As candidates square-off in Guatemala’s presidential election, a broader political battle is transpiring away from the campaign signs and populist rhetoric: the old oligarchy is fighting to maintain its privileged position against an increasingly powerful "narco elite".
The old elite, or oligarchs, usually come from a feudal-style landowning class linked to coffee exports, cattle ranching and some heavy industry, such as cement production. The new narcos deal in cocaine, marijuana and assassinations.
"Members of the new elite might buy a Hummer from a Mexican singer and everyone will know they are corrupt," said Martín Rodríguez Pellecer, director of Plaza Publica, an investigative journalism project based in Guatemala City, the capital. "The traditional elite are more subtle, they just [get elected into office] and give huge contracts to their friends.
"There is strong competition between the oligarchy, the new elite [linked to trade and international business] and the new drug elite," he told Al Jazeera.
Comprised of a small group of light-skinned families in a country with a large, marginalised indigenous population, the old elite managed power since their European descendants arrived in the Americas. Now, with more money and a greater capacity for violence, the narcos are challenging them in politics, traditional business and power relations.
'Sharing' with gangsters
One of the most violent countries in the Western hemisphere, Guatemala's murder rate stands at about 45 per 100,000 people. Its 14.7 million inhabitants have the highest rate of malnutrition in Latin America, worse even than Haiti, Reuters reports. Half of Guatemala’s children regularly do not get enough to eat, according to UNICEF.
"A good part of the elite still think like ranchers whose economic model has not evolved," said Renata Avila, a human rights lawyer and blogger in Guatemala City. "Their business model is successful because people are not getting better education, so they do not need to pay better salaries. Now, they need to share power, neighbourhoods and vacation spots with a new emerging elite composed of criminals."
Competing sections of the upper crust have not lined-up evenly behind opposing candidates in Sunday’s presidential vote, analysts say. But they are jockeying for position to sway whoever replaces Alvaro Colom, the current president, through political donations.
"Guatemalans can only guess who has paid for the election posters lining their streets," The Economist reported on a campaign set to be the most expensive in the impoverished nation's history.
Otto Perez Molina, the clear front-runner to assume the presidency in January, was a General during Guatemala's vicious civil war from 1960-1996. He promises to expand the national police force by 10,000 officers, while adding 2,500 soldiers to the army as part of the conservative Patriotic Party campaign to use an "Iron Fist" to deal with criminals.
"He will be friendlier with big business, trans-national companies and national landowners," said Pellecer.
WikiLeaks cables from the US embassy in Guatemala, obtained by Plaza Publica, indicate that Perez Molina accepted money from the Castillo, Novella, Herrera, and Dionisio Gutiérrez families, four of the richest in Guatemala, and owners of the country's four largest traditional industries.
Perez Molina has also been linked to drug traffickers. He denied knowing the powerful Mendoza family, allegedly traffickers, for years, but after the WikiLeaks disclosure last month, Molina admitted being introduced to family members by one of his closest advisers.
Manuel Baldizon, a populist business tycoon and former congressman, is expected to come second out of the 10 candidates. He will likely face Molina in a November run-off vote. His promises include carrying out more executions, possibly in public, and said Guatemala's national football team would make the World Cup if he was elected.
Baldizon hails from Peten, a lawless province with hidden jungle landing-strips for narco aircraft, strategically located on Guatemala's northern border with Mexico. He has reportedly offered members of congress $61,000 each if they defected to his party. "He has relationships with people accused of political murders and narco trafficking," Pellecer said, allegeding that drug money could be funding his campaign.
Links to elites, rather than the public, are partially a political necessity due to the cost of campaigning. "Unregulated political finance poses a threat more subtle than violence but as dangerous to political life," the International Crisis Group noted in a report prior to the vote. "Reforms have required parties to limit campaign spending and reveal their financial backers, but politicians disregard the new rules with impunity."
History and violence
The oligarchy, in some ways, spawned the creation of their new competition. In 1954, a US-backed coup toppled the democratically elected left-leaning government of Jacobo Arbenz, triggering decades of military rule and violence. An estimated 200,000 people died during the 36-year civil war in which military rulers battled leftist rebels. Ninety three per cent of the dead were killed by military and paramilitary forces, according to a UN-sponsored truth commission.
During the conflict, oligarchs supported the creation of the Kaibiles, a notoriously violent elite military unit tasked with routing leftists from their jungle strongholds.
When the war ended, the trained killers found work with drug cartels, joining up with members of the ultra-violent US-trained Zetas. "If you grow Kaibiles, 30 years later you will have Zetas," Pellecer told Al Jazeera.
During his military career, Molina trained at the Kaibiles School, Avila said. The presidential candidate denies any connection to massacres they committed.
In May, suspected Zetas massacred 27 workers at a ranch in Peten, Baldizon’s political base.
As in Colombia, when drug violence pushed the country to the brink of total collapse in the 1980s and 1990s, traffickers in Guatemala often invest their illicit profits in ranches. These provide useful territory, giving them space to operate and an opportunity for money laundering, but the acquisitions sometimes lead them into the territory of traditional oligarchs.
Neither cartels, nor traditional oligarchs, want higher taxes. At 11 per cent of GDP, Guatemala’s taxes are among the lowest in the Latin America, The Economist reported.
This point of agreement on taxes, however, might be changing, as some traditional elites are starting to view a stronger state as a defence against their illicit competitors. Without revenue, the state has an almost impossible task ahead if it intends to build infrastructure, invest in education or hire enough security forces to battle cartels.
"Now, the traditional elite is saying 'perhaps we need a stronger institutional state' which can protect us as citizens," Pellecer said.
Given what Avila called "a history of racism" among the old elite, she said it seems unlikely they will devote resources to the rural, poor and primarily indigenous areas which are most lawless.
"Inequality is huge – there are whole towns that have been abandoned by the state for years and drug lords are arriving and providing schools and healthcare," Avila told Al Jazeera. "We have cases where the authorities try to arrest one of these drug lords and the population defends him. They are more loyal to the dealers than the state." That could spell trouble for the old elite.