Explained: Evidence of Electoral Fraud in Guatemala

What the Prosecutor General's Office Found behind Bernardo Arévalo's Victory

Significant irregularities could potentially lead to the prosecution of President Bernardo Arévalo. (Sebastián Díaz)

Lea en español. 

Key Findings

  • The Guatemalan Prosecutor General’s Office (PGO) started investigating the Semilla political party in July 2022, when the first of many citizens reported involuntary affiliation. The PGO found inconsistencies in 32 percent of the records of the reported Semilla members.
  • Semilla also failed to comply with financing regulations due to inconsistent income and expense records and the absence of internal controls. This resulted in a $50,001 fine. There remain suspicions that the party resorted to illicit funds to pay the fine. In the absence of documentation for the funds, Guatemalan President Bernardo Arévalo is liable to face prosecution for his alleged involvement.
  • The PGO performed a digital audit of electoral records and detected that some were scanned before balloting ended on June 25, 2023. This raises concerns regarding around 2 million votes (out of 5.56 million voters). Presumably, Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) magistrates ordered data-processing staff to conceal evidence of fraud by fabricating electoral records to match the broadcast results. If confirmed, the election results could be invalidated.

The Prosecutor General’s Office in Guatemala has announced there is evidence that the general elections held on June 25, 2023, were fraudulent. After conducting investigations, the PGO uncovered significant irregularities that could potentially invalidate the election results and lead to the prosecution of Guatemalan President Bernardo Arévalo.

On December 8, 2023—prior to Arévalo taking office—the PGO revealed three core findings in a press conference. First, one-third of the member records submitted to register Semilla, Arévalo’s political party, were fraudulent. Second, the PGO found gaps in Semilla’s financial management and a lack of information on the sources of donors’ and lenders’ money.

The third finding referred to direct fraud in the election. The PGO discovered scanned electoral records that, according to metadata, were uploaded before the balloting ended. Moreover, the PGO has not found 7,950 physical electoral records.

The PGO shared its findings and evidence with the Supreme Electoral Tribunal and the Criminal Court, but both their processes move slowly. The sole action of the Criminal Court has been the precautionary suspension of the Semilla party’s authorization. In the meantime, Arévalo and Semilla’s 24 elected congressmen have taken office (on January 14, 2024).

To disseminate the findings of the PGO investigation, the Impunity Observer requested access to the PGO’s documents and interviewed José Luis González, a Guatemalan attorney with 50 years of professional experience and expertise in constitutional law.

The Semilla party has, in general, been cagey and declined PGO questions about electoral fraud. Our own deputy editor, Mauro Echeverría, got at least brief relevant remarks from Semilla Attorney General María Reyes for an Impunity Observer investigation published in August 2023 (prior to the PGO release).

Semilla’s Illegal Electoral Participation

In July 2022, the PGO started investigating the Semilla party after a Guatemalan citizen reported his involuntary affiliation with the political organization. When prosecutors attempted to verify the data of the 24,245 people reported as Semilla members, they found inconsistencies in 32 percent of the records. 

Specifically, 5,542 records had nonexistent names or identification numbers; 2,394 identification numbers did not match the registered names; 132 records were duplicates; and 40 records belonged to deceased individuals. Moreover, 13 registered members claimed they did not actually join the party. 

According to the Electoral and Political Party Law, a political party needs a minimum number of affiliates—equivalent to 0.3 percent of the electoral registry—to be authorized. Semilla should have presented a verifiable list of at least 24,000 members, but only 16,124 records were valid.

On August 1, 2023, the Impunity Observer released quotes from an exclusive interview with Semilla Attorney General María Reyes—also a newly elected congresswoman. At that time, she admitted the possibility of more than one fraudulent affiliate registration. However, she dismissed this as poor management of registration documents, allegedly common among Guatemalan political parties, as opposed to foul play:

“When our registration lists went to hospitals, some people signed, but when the TSE analyzed these signatures some of them must have already died.… There is an overreaction regarding Semilla’s case.… authorities have politicized [Semilla’s] investigation.”

Arévalo, who is also Semilla’s legal representative, did not deny the PGO’s findings regarding fraudulent affiliations. Instead, he attempted to deflect culpability and avoid taking responsibility by singling out Jaime Gudiel, who was supposedly in charge of registering affiliations and receiving funds for them.

