Hydrocracy at the Center of Guatemala City’s Elections

Hydrocracy at the Center of Guatemala City’s Elections

Amid cheers, Ninotchka Matute Rodríguez walked onstage in a packed theater at a recent mayoral debate in Guatemala City’s political and cultural city center. On May 25, exactly one month before Guatemala’s general elections, Matute’s presence at the debate dubbed Jóvenes Deciden (Youth Decide) solidified the possibility of her election as Guatemala City’s next and first female mayor. Her flare jeans and black blazer conveyed a casual yet professional demeanor.

With members of her party, Matute walked seven blocks to the event down the Sexta Avenida, the main pedestrian street that connects locals to and from public transportation, the national plaza, and several public parks and cultural centers in the capital’s historic neighborhood. Student and youth organizations, striking workers, and Indigenous and campesino coalitions strategically occupy the avenue for public and political engagement and protest. Matute’s own presence on the avenida is no different.

An architect and urban planner, Matute emerged in the mayoral race shortly after the criminalization of lawyer and municipal candidate Juan Francisco Solórzano Foppa disqualified him from the race. Foppa and Matute are associated with Movimiento Semilla, a social democratic party whose primarily ladino, urban constituency foregrounds equality, a “humane economy,” and the promotion of civic participation as their principal concerns. Foppa briefly defended José Rubén Zamora Marroquín, president of the recently shuttered newspaper elPeriódico. Zamora was arrested in July 2022 on charges of money laundering, an allegation he says was manipulated to silence investigations into government corruption. In recent months, violence has increased against journalists documenting crimes committed by the state. The charges against Zamora—which led to the newspaper’s closure—represent the increasing power of an authoritarian network of political elites colloquially known as “el pacto de corruptos” (the pact of the corrupt).

In March 2023, Foppa resigned as Zamora’s lawyer amid concerns about his own criminalization as a result of advocating for Zamora’s release. Nevertheless, Foppa was arrested in April on charges of obstruction of justice shortly after announcing his campaign for mayor of Guatemala City. Matute became the party’s chosen substitute on a platform that centers water equity and infrastructure. Now, her candidacy and the movement she represents could rupture the sleeping powers of municipal politics and the urban status quo in Guatemala City.

A New Left Coalition Centers Equity and Urban Planning

Matute’s candidacy is backed by FoppaXLaCiudad, a left-leaning coalition bringing together the political parties Movimiento Semilla, Winaq, and Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG-MAIZ). The union of these three parties signals landmark alignment between Guatemala’s divided left. Movimiento Semilla represents an institutionalized approach to social democracy and justice, while Winaq and URNG-MAIZ are rooted in Guatemala’s revolutionary history with majority Indigenous and campesino followings, organizing primarily around campaigns for territorial sovereignty and political self-determination. Winaq was founded by Maya K’iche human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú, and URNG-MAIZ is a political union between several clandestine guerrilla movements from the 1980s that became a legal political party after the state’s return to democracy in 1996.

FoppaXLaCiudad’s increasing popularity stems from its focus on plural democracy formed around el bien común, or the common good.

FoppaXLaCiudad’s increasing popularity stems from its focus on plural democracy formed around el bien común, or the common good. This contrasts sharply with the unpopular reign of Álvaro Arzú, whose five terms as Guatemala City’s mayor—first in 1986 and then for four consecutive terms from 2004 until his death in 2018—contributed to urban blight and segregation, the pocketing of his family’s wealth in shadow contracts, and the enforced privatization of essential resources, including the municipal water company EMPAGUA. Arzú presided over Guatemala’s Peace Accords as president in 1996 and his family maintains a multilateral and multigenerational influence over government decision making.

At the May 25 debate, applause for Matute’s responses drowned out her opponents’ answers. Housing, public security, civic participation, and water infrastructure are four of 10 focal points in FoppaXLaCiudad’s proposal, one of the only platforms that explicitly addresses structural inequality and neoliberal paradigms like the privatization of public goods and services as the drivers behind the capital’s collapsing social infrastructure. Matute’s expertise in architecture, public planning, and urban conservation were crucial in informing her answers to the three debate themes of the evening: water, transportation, and public space.

