Guatemalans worry about security, unimpressed by leading candidates ahead of election
Jun 22, 2023, 8:17 AM
(AP Photo/Moises Castillo)
SAN JUAN COMALAPA, Guatemala (AP) — Just days away from electing a new president, many Guatemalans remain undecided, unimpressed by the leading candidates and even considering casting a protest vote to express their disapproval.
Concerns about extortion and violent crime cross class lines, and rural and urban communities, perhaps explaining why candidates leading the polls are promising heavy-handed security tactics, including reinstating the death penalty or hammering criminal gangs into submission.
The machinations of electoral authorities keeping some popular candidates out of the race and cancelling others drew headlines in the capital and expressions of concern abroad. But for the average Guatemalan the controversies surrounding the election are nowhere near as concerning as the rising cost of feeding their families and protecting their loved ones.
Ahead of Sunday’s election, the AP interviewed Guatemalans in rural San Juan Comalapa about 50 miles (80 kilometers) northwest of the capital and in Chimaltenango, a chaotic city of 100,000, 30 miles (50 kilometers) west of Guatemala City. These are some of their thoughts.
María Rosita Yoc Suruy is a 56-year-old homemaker from a hamlet called Cruz de Piedra, nestled in the mountains northwest of Guatemala City. On a recent day, she had taken a number of buses with her mother to a street market in larger San Juan Comalapa, a town of 30,000 inhabitants.
Both women wore the traditional huipils – brightly colored embroidered blouses – as they rested in front of the town’s main church with their bags of purchases beside them.
Yoc Suruy, animated and chatty, said she planned to vote Sunday in the presidential race. Though she said she had not entirely decided, only one candidate’s name came to mind: Zury Ríos Sosa, the candidate for the far-right Valor party and daughter of the late dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt.
Keeping her family safe is a priority for Yoc Suruy.
“We need a new president who will be tough on crime because there’s a lot of kidnapping, crime, killings and they rob a lot of people,” Yoc Suruy said. She recalled her eldest son who works in a pharmacy coming home upset recently because an organized crime group had demanded $100 per week in extortion payments. She said her daughter was pickpocketed in a market.
Yoc Suruy wants the next president to implement the death penalty in Guatemala, something Ríos Sosa has pledged to do. Guatemala’s highest court abolished the death penalty for civil crimes in 2017.
First grade teacher Ingrid Jhanet Simón Perén admits that with her 20-plus students to look after and a new baby at home she has not had enough time to learn much about all of the 22 candidates seeking Guatemala’s presidency.
The 39-year-old San Juan Comalapa native is mostly concerned by ever-rising prices for basic foodstuffs, Guatemala’s deep inequality and a lack of jobs that could dim the future prospects of her rural students.
“The country is supposedly developing, but the truth is that it’s not like that,” Simón Perén said. “There’s a lot of crime, there’s a lot of poverty and society is divided in different levels. It’s always going to be that way if we, the people with limited resources, don’t prepare ourselves to deeply understand our society, our economy and above all to study and know our country’s history.”
She did not always want to be a teacher. The youngest in her family, Simón Perén had wanted to be a secretary, but her older siblings warned her the job could be fleeting and suggested she either go into teaching or accounting.
Simón Perén mentioned two candidates for the presidency: Ríos Sosa and Sandra Torres, both of whom have sought the post before. She said a friend recently tried to convince her to support Torres, a former first lady who also has a conservative platform and an evangelical preacher for a running mate. The teacher said she was interested in Guatemala having its first female president, but needed to do more research before deciding her vote.
Her choice would be someone who seeks “the welfare (of all) and not the welfare of themselves.”
Aníbal Simón is worried about his country’s future. The soft-spoken 29-year-old call center worker cites a lack of investment in education, courses that haven’t kept up with a rapidly changing world and young people who study but give in to the conformism promoted in schools.
“They don’t investigate why we have the problems we have,” Simón said. “It’s like they’re all indifferent to the situation. So I think we’re to blame for being a poor country, for not being able to get ahead.”
Simón does not consider himself to be very political. He’s grateful for the remote call center job that allows him to work from rural San Juan Comalapa rather than making the arduous commute to the capital. He said he has been robbed and is unnerved by the level of crime.
He said he was still deciding between two candidates.
Bernardo Arévalo, candidate for the centrist Seed Movement, is the son of former President Juan José Arévalo Bermejo, Guatemala’s first democratically elected president who served from 1945 to 1951, and was inspired by U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt’s progressive New Deal. The other candidate is Giovanni Reyes, a university professor and Fulbright scholar running for president with the conservative BIEN party.
Simón said he believes the two men’s proposals most closely track with Guatemala’s reality.
But at the end of the day, he says, “a president isn’t Superman; he’s not the only one who makes changes. The changes start with us.”
In the central square of Chimaltenango, a bustling department capital west of Guatemala City, Herbert Gudiel Pemech Estrada waited with a camera slung across his chest. Beside him stood a toy horse and a selection of gaudy sombreros for children to wear astride the spotted steed.
The 30-year-old followed in his father’s footsteps as a children’s photographer. He remembers his dad bringing him along to work in the plaza since the age of 10.
With only a few days before voters go the polls, Pemech Estrada was leaning toward casting a null vote, essentially a protest vote.
Pemech Estrada wasn’t impressed by any of the candidates leading the polls. He thinks the government party is also somehow manipulating the parties in this election and that real change will be unattainable through any of them.
As a father of three, he worries about his children’s future and whether they will be able to find jobs and stay out of trouble.
But he said he was still wrestling with the decision.
“If you vote, you’re contributing your grain of sand so that all of this stays the same,” he said.