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Indigenous Leaders in Guatemala Are Camping Out to Prevent Post-Election Coup

Leaders from Indigenous governance structures have energized a movement to ensure the presidential transition happens.

Indigenous Maya Ixil authorities lead thousands of people marching for democracy in Guatemala City.

Indigenous Leaders in Guatemala Are Camping Out to Prevent Post-Election Coup

Leaders from Indigenous governance structures have energized a movement to ensure the presidential transition happens.

Indigenous Maya Ixil authorities lead thousands of people marching for democracy in Guatemala City.

The aroma of coffee wafts out from a communal kitchen tent at a Guatemala City protest encampment where people are counting down the days until the inauguration of the country’s next government. For months, leaders from autonomous Indigenous governance structures have spearheaded a movement to defend democracy by ensuring the transition happens, and they have maintained the protest camp outside the public prosecutors’ office around the clock for more than 100 days.

Miguel Ángel Alvarado, the Indigenous Maya Achi mayor of Rabinal, has repeatedly traveled the 55 miles south to the capital to participate in protests. “We are defending our vote. We are defending the little democracy left in our country,” he tells Truthout. “We are here, the various Maya, Garifuna, Xinka and non-Indigenous peoples from around the country are here, demonstrating peacefully.”

Guatemalan President-elect Bernardo Arévalo, a progressive congressman and sociologist, is set to take office on January 14, but his inauguration was never a given. Political and judicial backlash to his victory was swift and sustained, essentially amounting to a slow-burn coup attempt. Grassroots protests and international pressure have also had staying power and have evolved over several months, working to rein in efforts to prevent Arévalo from taking office.

Arévalo’s party, Movimiento Semilla, grew out of mass anti-corruption protests in 2015. Combating corruption is a cornerstone of Arévalo’s plans for government. His victory presented a threat to Guatemala’s “pact of the corrupt,” an informal coalition of parties and interests that has been consolidating power across all three branches of government in recent years.

Thousands of vendors and tenants from more than 50 markets in the Guatemala City area march for democracy.
Thousands of vendors and tenants from more than 50 markets in the Guatemala City area march for democracy.

“It is very clear that this pact or bloc in power made a strategic decision a while back to take control of all of justice: public prosecutors’ office, courts and other institutions,” Guatemalan political analyst Renzo Rosal told Truthout.

Arévalo won the presidential runoff election in August but prosecutors had already begun leading efforts to undermine the election process and Movimiento Semilla after general elections in June saw Arévalo unexpectedly advance to the runoff. Between July and December, prosecutors took alarming steps in a series of criminal investigations — widely deemed spurious by analysts, activists and multilateral institutions — into party registration signatures, an election data system contract, voting records and even politicians’ tweets in support of a student movement.

Prosecutors carried out raids at election tribunal facilities and Movimiento Semilla party offices. A judge ordered the provisional suspension of Semilla’s legal status as a party. Congress voted to strip four election tribunal magistrates of their immunity from prosecution, paving the way for potential criminal charges. Prosecutors filed motions to strip Arévalo, his running mate Karina Herrera and other Semilla party leaders of their immunity from prosecution. They also claimed that the entire electoral process should be declared null and void due to alleged irregularities.

Volunteers run a kitchen to feed protesters at the encampment outside the public prosecutors’ office in Guatemala City.
Volunteers run a kitchen to feed protesters at the encampment outside the public prosecutor’s office in Guatemala City.

None of the actions went unchallenged, resulting in months of legal battles, international condemnation and protests. Demonstrations were initially sporadic, but after prosecutors seized voting records and election materials, Indigenous authorities called for longer-term nationwide mass protests. On October 2, 2023, they simultaneously set up the encampment outside the public prosecutors’ office and highway blockades in the western highlands that quickly spread to more than 120 highways and roads around the country. By late October, the blockades were lifted and protests refocused on the capital.

“It is not a movement to defend Semilla or the president. It is for the country,” said organizer Yolanda Florentino, taking a quick break from coordination duties in the volunteer-run communal kitchen at the protest encampment. “It is the defense of will of the people expressed at the ballot box and also against the whole pact of the corrupt, the corruption that has coopted the entire state.”

“We are defending our vote. We are defending the little democracy left in our country.”

The Indigenous-led movement is an explicitly nonpartisan movement for democracy, completely independent from the Movimiento Semilla party. Protesters have not wavered in their central demand: the resignation of Attorney General María Consuelo Porras. They have also been calling for the resignations of other key actors leading the efforts to undermine the election process and prevent Arévalo from taking office, including special anti-impunity prosecutor Rafael Curruchiche and Judge Fredy Orellana.

“This whole movement has created a strong political awareness and people have risen up nationally all over the place, even in little neighborhoods. So, I think that even if the attorney general’s resignation and other demands are not achieved, that alone has a major political impact for Guatemala,” organizer Florentino, known for her work in the past with the Conference of Clergy and Nuns of Guatemala, told Truthout.

Holding his granddaughter’s hand, Miguel Ángel Alvarado and other Indigenous Maya Achi leaders march for democracy in Guatemala City.
Holding his granddaughter’s hand, Miguel Ángel Alvarado and other Indigenous Maya Achi leaders march for democracy in Guatemala City.

Along with the encampment, other protest actions have continued in the capital and marches held by market tenants and vendors were among the largest. Roughly 70 percent of Guatemalan workers labor in the informal economy, and pan-market organizing has been growing. Thousands of people from more than 50 markets — established and informal, including street vendors — in the greater Guatemala City area snaked through downtown on several occasions, stretching for blocks on end. Many were not in favor of highway blockades because of their impact on livelihoods but still supported the Indigenous leadership and shared their demands.