Matute also spoke to her personal experiences as a woman living in the city. “We have the certain possibility of working on a city that has been historically designed by and for men, and to design it from the perspective of women, who are the users that move the most in the city,” she said. “Let us not miss the opportunity, it is time to lose the fear to change and challenge the system.”

Notably absent from the debate was current mayor Ricardo Quiñónez Lemus, who assumed the position after Arzú’s death and was reelected in 2019. Other candidates—like Carlos Sandoval, from the party Todos, and a representative from Podemos who attended on behalf of Sebastián Arzú, the grandson of Álvaro Arzú—leaned on statistics and their previous experiences working for the municipality.

Matute’s colleague Álvaro Velíz, an established Guatemalan architect who helped design the Sexta Avenida and was exiled during the civil war, also participated in the debate. In 2019 Velíz ran for mayor with Movimiento Semilla, and this year he has opted to run for a seat on city council with the party Creo. The participation of Matute and Velíz in municipal elections confirms a flourishing conversation that roots some of Central America’s greatest challenges, like public security and infrastructural collapse, in debates about democratic practice in urban design.

When responding to a question on water inaccessibility in Guatemala City, Matute stated: “The entire effort of the municipality must be directed to those communities that have historically been deprived of this vital right.”

Residents in a settlement of Chinautla receive their weekly allotment of water, filling their toneles. (Melanie Ford Lemus)
Residents in a settlement of Chinautla receive their weekly allotment of water, filling their toneles. (Melanie Ford Lemus)

Urban Hydrocracy

Water is a key and common reference in Guatemala’s political campaigns. Despite the abundance of water sources throughout the country known as the land of “eternal spring,” Guatemala’s water access, water quality, and water infrastructure present daily threats to life. Most of the country’s freshwater is heavily contaminated by trash and untreated wastewater, algal blooms, and metals like arsenic. Landslides and floods due to heavy rainfall or leaking drainage pipes swallow homes in both rural and urban regions. So common is the collapse of terrain that a high number of casualties are forecasted every year, a consequence of a failed state unwilling to offer stable landholdings to Guatemala’s majority of landless poor.

Perhaps more deliberate are the deaths provoked by illicit contracts made between the state and international companies for mineral mining and hydroelectric dams. Often without consultation, these megaprojects invade Indigenous and campesino lands under the pretense of rural development. Waterways are redirected and heavily polluted, and if toxic waterways do not asphyxiate communities from their land to make way for industrial accumulation, armed forces often aggressively evict communities. For Indigenous leaders, student researchers, and environmental activists who concern themselves with national water politics, incarceration, disappearance, and death are constant threats. This violent criminalization recalls the collective horrors and uncertainties of military counterinsurgency tactics deployed at the genocidal height of the 1960-1996 civil war in the early 1980s.

Water distribution in Guatemala City remains insufficient and highly unjust. That the municipality lacks the institutional capacity to properly document, manage, and direct public goods and services like potable, rain, and grey waters is one of the few topics in which Guatemala City’s residents have reached consensus. More than 90 wells managed by the municipal water company EMPAGUA support about 70 percent of the entity’s urban water supply to the city, but countless private and mechanic wells dot the 16 microbasins that encompass Guatemala City and its greater metropolitan area; currently, there are no restrictions on private water extraction at the municipal or national levels. Still, in 2010, 11 percent of Guatemala’s urban population lived without access to running water and 25 percent without access to sewage infrastructure.

While the under-regulation of well water has served as a short-term solution to water shortages, it has often aggravated water tensions in working class neighborhoods where residents are beholden to water prices set by homeowner’s associations that have opened private wells. In other low-income and impoverished zones, residents receive water for only two or three hours a day, often at unpredictable hours, or they do not receive water at all. In other cases, water is transferred from municipally owned wells in poorer zones to wealthier areas under the pretense that payment is guaranteed in wealthier neighborhoods. In some cases, residents have received water bills in the tens of thousands of quetzales, an exorbitant cost that corresponds to highly unrealistic quantities of water for any one household. EMPAGUA, which insists on payment, has canceled services to several communities across the metropolitan area. Outspoken community leaders who publicize EMPAGUA’s shortcomings, wrongdoings, or conspiracies face threats and persecution.

In Colonia Nimajuyú—one of the most recognized areas living without potable water and a potent site of community organizing against water shortages—the president of the neighborhood association, Mónica Pereira, was charged by EMPAGUA in January with seven criminal complaints related to a collective action that occured when Pereira was not even in the community. “If you ask me for my opinion, this is not a coincidence,” said the journalist and anthropologist Pia Flores, adding that Pereira was targeted by EMPAGUA to silence the community’s resistance. “EMPAGUA needs to control and use [Colonia Nimajuyú] as an emblematic case to say, ‘this is what happens if you organize.’”

Nonetheless, protests continue in Colonia Nimajuyú against frequent water shortages, with residents being charged monthly for a service they can rarely rely upon. On May 22, community members in the colonia protested a campaign visit by Mayor Quiñónez Lemus.

Flores is the lead writer for the project Hidrocrácia, a participatory journalism project from the independent Guatemalan media outlet Quorum that documents the breadth and intensity of Guatemala City’s water crisis. Using data maps, residential surveys, focus groups, and a “Guide to defend your right to drinking water,” Hidrocrácia comes at an especially critical moment for Guatemala City’s administrative future, questioning who has the right to water and pressuring candidates to attend to this obvious breach of responsibility.

Infrastructural Collapse

As the rainy season begins, concerns about flooding, infrastructural collapse, and contamination increase. One of FoppaXLaCiudad’s primary promises is to restructure EMPAGUA, naming some of the most marginalized city zones as priorities for water redistribution and calling for the resignation of EMPAGUA’s director. In Guatemala’s punitive political landscape, however, the fight for transparency and accountability can be profoundly dangerous.

In September of 2022, two sinkholes ruptured a highway in Villa Nueva, a densely built municipality of commuting, working-class urban residents that borders Guatemala City. They were caused by slow leakage of overloaded wastewater pipes that had eroded their encasing and the surrounding sediment. Days after, journalists leaked videos taken by EMPAGUA employees that documented several widening caves and cracked sewage pipes, some 10 meters in diameter, that had formed beneath primary city roadways like the Roosevelt Highway. EMPAGUA formally denied claims of administrative neglect. Yet, documents later revealed that only 17 percent (roughly 35 kilometers) of the entire drainage system in Guatemala City had been inspected. Two EMPAGUA workmen without adequate safety gear died during the inspections. Shortly after this information was released, the employee who had filmed the leaked video of the emerging sinkholes was found assassinated in his car. The case is unresolved.

The infrastructural and environmental collapse characteristic of Guatemala City’s inequalities can no longer be seen as separate from the criminalization and disappearance of activists, journalists, and communities who fight injustice perpetrated by the corporate and land-owning elite and gagged state actors. Necessities shared across Guatemala’s urban and rural regions, like water infrastructure and its accessibility, elevate questions of security to more than just local petty crime.

Matute’s increasingly popular candidacy threatens circles of impunity that protect crimes and corruption by the state and municipal authorities.

A practiced and dedicated urbanist, Matute’s increasingly popular candidacy threatens circles of impunity that protect crimes and corruption by the state and municipal authorities. A middle-class ladina woman, Matute could also reach a demographic of center-left constituents who have either abstained from voting, disappointed by the corruption and nepotism associated with the Arzú family, or have been disinvested in the plight of the urban poor. Her candidacy reignites the collective leftist memory of Manuel Colom Argueta, a progressive activist, lawyer, urban planner and Guatemala City’s mayor from 1970-1974. Colom Argueta’s achievements, like designing the region’s first comprehensive urban plan and the installation of EMPAGUA, inspired a generation of likeminded architectural and engineering professionals who connected the development of infrastructure and planning to people’s empowerment and liberation. He was assassinated at the hands of the military state in 1979.

