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Tamaño letra

Tracing the cash in Guatemala's race

Parties pledge disclosures to prove their financial backers are not criminals

With eight months before the general elections in Guatemala, political parties pledged to open their campaign books to show that donations have not come from drug traffickers or other criminal organizations. But so far, few have done so.

The announcement came after legal experts and social representatives in the Central American nation began calling for more transparency, as the parties are spending millions of dollars pushing their candidates.

"There is a danger that criminal groups are mixed up in this, especially in the races among deputies and mayors," said Luis Linares, from the Association of Social Studies and Research (Asies), as quoted on Monday in the Guatemala City daily La Hora. "A political party is only going to account for the money it spends on the national level."

For years, Guatemala's newspapers have been filled with charges that criminal organizations have allegedly paid off judges and politicians. Last June, Carlos Castresana, the head of the UN-sponsored International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, known as CICIG, stepped down from his post blaming the mafias and drug traffickers who had been threatening and pressuring investigators and the courts.

The CICIG had been instrumental in bringing to justice former President Alfonso Portillo, who is on trial on theft and money-laundering charges. He was arrested by authorities last year before he could escape from the country. Castresana, 54, of Spain, said that "the criminal structure" behind Portillo "which had never before been disturbed, was reacting very well."

The parties recently signed a pact pledging campaign-finance disclosures. But the race has already begun, even though the official start of the campaign is in May, as dictated by the rules of the country's Supreme Electoral Council (TSE).

Organizations have begun to spend millions of quetzals on "informative" ads taken out in the media, which tread a fine line between what is and is not permitted at this stage of the race. Posters and graffiti have already gone up, and some supporters are calling into radio talk shows promoting or trashing certain candidates.

On Sunday, members of the National Unity of Hope (UNE), which is expected to nominate the current first lady Sandra Torres de Colom as its candidate, held a meeting to organize its party, which looked more like a campaign rally.

The TSE is responsible for supervising party expenditures, but has not been strong in policing, as some lawmakers have pointed out. In a 2004 study conducted by the Carter Center in Atlanta, investigators concluded that Guatemala had one of the Western Hemisphere's least-regulated party financing systems. "Rules for the disclosure of the parties' campaign contributions are, moreover, non-existent. In a country characterized by an extremely unequal distribution of income and wealth, this system maximizes the potential for those with money to determine the outcomes of election contests and shape policy to their own advantage, disregarding the will of the voters," reads the report.

Compounding the campaign are the number of "questionable" early candidates that have surfaced, including the first lady Torres de Colom. Under Guatemalan law family members of former presidents are barred from running. The wife of President Álvaro Colom has not stated whether she will run, challenging the election law before the Guatemalan Constitutional Court. But supporters at Sunday's UNE meeting appeared to rally around her.

Another nominee who could also be barred under the same rule is Zury Mayté Rios Montt Sosa de Weller, the daughter of former military ruler Efraín Rios Montt, who was proclaimed candidate in October by the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG).