Guatemala City, Guatemala – Blockades were set up around campus. Banners were unfurled. And key buildings at the University of San Carlos (USAC), Guatemala’s sole public university, came under student occupation.
It was 2022, and the campus was in uproar over the election of a new rector, Walter Mazariegos, to lead the school.
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Critics, including the United States State Department, had denounced the selection process as “fraudulent”. Among those raising their voices in outrage was a member of Guatemala’s Congress, little known outside his country at the time.
But now, the dark-horse progressive Bernardo Arevalo has rocketed into the international spotlight as Guatemala’s president-elect — and his statements about the protests are at the centre of a new controversy erupting in the country.
On November 17, prosecutors filed a request to strip Arevalo and his running mate Karin Herrera of their political immunity for supporting the student protests on social media.
Human rights advocates and observers have warned that the request is the latest attempt to derail Arevalo’s presidency, as the political establishment reels from his surprise victory in August’s election.
“It is really a veiled threat to the transition,” Luis Mack, a Guatemalan independent political analyst and political science professor at USAC, told Al Jazeera.
“The case has no legal basis. But any excuse can serve to criminalise you and intimidate you.”
As he advanced to the run-off race, prosecutors sought to suspend his political party, the Seed Movement. Police also raided the party’s offices, and his opponents have publicly questioned the vote tally, even filing complaints of fraud.
But the latest move against Arevalo heightens the legal jeopardy he and his political party face, leaving him vulnerable to criminal investigation — and potentially prosecution.
A wide-ranging investigation
The request to remove Arevalo’s political immunity comes as part of a larger investigation into the occupation at USAC, which lasted over 380 days. It ended in June.
Cultural Heritage prosecutor Angel Saul Sanchez has accused participants of aggravated usurpation, destruction of cultural property, illicit association and sedition.
But he cast a wide net as well, using legal means to pursue supporters of the protest movement as well as active participants.
Already, the Guatemalan national police have carried out 31 raids as part of the case. Sanchez has also obtained arrest warrants for 27 people, including members of the Seed Movement.
When outlining his case in a press conference on November 16, Sanchez alleged that Arevalo and Herrera were part of the protesters’ political backing, helping to manage the university takeover from the sidelines.
“We clearly establish that there is a timeline in which the university is a political looting,” Sanchez said, projecting images onscreen of Herrera attending a protest and Arevalo speaking on the video platform, TikTok.
Their actions, Sanchez warned, could lead to charges of illicit association and influence peddling.
But before that happens, Sanchez’s request to revoke Arevalo’s immunity would have to overcome several hurdles, according to political analyst Marielos Chang.
“Right now, the Supreme Court of Justice has to authorise the stripping of his immunity,” Chang said. “And after, Congress has to vote.”
If both steps are successful, a court case against Arevalo can move forward, but Gabriela Carrera, a professor at Rafael Landivar University, said a trial could stretch on for years.
In the meantime, stripping Arevalo’s and Herrera’s immunity could still disrupt the transition of power. “This would be the consolidation of the current coup,” Carrera said.
Free speech implications
Critics, however, have denounced the whole investigation into the protests as an attempt to suppress free speech and political dissent in Guatemala. The rector whose election sparked the protests is seen as an ally of the ruling conservative party, Vamos.
“This, after many years, is the first case of massive criminalisation of protest,” Claudia Samayoa, a Guatemalan human rights activist, told Al Jazeera.
Guatemala began its transition to democracy in 1985. In the years prior, however, dissent had been censored and suppressed under a series of violent dictatorships.
For Samayoa, the case against the university protesters is particularly jarring because of its wide scope.
“Not only those who protest are being criminalised, but also those who support the protesters,” Samayoa said. “This case is completely against freedom of speech.”
Arevalo was indeed a vocal supporter of the university protests, using his online platforms to denounce what he considered evidence of “corruption and authoritarianism”.
“[President Alejandro] Giammattei has captured USAC. Mazariegos is an illegitimate rector,” Arevalo said in one social media post. “I am with the students.”
But he has denied committing any criminal actions, calling the latest accusations “spurious and unacceptable”.
The limits of immunity
In Guatemala, elected officials and political candidates generally receive immunity from prosecution, in order to stop their rivals from using the legal system against them.
But in recent years, a number of politicians have faced attempts to strip them of immunity.
One of the most high-profile cases was that of former President Otto Perez Molina. During his presidency, in 2015, Guatemala’s congress voted to remove his political immunity after allegations emerged that he helped lead a corruption ring within the government.
Facing a criminal investigation, Perez Molina resigned from office the very next day. He was convicted and sentenced to 16 years in prison in 2022.
Mack, the political analyst, believes the legal immunity Guatemalan politicians receive has contributed to the country’s larger problems with corruption. It allows politicians who face legitimate accusations to avoid investigation.
“The right to immunity is a reasonable protection in a democratic system,” Mack said. “However, in the last few years, it went from being a protection against spurious trials to something that promotes impunity.”
But Mack draws a distinction between legitimate corruption charges and the allegations Arevalo faces.
The recent arrest warrants, raids and public accusations indicate that the Public Ministry — helmed by Attorney General Porras — is willing to forge ahead regardless of Guatemala’s immunity law, he explained.
“The fact that the Public Ministry has advanced with an investigation without having removed [the right to immunity] demonstrates once again with which the Public Ministry is acting on bad faith,” he said.
An international crisis
The question of whether the Public Ministry will succeed in lifting Arevalo’s immunity is one that could have massive implications for Guatemala’s democracy — and stability across Central America.
Critics question whether the legal proceedings will ultimately prevent Arevalo from taking office on January 14.
“There is a lot of concern,” said Ana Maria Mendez Dardon, the Central America director for the Washington Office on Latin America, a US-based advocacy organisation.
“Obviously the democratic deterioration that Guatemala is experiencing affects the population but also the interests of the international community.”
She explained that Guatemala has become a “priority” for foreign policy, particularly in the US, which is grappling with a crisis at its southern border, driven by migration through Central America.
The US government also collaborates with Guatemala to combat transnational crime organisations linked to drug trafficking and other illegal enterprises.
“To address organised crime and irregular migration, you need to have a strengthened state, a strong state,” Mendez Dardon said.
Already, members of the US State Department have slammed Guatemala’s Public Ministry, calling its attempt to strip Arevalo of his immunity a “malign request”.
“The US rejects continued egregious attempts to undermine democracy in Guatemala. These actions threaten the stability of not only Guatemala but the region as a whole,” Brian Nichols, the assistant secretary for the Western hemisphere, posted on social media.
According to Mendez Dardon, the US sees its ideals reflected in Arevalo — and that gives it a strong incentive to back Guatemala’s president-elect.
“I think that the United States identifies Bernardo Arevalo as an anticorruption candidate and more democratic promise, and he will be a perfect interlocutor to move forward.”