grow as prosecutors reveal more evidence in forthcoming weeks.
The former first lady quickly blamed the conservative president-elect for her arrest. Since her case was under the radar of prosecutors prior to the election, the accusation seems unlikely. However, the incoming president didn’t do himself a favor when as a candidate, he promised to send Torres to jail.
In hindsight, it seems ironic that Torres’ arrest coincided with the end of the CICIG’s mandate. The image of the CICIG leaving the country as Torres entered prison sends a strong message to corrupt politicians and autocrats across the region: indefinitely remaining in positions of power is the only way to avoid jail in countries with weak institutions. This is a sad lesson that Guatemalans will once again have to embrace following the CICIG’s departure.
Lucas Perelló is a PhD candidate in Politics at The New School for Social Research. You can follow him on twitter @lucasperello