Drug cartels’ ties to politics in spotlight as Guatemala votes
17 Jun 2019

The mayor of Nueva Concepcion, a town on the Pacific coast of Guatemala, stands accused by prosecutors of drug trafficking and money laundering for Mexican cartels that use the coastal route to transport cocaine to the United States.

Yet Otoniel Lima, who rides around his poor municipality of 130,000 people in an armored SUV, has immunity from prosecution until his term ends in December. And until a few days ago, the 58-year-old planned to run for reelection on Sunday.

This week, Guatemala’s highest electoral court, the TSE, revoked his candidacy, some six months after the charges were filed. He is among a handful of candidates blocked from Sunday’s municipal, legislative and presidential polls for alleged links to drug trafficking.

Lima denies all the allegations against him.

“If I were a drug trafficker, I would admit it,” he told Reuters in his office, gesturing indignantly. “I would have fled – I would have left the country – but I haven’t.”

In Guatemala, a transit route for much of the cocaine that flows into the United States, drug trafficking looms as a major issue in Sunday’s elections – just as a U.N. anti-corruption body prepares to leave the Central American country.

Former first lady Sandra Torres, of the center-left UNE party, leads the race to succeed President Jimmy Morales, a former television host. She has pledged to send troops onto the streets to fight violent crime and to tackle poverty by boosting social programs.

Torres, who has pledged zero tolerance for drug trafficking, has around 20% of voting intentions according to the latest polls, ahead of veteran right-wing candidate Alejandro Giammattei, with around 14%.

Pollsters predict neither candidate will win more than 50% of votes, which would result in a second round in August.

High levels of violence by gangs and drug traffickers, as well as a sense of impunity for criminals, have prompted rising numbers of Guatemalans to flee the country for the United States, sparking an angry response from U.S. President Donald Trump and threats to slash U.S. aid to Central America.

PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE BARRED

Alleged links between criminal groups and some politicians have become a hot topic. The U.N. commission tasked with fighting corruption and organized crime – the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) – is preparing to leave in September after Morales refused to renew its mandate.

Highlighting the depth of the problem, presidential hopeful Mario Estrada and congressional candidate Julio Jose Rosales were arrested during the campaign on charges of links to Mexico’s Sinaloa drug cartel. Traffickers allegedly financed their election campaigns in exchange for help transporting cocaine and heroin to the United States.

“Drug trafficking is contaminating our population,” said Torres, who is running for the UNE, the same party that propelled her ex-husband Alvaro Colom to power in 2007.

By Adriana Barrera and Sofia Menchu, Reuters, 14 June 2019

Read more at Reuters

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