Guatemala President-elect suspends transition after agents raid election facilities, open vote boxes

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — Guatemalan President-elect Bernardo Arévalo said Tuesday he was temporarily suspending the transition process and called for the resignation of the attorney general following raids on electoral facilities during which government agents opened boxes of votes and photographed their contents in what experts called an unprecedented violation of the law.

Arévalo said he had notified outgoing President Alejandro Giammattei, who just a day earlier had promised a smooth handover of power, and would only return to the process when the necessary conditions were met.

It was not immediately clear if it could affect the constitutionally-mandated transfer of power Jan. 14.

Agents from Guatemala's Attorney General’s Office on Tuesday again raided facilities of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, but this time raising the stakes in Guatemala's democratic transition by opening dozens of boxes of votes.

Luis Gerardo Ramírez, spokesman for the tribunal, said the body had not given permission to open the boxes and said the raid was being carried out by the Attorney General’s Office with the order of a judge.

The Attorney General’s Office had asked to review at least 160 boxes of votes from various parts of the country, Ramírez said. Guatemalan law permits only personnel of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal and the teams that count the votes at polling places on election day to handle the secret ballots.

“This is unprecedented, the law does not establish a process for this,” said Gloria López, electoral director of the tribunal. She said only the receiving authority at each polling place on the day of the election is supposed to review the marked ballots.

López said that votes in the opened boxes do not have a digital backup. She said by handling them, the Attorney General’s Office was breaking the Supreme Electoral Tribunal’s chain of custody.

“We would no longer be able to ensure what exactly are the votes that are inside the electoral boxes and what is the number of signatures and fingerprints on the (polling place tally sheets) that are going in the boxes,” she said.

Brian Nichols, U.S. assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, condemned Guatemala Attorney General’s Office actions Tuesday via X.

“This unprecedented action undermines the democratic transition and the will of the Guatemalan people,” he wrote.

The Organization of American States electoral observation mission to Guatemala expressed deep concern at the actions.

“The opening of the electoral packers by people and institutions other than those identified by law represents a frontal attack on the integrity of the vote and an affront to the popular will,” the mission said in a statement. It said it was further evidence of the Attorney General’s Office attempting to intimidate electoral authorities and question the electoral process.

The mission had already reported that prosecutors’ accusations against the electoral process lack any foundation.

Ovidio Orellana, former president of Guatemala’s bar association, said that there is no legal basis giving power to a judge or prosecutors to touch the electoral boxes or votes. “It is an arbitrary act,” he said.

The raid was apparently part of some of the various ongoing investigations related to the national elections that culminated last month with the election of Arévalo.

Anti-corruption prosecutor Rafael Curruchiche, who has been investigating Arévalo’s Seed Movement party, was leading the operation. Curruchiche has been sanctioned by the United States government for allegedly obstructing the fight against corruption.

The Attorney General’s Office confirmed Tuesday's raid, but declined to say to which case it was related. Judge Fredy Orellana issued the order to carry it out. He has also been sanctioned by the U.S. government.

Under Giammattei and the attorney general he appointed, Consuelo Porras, the government has targeted criminal investigations not against corruption but against those who investigated and punished it.