“There is an incredible community in Guatemala, mainly represented by young people, young women, who have exercised their rights and raised their voices, that the municipality has criminalized,” Matute said during the May 25 debate about FoppaXLaCiudad’s plan for EMPAGUA. “It is towards those communities and towards those leaders that we are going to focus our work as a collaborative administration.”

Guatemala elections- Green issues low on the agenda in chaotic race

Guatemala elections: Green issues low on the agenda in chaotic race

Оn 25 June, Guatemala’s general elections threw up a surprise in the success of Bernardo Arévalo, the presidential candidate of the progressive Semilla movement, who claimed second place behind former first lady Sandra Torres, leader of the rightward-shifting National Unity of Hope party. The two candidates are now set for a runoff on 20 August.

The unexpected rise of Arévalo, a career diplomat and academic, and the son of former president Juan José Arévalo, has brought hope to many Guatemalans for a change in the status quo, given his anti-corruption and anti-impunity campaigns, and an engagement with environmental issues. He has stated that his and Semilla’s goals are to bring back confidence in state institutions, which are seen as having been co-opted by ruling elites in recent years.

Arévalo’s securing of a spot in the runoff was “a surprise”, said Gabriela Carrera, a political science professor at Rafael Landívar University in Guatemala City. But she added that his success was representative of “a feeling of an anti-vote, a rejection of what we call the ‘pact of corruption’.”

The pacto de corruptos is a term that has gained prevalence in Guatemala to refer to politicians, powerful business and organised crime figures, and members of the judicial system accused of acts of corruption, and maintaining a system of impunity that protects them from prosecution.

Semilla’s progressive platform has met resistance from the current government and elements of this so-called pact, as well as from the Guatemalan right wing. Claims of electoral fraud were lodged by a number of minor parties – and ultimately deemed to be false – while attempts have also been made in the country’s courts to suspend the Semilla party, and to launch investigations into citizen poll observers and those involved in digitising election results. Semilla also saw its offices raided by police after the attorney general’s attempted suspension.

These efforts have, however, been futile, as the country’s electoral tribunal, the TSE, has upheld the party’s legitimacy and the results of the first round of the elections.

The lead-up to the elections also saw controversy, as the TSE and Guatemalan courts moved to exclude several candidates, including Indigenous leftist leader Thelma Cabrera and right-wing populists Roberto Árzu and Carlos Pineda, leading many analysts to fear the elections were being manipulated to advocate for candidates who favored the status quo.

In this fraught run-up, policy plans have often struggled to make headlines amid the legal wrangling, and have met with an electorate seemingly frustrated with the entire political class – spoiled ballots led the way in the first round with 17% of the vote, ahead of both Torres and Arévalo. As the August runoff nears, corruption and security are likely to be the key issues for Guatemalan voters; the environment, in a country suffering from widespread pollution and degradation, has gained little attention, though Semilla, in particular, has made a number of pledges.

As Guatemala heads to the polls again, we weigh up the prospects for the environment in the upcoming election.

Guatemala’s environmental issues
Amidst a chaotic backdrop, the success of Arévalo and the Movimiento Semilla, or Seed Movement, has surprised some observers, in its break away from the traditional lack of environmental proposals that has marked party platforms in recent electoral seasons.

On the campaign trail, environmental issues and climate change received almost no attention from poll-leading candidates, besides consistent calls to clear Guatemala’s polluted waterways, an estimated 90–95% of which are polluted. But the unexpected rise of Semilla – which became a party in 2018, having emerged from anti-government protests in 2015 – has brought more environmental concerns into the debate, given their inclusion of a wider range of green proposals.

“There is a very rapid deterioration of natural resources and there are no efforts being made for their preservation or conservation,” says Karin Herrera, a biologist and Semilla’s vice-presidential candidate.

“Political will, commitment, and dialogue are needed to generate this awareness about the importance [of the environment],” she says. “The beautiful natural resources that we have cannot continue to be so neglected by the state. We need to enter with strength and commitment to preserve them.”

