August 12, 2019 / 8:52 AM / 11 days ago

Try, try again: Guatemala's new president draws strength from adversity

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - Guatemala’s next leader had lost one election after another until Sunday, during an eventful career that saw him train as a doctor, run the gamut of public sector jobs and take charge of prisons before ending up in detention himself.

Alejandro Giammattei, presidential candidate for the "Vamos" political party, gestures with his running mate Guillermo Castillo Reyes as they celebrate winning the presidential election, at their campaign headquarters in Guatemala City, Guatemala August 11, 2019. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

Alejandro Giammattei, who had never held elected office until the run-off that catapulted him to the presidency, now faces the daunting challenge of getting a better deal for his country on a migration agreement his predecessor signed with the United States. He takes office in January.

“I’m a man who’s used to working under pressure,” he told Reuters in reference to relations with Washington, after President Donald Trump used the threat of economic sanctions to push through the migration deal last month. “In the end, diplomacy is based on reciprocity.”

A 63-year-old who walks with crutches because of multiple sclerosis, his mild-mannered demeanour belies an inner strength forged through adversity.

He has proposed bringing back the death penalty to root out crime in the gang-ridden country that sends tens of thousands of migrants north every year.

His landslide victory on Sunday over former first lady and centre-left candidate Sandra Torres followed three previous failed attempts to secure the presidency, and before that, two unsuccessful campaigns to be elected mayor of Guatemala City.

He also finished second to Torres in a first round of voting in June. His cause was bolstered after two popular candidates were disqualified and a third was arrested in Miami on suspicion of drug trafficking.

“The doctor is a serene, calm man,” said Raul Romero, a friend from the right-wing Fuerza political party, whose ticket Giammattei ran on for the presidency in 2015.

“That Sunday in June, when he received the news that he was heading into the second round, he said nothing.”

PRISON BLUES

Giammattei’s presidential ambitions began to surface after a highly-publicized incident in September 2006, a year after he became director of Guatemala’s prison system.

That month some 3,000 prison guards, police and soldiers stormed the Granja Penal de Pavon prison outside Guatemala City in a dawn raid. Seven inmates died in the operation, which sought to reimpose control over a facility that had become notorious for criminal activities.

It sparked an investigation by the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a U.N. anti-corruption body and, four years later, Giammattei was arrested on suspicion of organising the extrajudicial killings of the prisoners.

He denied the charge, but spent ten months in custody before being exonerated for lack of evidence.

By then he had already mounted one bid for the presidency, building a narrative of persecution from the case that he used to help launch subsequent campaigns.

“Unlike many, I’ve never been attracted to comfortable posts free from hassles and easy to perform,” Giammattei wrote in a book that defended his role in the prison raid.

Born in Guatemala City in March 1956, Giammattei was diagnosed in his youth with multiple sclerosis.

Those who know him well say he draws strength from the condition, and describe him as a forceful character whose mood can switch from levity to deadly seriousness very quickly. Even his detractors concede he has shown great persistence in pursuit of his goals.

He qualified as a surgeon, was director of a Guatemala City hospital, and then worked in public transport, the fire department and for a state water company, among other posts.

He began building a network of public sector contacts and donors, some of whom would have their own brushes with the law.

Giammattei has been critical of Guatemala and its leaders for lacking vision on how to encourage development and fight poverty, unemployment and the lawlessness that fuels migration.

A top priority will be revisiting the migration deal, and building a constructive relationship with the United States.

Under the agreement, migrants from neighbouring El Salvador and Honduras will have to apply for asylum in Guatemala instead of in the United States, effectively turning the country into a buffer zone for Trump to stem migration north.

“It’s not right for the country,” Giammattei told Reuters on Sunday, not long before he was declared winner of the presidential vote. “If we don’t have the capacity to look after our own people, imagine what it will be like for foreigners.”

He inherits a country riddled with crime and unemployment where, according to official estimates, almost 60% live below the poverty line.

As a means of promoting economic development and discouraging migration north, Giammattei has proposed erecting a “wall of investment” along Guatemala’s impoverished border region with Mexico.

The father of three will have to balance the interests of the country with those of the United States, where three million Guatemalans live and work, many of them illegally. The United States is also Guatemala’s largest trading partner.

Reporting by Sofia Menchu and Diego Ore; Writing by Stefanie Eschenbacher and Delphine Schrank; Editing by Dave Graham and John Stonestreet

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