The National Unity of Hope (Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza – UNE) is one of Guatemala’s most enduring political parties and has long been a powerhouse in the nation’s Congress, opening the door to corruption and impunity. The bloc, headed by serial presidential candidate and former first lady, Sandra Torres, leverages its sizable coalition in Congress, where votes can be traded for access to state contracts and government jobs, to build mutually beneficial alliances with other political factions and influential actors in the judicial sector. The latter bracket has shielded Torres and her allies from potentially career-ending corruption charges.

Though holding the keys to Congress makes UNE a coveted ally, the bloc’s vulnerability lies in its dependence on trade-offs and the apparent ceiling of its presidential hopeful. Forging alliances that further UNE’s interests has required the party, which presents itself as an opposition group, to align with the executive branch and, by extension, the horizontal alliance of emerging and traditional elites that dominate access to state resources. And while Torres has the highest name recognition, retains a solid political foundation, and is expected to make the run-off election, she has never topped more than one-third of the electorate in a head-to-head competition. Nonetheless, given the unpredictable nature of this race, it is conceivable that this could be the time she breaks that barrier.

The UNE’s Congressional Carrousel

The UNE bloc revolves around a key group of political operators, including Torres, who trade favors with other political factions and position allies in key branches of the state. These negotiations center on a delicate relationship between top UNE officials and the executive branch, in addition to a constant trading of favors between UNE representatives and other parliamentary coalitions.

Congressional Powerbrokers

In recent years, there has been a significant alignment of interests between Torres and President Alejandro Giammattei’s respective legislative blocs. This has eliminated any feasible opposition to passing bills in Congress, some of which may have facilitated corruption. The relationship is one of interdependence. Giammattei benefits from UNE’s votes — as of June 17, the party holds just under a third of congressional seats, though some representatives have defected to other parties — and Torres gets help overcoming legal hurdles and surviving a rebellion from within her own party. The détente has paved the way for UNE’s top congressional operators to foster mutually beneficial ties with the president and his allies.

UNE’s main broker in Congress during this time period has been Estuardo Vargas, who until recently headed the party’s voting bancada, or voting bloc. Vargas maintains an amicable relationship with Giammattei’s principal advisor, Miguel Martínez, according to two congressional representatives interviewed by InSight Crime. The UNE bloc also has outsized influence in the legislature’s working commissions, which decide whether or not a proposed legal initiative makes it to the floor of Congress for a vote. UNE representatives now head 11 of 37 working commissions, seven more than any other party, giving the bloc significant bargaining power in state sectors associated with corruption, such as housing, electoral affairs, food security, labor, and the office that issues national IDs (known by its acronym RENAP).

Controlling the Ports

Vargas previously headed the state-run port of Santo Tomás de Castilla in Izabal, and today his contacts are thought to include notorious businessman Axel Arturo Samayoa Camacho, alias “Castor.” Samayoa’s multiple shipping companies have been awarded millions of dollars in state contracts to provide services crucial to verifying shipping containers — including video surveillance — in Guatemala’s state-run and private ports, according to an investigation by elPeriódico. The US Treasury has sanctioned Samayoa for “colluding with public officials and paying bribes to ensure his companies won lucrative port contracts.”

SEE ALSO: Guatemala: An Election Enshrined in Impunity

Contacts in the ports can manipulate port infrastructure — including scanners, cameras, and power supply — to allow select shipping containers, filled with drugs or contraband, to pass through the ports unchecked. Vargas’ authority in the ports also extends to state contracts and government jobs, which can be leveraged for personal profit and to boost his political standing. To be sure, the US Treasury Department sanctioned Vargas in 2022 for alleged corruption. The sanctions appear to have knocked Vargas back a notch. He is not running for Congress in the upcoming elections. Instead, he is seeking a seat on the Central American Parliament (Parlamento Centroaméricano – Parlacen). 

Lining up to fill Vargas’ shoes is Ervin Adim Maldonado, an influential congressional operator who has joined UNE’s ranks for the 2023 elections. Maldonado’s family owns a network of cable companies that operate in over 200 municipalities (two of these firms were awarded state contracts by the Supreme Electoral Court (Tribunal Supremo Electoral – TSE) to broadcast campaign material during the 2019 elections). The companies allow the family to promote certain candidates; the investment may be a means of securing power in Congress.

Caciques, Elites, and Evangelical Churches

UNE has also historically relied on a network of regional operators, also known as caciques, to mobilize funds for campaigning outside of Guatemala City. UNE’s approach dates back to the 2000s, when party operators reportedly formed ties with regional caciques and drug traffickers — including members of Mexican drug trafficking organization, the Zetas — to finance the winning campaign of former president, Álvaro Colom (2008-2012). The party’s electoral viability appears to rest on its ability to deliver state resources to these caciques, often seasoned members of Congress or prominent mayors, who seek contracts and government jobs as repayment for financing political campaigns.

