Along the main thoroughfares that crisscross Guatemala City, campaign posters promoting almost two dozen presidential candidates are plastered on electricity poles and lamp posts, each promising to bring prosperity and security to Central America’s most populous country.

Yet despite the plurality on display, few Guatemalans expect much to change amid mounting evidence that this Sunday’s election could be little more than a simulation of democracy.

Candidates from across the political spectrum have been blocked on spurious procedural technicalities, including the former frontrunner Carlos Pineda – a conservative agribusinessman and TikTok star – and Thelma Cabrera, an Indigenous Maya Mam grassroots leader.

Both have been encouraging supporters to spoil their ballot on 25 June in hope of forcing a rerun. But less than 30 years since the end of the brutal civil war which left 200,000 mostly Indigenous civilians dead and disappeared – and four years since a pioneering UN-backed anti-corruption body was forced to leave Guatemala – fears are mounting that the country is backsliding into autocracy.

“This is a blow to Guatemala’s supposed democracy,” Cabrera told the Guardian.

Experts warn that the election appears to have been manipulated to guarantee a president willing to consolidate power on behalf of the country’s elites, who in recent years have gained control over every branch of government – as well as the public prosecutor’s office – in order to secure immunity from prosecution for corruption and civil war crimes.

“The wind is blowing against the candidates seen as opponents of the ruling coalition,” said Edgar Ortíz, a constitutional law professor based in Guatemala City. “The legal system is a disaster … application of the law is unpredictable and arbitrary.”

The Inter American Commission on Human Rights has found “serious and worsening setbacks” in the fight against corruption due to the erosion of the justice system, and growing harassment of independently minded judges, prosecutors, journalists and human rights defenders.

Last week veteran journalist José Rubén Zamora was sentenced to six years in prison for money laundering, in a case widely condemned as political revenge for his newspaper’s investigative reporting on corruption. El Periódico, the daily Zamora founded in 1996 was forced to shut down in May.

Zamora faces two further spurious charges, while eight of his journalists are under criminal investigation for alleged obstructing justice by writing about his case.

“The election is a simulation of democracy, a process fixed to elect another klepto-dictatorship to continue governing in the interest of the same elites,” Zamora told the Guardian, as he was handcuffed and escorted back to prison to begin his sentence.

In 2015, Guatemala saw a string of anti-corruption protests that led to the fall of the government and arrest of the then president, part of a regional wave of democratic activism known as the Central American spring.

Just eight years later, pessimism is rife and there are no grassroots rallies or noisy demonstrations in Guatemala City’s central plaza.

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“It was very emotional to see the square full in 2015, after decades of terror,” said 58-year-old veteran rights activist Brenda Hernández, recalling the 36-year internal conflict that wiped out a generation of community leaders and trade unionists. “Now the biggest fear is not dying, it’s going to jail.”

Demonstrations have been stymied since November 2021, when the government deployed riot police with tear gas to a largely peaceful protest after a fire broke out in congress.

Since then, protesters – along with dozens of judges, prosecutors, journalists, and human rights defenders – have been jailed or forced into exile after being targeted with bogus criminal charges. Lawyers defending victims of criminalization are themselves being investigated, jailed and debarred for nonsensical charges.

“This judicial persecution is without doubt a military intelligence strategy aimed at reinstating impunity,” said Alejandro Rodriguez from Impunity Watch Guatemala.

“The ruling alliance has co-opted our institutions to destroy in six years what we took 30 years to build. We’ve never before seen such manipulation and arbitrary use of the law … which has succeeded in silencing a generation of leaders.”

Guatemala is the largest and poorest country in Central America, with more than half its 17m people living in poverty, and half of all children suffer chronic malnutrition.

Rates of extreme poverty, inadequate public services, and hunger are much worse among Indigenous communities, who most often bear the brunt of extractive industries like mining, dams and African palm plantations backed by the governing elites and international financiers.

Such dire conditions have helped drive years of mass migration north to Mexico and the US. Families rely heavily on remittances, which account for around 15% of Guatemala’s GDP, as the ruling elite has failed to invest in basic public services such as health, education, road safety, housing, water infrastructure and sustainable agriculture.

The current president, Alejandro Giammattei, came to power shortly after his predecessor – a former blackface comedian called Jimmy Morales – expelled Cicig, the UN backed crime fighting agency, in 2019.

Over the course of a decade, Cicig had identified more than 70 complex criminal structures involving some of Guatemala’s most powerful politicians, judges, businessmen and military veterans, chipping away at the immunity long taken for granted by the rich and powerful.

Guatemalan presidential candidate for the Cabal party, Edmond Mulet.
Guatemalan presidential candidate for the Cabal party, Edmond Mulet. Photograph: Johan Ordóñez/AFP/Getty Images

Cicig trained and assisted anti-corruption prosecutors to secure more than 400 convictions – including the former civil war general and president Otto Pérez Molina and his deputy Roxana Baldetti, who were forced to resign in 2015, and later sentenced to 16 years.

But investigations into illicit campaign financing by the country’s economic oligarchs – and another alleging corruption by Morales and his family – triggered a vengeful and ultimately successful effort to oust Cicig. The campaign was given high-profile support by US Republicans such as Marco Rubio.

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Morales installed an attorney general who has been sanctioned by the US for “obstruction of justice” but remains in post and has filled the public prosecutor’s office with allies.

Giammattei, a former prisons chief, brokered alliances with a dozen small parties to take control of the legislature, which in turn has blocked the appointment of new judges – including those who decide the eligibility of political candidates – in order to keep allies on the bench.

Anti-corruption investigations have been shelved, as have reparations and investigations into civil war era abuses, in favor of persecuting Cicig’s allies.

“The rule of law is completely broken, there is no guarantee of due process or the right to a defence. Anyone considered an enemy of the regime can be accused of an invented crime for political gain or personal revenge,” said Jorge Santos, director of the Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders of Guatemala (Udefegua).

In one case, Virginia Laparra, 43, an anti-corruption prosecutor from Quetzaltenango in western Guatemala, was sentenced to four years for abuse of authority after she reported her suspicions that a judge had leaked sensitive details from a sealed corruption case. Last week, a group of UN experts called for her immediate release after concluding that her detention was “arbitrary”.

Wendy López, one of Laparra’s defence lawyers, is now under investigation for public disorder after she objected to being expelled from court and called on the judge to sanction the public prosecutors and FCT lawyers for insulting the defence. “It’s the same pattern of arbitrary violations instigated by the same actors … it stops you sleeping at night because it doesn’t matter how good our legal argument is, we can’t win,” López said.

Guatemalan candidate for the National Union of Hope party and former first lady Sandra Torres greets supporters.
Guatemalan candidate for the National Union of Hope party and former first lady Sandra Torres greets supporters. Photograph: Johan Ordóñez/AFP/Getty Images

As it stands, the top contenders for president are Sandra Torres, a former first lady who in 2019 faced corruption charges for illegal campaign financing; Zury Ríos, daughter of Efraín Ríos Montt, a former military dictator later convicted of genocide; and Edmond Mulet, a career diplomat who has denied allegations he helped facilitate improper overseas adoptions during the civil war.

A runoff between the top two in August looks likely, though Mulet could still be expelled from Sunday’s vote, as he is facing allegations of obstruction of justice for speaking out against the criminalization of Guatemalan journalists.

Election observers have warned of low voter registration and turnout and on the streets there’s little sign of enthusiasm. “I should vote, but there are no real options,” said taxi driver Edgar Aroldo.

Santos, the human rights defender, said: “It doesn’t matter who wins, the political mafia has already made sure that the regime will continue and we will be crisis for at least another generation.”

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