Sandra Torres, the veteran politician who blurred the social democratic project

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Sandra Torres, candidate for the presidency of Guatemala, votes in the second round of the elections.Christian Gutierrez (EFE)

Sandra Torres has been fighting for twelve years to be the first woman president of Guatemala, a goal that she set for herself in 2011, when the term of her then-husband, Álvaro Colom, was about to end. Torres' energies and political turns to try to achieve her goal define her tireless character and her ability to jump obstacles to achieve her goals, her ambition for power, say her former coreligionists .

In the search for the presidency, Torres "has destroyed and blurred" the National Unity of Hope, the party that a group of visionaries created more than 20 years ago to become a benchmark for social democracy in Latin America, recalls Fernando Barillas, one of its founders. The ideas that Torres defended in recent weeks, in the campaign towards the second round, "represent the recalcitrant right", the complete opposite of the party's mission and the social programs that were installed during the Colom government, who died in January In the past, they became the patronage engine of the party, Barillas told EL PAÍS.

The 67-year-old communicator defines herself as a woman of the people. She was born in Melchor de Mencos, a small town in the department of Petén, in northern Guatemala, on the border with Belize. Torres grants few interviews to the press and, when she agrees, she assumes a confrontational position in the face of any questioning, such as when she is asked about the gifts, money and trips to Cancun that she offers during her rallies or in the search for political allies.

Torres cultivated his public image from the benefactor and welfare role that the Guatemalan institutions grant to the president's wife. In addition to taking his place in the Social Works Secretariat, he controlled the delivery of food bags and monetary transfers for families in poverty who settled during the Colom government (2008-2012).

Although being first lady is not a public position and Torres should not be held accountable, she did exercise authority and "put in line" the ministers of Colom's cabinet in charge of executing social programs. That was not power, but leadership, Torres said during the 2019 campaign. Barillas acknowledges Torres' leadership, of a "imposed and intransigent" nature, who made the social programs work.

Advertisement for Sandra Torres in the La Terminal market in Guatemala City.
Advertisement for Sandra Torres in the La Terminal market in Guatemala City.SANDRA SEBASTIAN

During the Government of the National Unity of Hope, Guatemalans suffered several catastrophes, recalls Barillas, who was entrusted with the official spokesperson for Colom's trust. Thus, Torres built his political charisma from his empathy with the needs of people affected by a storm, a volcanic eruption or an earthquake. “She spent hours listening to people, connected with their needs, and did the impossible to give everyone what they needed: if they asked for medicine, if a family had lost their chicken farm or had been left homeless, Sandra would look for a way to get them”, recalls Barillas. At that time it was not uncommon to see long lines of people seeking help at the headquarters of the Secretary of Social Work of the president's wife. Torres found in the handouts the lure to attract voters, so say those who attend the rallies. "Sandra gave us medicine, she helped us."

At the end of her husband's government, Torres wanted to be president, but she could not run because the Constitution prohibits the successor in power from having any degree of affinity with the president. Barillas and other party leaders proposed that Torres run for a seat. “I would have achieved a sweeping victory for her and the party would have had a strong bench to govern from Congress, but Sandra was enraged as she had never seen her before, she called us traitors… she told us everything,” continues Barillas. Proof that she Torres would do whatever it takes to achieve her goal was made clear when she divorced Colom so she could run for the presidency. Her strategy did not work because a judicial resolution indicated that her separation was a legal mockery to access her candidacy and she was denied registration.

That was the first big break with the co-religionists of the party founded by the engineer Colom, who came from a reformist political family. The Une party experienced many internal struggles. During the government of Alejandro Giammattei, Torres disputed the party's legal status with a group of deputies who did not want to be under his command. With the endorsement of various judiciary, Torres stayed with the political group and took over as general secretary.

The deputies who remained in the party under the leadership of Torres joined the pro-government alliance that supported the approval of the laws and the budget, at the convenience of the Giammattei government. Congressman Jorge Vargas, sanctioned by the United States for links to corruption networks, became Torres' main operator in Congress.

According to the State Department, Vargas operates "at the apex of a network designed to control contracts and operations at government-run ports for personal gain." They also point to him for "maintaining loyalties by paying bribes in exchange for unions creating blockades and strikes to further political goals." With his new position, Torres was preparing to scare away the ghost of defeat that had haunted him in the two previous elections.

In 2015, the former first lady lost to comedian Jimmy Morales Cabrera, who triumphed thanks to the slogan "neither corrupt nor thief." Then, Torres's running mate was billionaire businessman Mario Leal Castillo, a former Patriot Party official, whose government from 2012 to 2016 was marked by cases of grand corruption.

Torres attracted Castillo so that his party proposal would be more attractive to the economic elites, but he did not succeed. In his 2019 attempt, Torres paired up with diplomat Carlos Raul Morales, foreign minister during the government of the comedian who expelled the CICIG from Guatemala. In the second round, the competition was so aggressive that the then candidate, Alejandro Giammattei, promised "to do everything in my power to put Mrs. Sandra Torres in jail."

Torres went to prison but not at the behest of Giammattei. When the Special Prosecutor's Office against Impunity was investigating acts of corruption, it found evidence to prosecute Torres for illegal electoral financing. Torres spent four months in prison and was released during the administration of Consuelo Porras, sanctioned by the State Department as a corrupt and undemocratic actor. The UNE candidate has praised Porras' management for not having been “politicized”.

The candidate, during her closing campaign in Guatemala City.
The candidate, during her closing campaign in Guatemala City. SANDRA SEBASTIAN

A mistake that could strip you of the power to 'co-govern'

While waiting for the election year and for the political campaigns to begin, Sandra Torres served as an important operator in Congress. “Many of the negotiations that Alejandro Giammattei or Jimmy Morales or even the Patriot Party had to go through in order to mobilize their deputies to vote in favor of the General Budget of the Nation or other laws,” explains the political scientist Marielos Chang.

In the current campaign, Torres has adopted the speech of former presidential candidate Zury Ríos, the daughter of the dictator Efraín Ríos Montt accused of genocide, who spoke out against abortion and gender identity and in defense of the traditional family.

Repeating the speech of Ríos, who was sixth in the first round, was a "desperate move" that could take away the power of co-govern as he has done with Jimmy Morales and Alejandro Giammattei, analyzes Chang.

Torres is in the second, although the polls predict that a probable defeat would not only take away from him once again the opportunity to caress the presidential sash, but it could strip him of the political power to negotiate in Congress. However, the UNE party has the second largest bench for the next legislature, with 28 deputies, behind the Giammattei party bloc, which won 39 seats.

In fact, four children from Torres' first marriage to Edgar de Leon Sotomayor won seats in the June 25 elections: Lourdes Teresita de León Torres and Nadia Lorena de León Torres won seats in the Republic Congress. Édgar Antonio de León Torres will be a deputy to the Central American Parliament and Sandra Raquel de León Torres will also be a substitute in the regional legislature. Except for Nadia, who competed with the group Nosotros, the three children of Torres ran for the UNE party.

In an interview prior to the first round, when asked how he identified himself, Torres downplayed his turns and finished off with the phrase: "My ideology is Guatemala." In his third political campaign, Torres blurred the Social Democratic party and most likely undermined the power that he controls from Congress, the site that he rejected due to his desire to reach the presidency.

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