To support his complaint, Arévalo attached an agreement between Samuel Pérez, who was Semilla’s legal representative, and the affiliation team: Gudiel’s sisters Ashley and Ileana.  The document showed the organization agreed to pay $0.90 per affiliation, but only Ashley Gudiel had signed it.

Some Semilla members have sworn the affiliation record was accurate and trustworthy. However, aside from their testimony, they have not provided evidence to undermine the present findings. The PGO suspects “a possible collaboration among Semilla members, its attorneys, some supporters, and TSE officials to commit fraud for political purposes.” 

As a result of these findings, Samuel Pérez is under investigation by the Criminal Court and may be subject to conviction. However, lawyer José Luis González explains that the Criminal Court’s processes are lengthy, and some judges fear political retaliation.

For González, the mere fact that Arévalo did not deny the existence of fraudulent and fabricated affiliations is enough to initiate the process for the political party’s cancellation: “Every person who oversaw the affiliate registrations—the recording official, the inspectors general, and the TSE magistrates—is aware of the fraudulent affiliations. They know the records include data of deceased people.”

In the press conference, PGO prosecutors stated: “Semilla was never legitimately formed since it registered through corrupt and illegal means.” According to González, in legal terms, canceling the political party should also result in the cancellation of the elections. 

Irregularities in Semilla’s Finances

The audit report conducted by the TSE Political Party Financing Oversight Unit on Semilla’s financial management from January 1 to December 31, 2019, revealed a series of malpractices. The PGO cited this report to explain the lack of documentation for Semilla’s funding. The oversight report provides evidence that Semilla lacked internal controls and did not comply with financing rules. 

According to the Electoral and Political Party law, political organizations cannot have ongoing or recurring expenses related to marketing and campaigning. However, the Semilla party reported monthly bills on “services for the electoral campaign” during the nonelectoral period.  

Regarding compliance, the legislation requires political parties to maintain all financial records and report them transparently and accurately. The TSE Political Party Financing Oversight Unit found the following inconsistencies: 

  • income and expense records were different from the figures declared on the reports that Semilla submitted to the electoral authority;
  • some income receipts lacked documentation about the origin of the funds;
  • some income receipts did not meet other legal requirements;
  • other monetary contributions were not even reported;
  • the political party failed to submit sufficiently detailed income and expense reports. 

On June 8, 2022, the TSE Political Party Financing Oversight Unit punished the Semilla party with a $50,001 fine for violating the Electoral and Political Party Law. Semilla has also violated Article 407 (l) and (o) of the Penal Code.

Subsequently, the PGO found that Arévalo might have resorted to illicit funds to pay the fine. He took out a loan from public-policy consultant Felix Alvarado

Rather than justifying with complete documentation the origin of those funds, Alvarado submitted an affidavit declaring that the money came from his revenues as a consultant. The lawyer who authorized this document is Diana Benavides, who is under investigation due to an irregular purchase of a building where former Prosecutor Thelma Aldana—also under investigation—took shelter before expatriating herself to the United States. 

González explains that the Guatemalan Bank Superintendency sent an alert reporting anomalous activity in Alvarado’s bank account when he received the money for the loan. According to the Superintendency, Alvarado did not ordinarily handle such sums before, and the money was sent from a US bank account. 

The PGO has requested support from US financial-regulation agencies to track the origin of the money. González, however, believes these agencies will not cooperate with the PGO.

“The US State Department has financed the electoral fraud to get its ally Arévalo into the Guatemalan presidency,” he alleges. According to González, US State Department officials want impunity for Semilla members and other Guatemalan allies—such as former Prosecutor General Aldana—and to secure favorable access for allied US firms to exploit local natural resources.

Bernardo Arévalo’s Out-of-the-Blue Victory

On June 25, 2023, Guatemalans elected two candidates for a presidential runoff, congressional representatives, members of the Central American Parliament, and local authorities. Sandra Torres, a three-time presidential candidate, won the first round with 21 percent of votes. Arévalo, after running eighth in the polls, surprisingly reached second place with 15.5 percent. Semilla got 24 seats in Congress out of 160.