“We are all united,” said Jorge Peralta, one of the local market representatives involved in the nonhierarchical coordination of the Frente de Mercados Unidos de Guatemala (United Markets Front of Guatemala). “As the market sector we are supporting democracy. We do not want our votes to be lost.”

Indigenous spiritual guides hold a ceremony during a protest for democracy in Guatemala City’s central plaza.
Indigenous spiritual guides hold a ceremony during a protest for democracy in Guatemala City’s central plaza.

While protests in defense of democracy have been exerting pressure for months, so too have international condemnation and sanctions. The United Nations, Organization of American States (OAS), United States and European Union have all repeatedly condemned actions taken by prosecutors and other Guatemalan officials to undermine the election process and results, in some cases even referring to an attempted coup. More concretely, the U.S. has stepped up designations to sanction the democratic antagonists and some accomplices. The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden identified corruption in northern Central America as one of the root causes of mass migration and made combating corruption one of five pillars of its foreign policy strategy for the region.

“I think that the strategy of other states and of the international community has basically been to build a succession of pressures,” said Gabriela Carrera, a political science professor at Rafael Landívar University in Guatemala City, in an interview with Truthout. “They didn’t fire off all the rounds at once. It has been a little-by-little approach of sustained pressure and that is really important.”

The U.S. has already placed Attorney General Porras and special anti-impunity prosecutor Curruchiche in its list of corrupt and undemocratic actors in northern Central America back in 2021 and 2022, respectively, for obstructing and interfering with investigations into high-profile corruption. Designated under the Northern Triangle Enhanced Engagement Act, they are barred from entering the U.S.

Women march holding a banner that reads “They Will Not Steal Democracy From Us” at a march in Guatemala City.
Women march holding a banner that reads “They Will Not Steal Democracy From Us” at a march in Guatemala City.

Judge Orellana, who ordered the suspension of the Movimiento Semilla party, and Cinthia Monterroso, a prosecutor involved in raids of election tribunal headquarters, were among the names added to the list in July 2023. The designations came down within a week of the suspension order and first election tribunal raid, but officially the two were designated for bringing and authorizing politically motivated criminal charges against journalists.

The U.S. then kicked it up a notch in December. The Treasury Department slapped Miguel Martínez, one of current Guatemalan president’s closest allies and collaborators, with “Magnitsky sanctions,” named for a Russian accountant who died in prison after accusing Russian officials of embezzlement. Among other things, the sanctions block Martínez from owning property and doing business in the U.S. The State Department announced it was using the Immigration and Nationality Act to impose visa restrictions on nearly 300 Guatemalans, including more than 100 members of Congress — not long after 108 of the total 160 voted to strip election tribunal magistrates of their immunity from prosecution.

The designations entailing visa restrictions are an important measure, but the impact of Magnitsky sanctions is much greater, political analyst Rosal told Truthout. “I think that generates some first quakes,” he said. “It creates fear, because a good number of congressional representatives have had a connection to [Martínez], in particular recently with the election of Supreme Court of Justice and appeals court [magistrates].”

While sanctions and designations can help rein in or somewhat stabilize the situation, they can also have an adverse effect, emboldening the attorney general and other bad actors of the crisis who have already been singled out and now have little to lose, Rosal notes. “They know they have no possibility of salvation. They will continue at the helm, provoking upheaval,” he said, adding that the crisis will not end with Arévalo’s inauguration.

A protest encampment outside the public prosecutors’ office in Guatemala City has been the epicenter of the Indigenous-led movement to defend democracy.
A protest encampment outside the public prosecutor’s office in Guatemala City has been the epicenter of the Indigenous-led movement to defend democracy.

Arévalo has said he will request Attorney General Porras resign, but the president does not have the power to force an attorney general out of office. Efforts to strip Arévalo’s immunity from prosecution and potentially oust him will likely continue.

The incoming administration has also already faced critiques for some of the cabinet picks Arévalo revealed on January 8. Half of the 14 ministers are women, but only one is Indigenous, even though more than 40 percent of the population is Indigenous and there are many longstanding struggles with the state over lands, extractive projects, inequality and marginalization. Leaders at the protest encampment lamented the exclusion and urged the incoming government to consider Indigenous voices, demands and personnel in its first 100 days in office.

“It is not a movement to defend Semilla or the president…. It is the defense of will of the people expressed at the ballot box.”

Arévalo’s administration will contend with high expectations from voters who elected him and from everyone who hit the streets to defend democracy along the embattled road to his inauguration. The situation did not calm down in the immediate lead-up to the transfer of power. Arrest warrants were issued on January 11 for four of the five principal magistrates of the electoral tribunal, though they had all fled the country after their immunity from prosecution was stripped in late 2023. Also on January 11, former Minister of the Interior Napoleón Barrientos was arrested, accused by prosecutors of disobeying a court order back in October 2023 to clear highway and road blockades. Barrientos, who resigned in late October, stated the measures taken prioritized avoiding violence and respected the right to life.

In the meantime, the Indigenous-led protest encampment outside the public prosecutors’ office will not pack up until the day after Arévalo takes office, in case there is a last-minute attempt to prevent that from happening. Nothing is over until it is over, said Carrera: “The risk that Arévalo might not take office is still present until January 14.”

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