Guatemala has previously been ranked as one of the ten countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and has been increasingly affected by more intense hurricanes and periods of drought. The country is also facing environmental degradation due a lack of compliance with regulations, and a worsening situation for its small farmers.

The Central American country contains vast biodiversity, being the home to nearly 14,000 different plant and animal species. But Guatemala’s economy is largely dependent on the exploitation of its natural resources and environment, for the production of bananas, coffee, palm oil, sugar and spices, among other key products. While legislation exists to address the management of forests, solid and liquid waste management, and water, among other regulations, there is a general lack of compliance with legislation to protect the environment.

“The problem is that many of these laws only remain on paper,” says Raul Maas, the lead of the Institute for Research and Projection on Natural Environment and Society at the Rafael Landívar University. As a result, Guatemala has seen a rapid rate of deforestation, pollution of its waterways, and the degradation of soils, with their health facing pressure from agribusiness and farmers.

All these factors of environmental degradation have wider impacts on society, including increasingly driving many people to attempt to migrate from Guatemala, notably to the United States, in search of a better livelihood. The continuation of these often destructive extractive practices reflects the impunity that has spread in Guatemala, which contributes to further degradation.

These environmental challenges are being made worse by the effects of climate change. According to a recent study, the loss of forests in Central America due to climate change could lead to economic costs of as much as $314 billion dollars a year by 2100.

“The situation is quite precarious without the effects of climate change,” Maas says. “Add to this the variable of climate change, and the question becomes much more critical.”

Environmental policy proposals
As Guatemala faces up to these environmental crises, Semilla has proposed a set of policies within their government plan that would seek to address the degradation. These include the investment of nearly US$900 million into the country’s system for the protection forests and protected areas, with the goal of strengthening not only the forests themselves but also the sources of water that the country relies on, and coastal mangroves to mitigate the effects of climate change.

Within its government plan, Semilla says it hopes to also strengthen the communities that rely on natural resources for sectors such as ecotourism. Added to this, are pledges to expand support for the communal lands and forests of Indigenous communities, upon request.

These initiatives would be “a massive investment,” says Patricia Orantes Thomas, an environmental expert and Semilla deputy elected to the national congress in June. “Because this also has environmental returns, it has revenues in terms of water production, it has returns in the mitigation and protection from climate change, but it also has economic returns because people will be reforesting and managing the forests.”

Within its government plan, the Semilla party has pledged to expand support for the communal lands and forests of Indigenous communities in Guatemala
Within its government plan, the Semilla party has pledged to expand support for the communal lands and forests of Indigenous communities in Guatemala

Semilla is also seeking to address the impunity that exists in Guatemala in regards to the environment. Orantes Thomas says that, if elected, their government will seek to modify the legal code to improve the handling of environmental crimes, beginning with addressing the contamination of waters and the division of rivers for business interests, which has become a major issue in the last decade.

On the other side of the runoff, Sandra Torres and the National Unity of Hope party have made no clear proposals related to the environment. This continues what has been seen as a lacklustre record on the environment in recent years for the party – a formerly social democratic but increasingly conservative populist party, which has served one term in government (2008–2012), and faced allegations of corruption.

“Unfortunately, the National Unity of Hope party does not specifically address issues related to the environment within its [government] plan,” says Elvis Caballeros, a climate risk researcher at the Rafael Landívar University. “It does not have any proposal – they do not give it priority.”

If Arévalo and Semilla are able to win the presidency in the 20 August runoff, they will face a considerable challenge in congress, as the party was only able to win 23 seats in the legislative branch, out of 160 seats.

While the party as a whole performed better than in the 2019 elections, successfully addressing the issues facing the country will require Semilla to build alliances – something which there is a chance of establishing, given the fluid nature of Guatemalan politics.

“[The congressional representatives] that have been elected from the majority of parties do not follow political guidelines, or respond to the politics of their parties,” Orantes Thomas says. “They respond to their own interests. This is very sad for our system of political parties.”

But, the congresswoman adds, “What we want is to try to build bridges with the greatest number of [congressional representatives] who are willing to fight the battles that the population wants.”