A survey called Encuesta Libre conducted by market research firm ProDatos and media outlet Prensa Libre interviewed 1,202 citizens two weeks before the election. With an estimated margin of error of 2.8 percent, the survey predicted Sandra Torres, running with the leftist National Union for Hope (UNE) political party, would win with 21.3 percent of the votes. Edmond Mulet, a former legislator and diplomat running with the center-right Cabal party, and Zury Ríos, a former legislator running with the conservative Valor party, were projected to be second (13.4 percent) and third (9.1 percent), respectively. Encuesta Libre reported Arévalo would get less than 3 percent of votes and predicted null votes to be around 13.5 percent.

The poll also revealed 75 percent of respondents were concerned about the integrity of the electoral process. They believed it lacked transparency and doubted that the elections would be fair. 

Information regarding alleged overpriced purchases of technological devices and software that circulated before the election day could have influenced their perception. According to another PGO investigation, the TSE bought computers and mobile phones for election day at prices five times higher than their market prices. 

Moreover, the TSE paid around $18 million for a new computerized system (TREP) for electoral results, leading to questions from civil society and political organizations regarding the need for such a purchase. González argues the TSE already had tailored, applicable software developed by its technicians for previous elections. Moreover, another company competing in the bidding had an offer that was around $4 million cheaper. 

In November 2023, the PGO shared its findings with Congress and requested impeachment of TSE magistrates. In a different investigation, the Comptroller General’s Office (CGC) started an overall audit of the electoral process. The CGC results are pending. 

A Pandora’s Box on Election Day

The PGO also discovered irregularities committed on the election day (June 25, 2023). By conducting a digital audit on a sample of electoral records uploaded to the TREP system, the PGO detected some records were scanned before the balloting finished. They came to this finding by consulting the metadata of the image records. 

Upon reviewing 7,500 electoral records, the PGO found that the metadata of 524 presidential election records and 929 legislative election records registered an uploading time that was before the balloting ended at 6 p.m. The PGO then reviewed physical electoral records from TSE’s archive and compared them with the scanned records. As a result, prosecutors realized 7,950 physical electoral records were missing. This creates uncertainty about around 2 million votes (5.56 million voters participating in more than one electoral race).

“Prosecutors who oversaw vote counting in different zones of the country reported—on the evening of the election day—that hard-copy electoral records did not arrive on time to the data processing centers,” González told the Impunity Observer. “Moreover, the TREP platform only started showing final results the morning of the next day.”  

Given these anomalies and complaints from prosecutors, González questions why the TSE did not conduct a digital audit to confirm the TREP system was working well and started at zero when the balloting finished at 6:00 p.m. According to him, the absence of such an internal audit suggests TSE magistrates participated in the identified anomalies. TSE officials presumably ordered the data processing staff to match the previously inserted numbers in the TREP system with physical electoral records to conceal the fraud.

Similarly, TSE magistrates have not shown interest in addressing the case of electoral fraud presented by the PGO. After the PGO shared with the TSE the findings of the investigation, TSE magistrates happened to be on vacation when they were supposed to initiate trials, although the motives for their absence remain disputed. 

The PGO has continued to pursue prosecution for Arévalo and Pérez with the Criminal Court and the Supreme Court of Justice, but these processes see ever more delays. If judges initiate a criminal process against Arévalo and the case goes to trial, he will have to cease presidential duties and potentially face imprisonment. 

Arévalo has publicly opposed Guatemalan Prosecutor General Consuelo Porras and her office’s findings, arguing that the PGO is trying to perpetrate a coup d’état. On May 6, 2024, Arévalo presented a bill to Congress to reform the Prosecutor General’s Office Law. The reform “will pave the way to make the prosecutor general accountable to the Guatemalan people and remove her from office within the framework of the [reformed] law,” Arévalo stated.

That targeting of the PGO has failed to impress those pushing for enforcement and adherence to the rule of law. González explains that, “In addition to the revealed crimes committed by him and his party, Arévalo continues perpetrating crimes by preventing prosecutors and other officials from conducting further investigations.”

Paz Gómez

Paz Gómez is the Econ Americas research director and a widely published economic commentator. Based in Quito, she leads the firm’s office in Ecuador. She holds an MS in digital currency and blockchain from the University of Nicosia, Cyprus, and a BA in international relations and political science from San Francisco University of Quito. She is a cofounder and the academic coordinator of Libre Razón, a classical-liberal think tank in Quito, Ecuador. Follow @mpazgomezm.

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