The bloc’s most conspicuous ties to the traditional elites come via Torres’ son-in-law, Rudy Guzmán. Guzmán is the presidential candidate for the political party Nosotros, registered with electoral authorities in 2022, whose congressional candidates include Torres’ daughter — and Guzmán’s wife — Nadia Lorena de León Torres. Guzmán owns private security companies that have been awarded millions of dollars in state contracts; he is reportedly Nosotros’ main financier, according to local press and sources interviewed by InSight Crime.

Other members of Torres’ immediate family are also part of the political project, including her daughter Lourdes de León Torres (UNE Congress candidate) and son Edgar de León Torres (UNE candidate for Parlacen).

Torres’ choice of running-mate, a former evangelical pastor, represents a departure from the party’s center-left ideological stance. On the surface, the move appears to be aimed at winning over conservative voters in the capital, where UNE has historically underperformed. But beyond securing votes, the network of evangelical churches can help fund the party’s electoral campaign. The alliance also raised eyebrows because evangelical churches have been used to launder money. Sources pointed to Sergio Enríquez, a UNE Congress candidate previously accused of money laundering and fraud.

Judicial Protection and Political Survival

The UNE bloc’s interactions with the judicial sector are mainly geared towards securing its own political survival rather than leading the way in debilitating the country’s anti-impunity edifice. The bloc has benefitted from favorable court rulings in high-profile corruption cases and appears to have leveraged its political alliances to mount legal blockades aimed at quashing internal party rebellions.

Trading Favors: The Courts, Attorney General’s Office, and Congress

UNE presidential candidate Sandra Torres has been at the center of this political power bloc’s efforts to secure judicial protection. The UNE leader was jailed in September 2019 after the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG), the United Nations-backed supranational judicial body, accused her of failing to report millions of dollars in campaign contributions for the 2015 elections. She has since benefited from a series of favorable rulings. In January 2020, she was put under house arrest. In October 2022, the judge that sent Torres to trial, Claudette Domínguez, revoked a measure barring her from political campaigning and granted her conditional liberty, facilitating her return to political life. Then, a month later, Domínguez closed the case against Torres and UNE’s alleged illicit campaign financing, freeing Torres of criminal charges just weeks before she registered as a presidential candidate for the 2023 elections.

Domínguez, who presides over high-impact corruption cases in Guatemala’s top-level criminal courts, has previously ruled in favor of military elites and high-level politicians accused of corruption. And her decision to drop Torres’ case came just weeks after votes from UNE representatives helped Giammattei’s bloc achieve key goals in Congress, including the re-election of Giammattei’s Vamos party-operator Shirley Rivera to president of Congress and the passing of a beefed-up national budget for 2023. The legal precedent used to justify the decision came from the Constitutional Court, which in late 2021 unanimously ruled that Torres could not be prosecuted for failing to register 2015 campaign contributions, as this was not a crime under the country’s penal code at the time of the alleged wrong-doing.

SEE ALSO: Controversial Attorney General Outlasts Guatemala’s Anti-Corruption Efforts

The Attorney General’s Office has also ruled in favor of the UNE bloc. In 2019, Attorney General Consuelo Porras delayed prosecutors from levying additional charges against Torres for illicit campaign financing, giving her time to register as a presidential candidate and therefore gain political immunity, according to a former FECI prosecutor who later accused Porras of abusing her authority. Prosecutors have not appealed the decision to close the illicit campaign financing case against her.

TSE: Getting on the Ballot

Torres has also benefited from favorable rulings by the TSE, the country’s top electoral authority. The TSE ordered UNE to reinstate Torres as leader following an internal rebellion that threatened her control of the party. UNE officials claimed the TSE’s decision formed part of a pact between Giammattei and Torres to ensure the re-election of the then-president of Congress, Allan Rodríguez (Vamos). Since the split, some of the rebels have gone on to form another political party (Voluntad, Oportunidad y Solidaridad – VOS), while the remaining UNE representatives have tended to vote in line with the president’s coalition.

The TSE and the CSJ (Corte Suprema de Justicia – CSJ) have also rejected appeals aimed at blocking Torres from running as a presidential candidate in the 2023 elections on the grounds that her running mate was a church minister (the Guatemalan constitution bans ministers from running for office). It is a reversal of fortune for Torres. Back in 2011, the TSE and CSJ barred her from the elections, citing a constitutional prohibition on the spouse of the current president running for office.

CSJ magistrates have shielded other UNE officials from prosecution as well. For example, they voted down a 2019 injunction that sought to strip Estuardo Vargas of his congressional immunity and allow prosecutors to investigate him for alleged illicit campaign financing. One congressional representative said the bloc’s main contact in the TSE appears to be Mynor Franco, one of five permanent magistrates on the court. Franco previously sat on the CSJ, and, in 2011, was the only magistrate to vote in favor of allowing Torres to run for office.

*Jody García and Edgar Gutiérrez contributed reporting to this story.