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How TikTokers and Swifties became political power brokers in Guatemala

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GUATEMALA CITYSamuel Pérez woke up to a loud buzzing sound. It was 6:30 a.m., and the sun had just risen. The congressman reached for his nightstand, fumbled for his iPhone and listened dumbfounded to the latest outrage.

“They’re raiding Marcela’s house,” his aide was saying.

Pérez had feared something like this. He was 31, an apple-cheeked political whiz who lived with his mom. He’d just helped engineer one of the most improbable electoral victories since Barack Obama won the White House. In Guatemala, a country routinely ranked as one of the hemisphere’s most corrupt, idealistic young people using TikTok had boosted a reformer to the presidency.

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Diplomats had called it a Cinderella story. A triumph of students and Swifties, in what analysts described as a virtual mafia state. Bernardo Arévalo, a 65-year-old academic and anti-corruption crusader, had won in a landslide.

Yet ever since the August vote, Arévalo, Pérez and their colleagues in the center-left Semilla party had faced an onslaught of legal attacks. Prosecutors had seized boxes of vote tallies, on vague allegations of fraud. They’d tried to dissolve Semilla. There was no guarantee Arévalo would be allowed to take office on Jan. 14, Inauguration Day. He was warning of a “slow-motion coup.”

Now, on this cool November morning, the police were raiding the homes of academics, political activists — and a 23-year-old influencer.

Marcela Blanco had brought her star power to Semilla’s campaign, posting videos of herself dancing with voters, joking and denouncing corruption. On this Thursday morning, she was all over TikTok and Instagram again, but looking distraught. “This is an attack on the citizens,” the young Semilla activist said in a video from her bedroom. Then she was arrested.

Pérez threw on a black fleece and eased his SUV into the sclerotic traffic. Shortly after 8 a.m., he reached the Tower of Tribunals, the 15-story court building that looms over downtown Guatemala City. He and other Semilla activists rushed inside to see Blanco. They emerged looking grim.

“This was totally illegal,” Pérez said, pausing to sip from a bottle of iced tea. Blanco had been brought in because of her tweets and statements supporting a long-running student protest. Pérez saw the arrest as political retaliation. The influencer was an easy target; she didn’t have congressional immunity from prosecution. But he knew the prosecutors weren’t going to stop with her.

“They’ll probably take away our immunity,” he said. “And probably Bernardo’s, too.”

President-elect Bernardo Arevalo and Vice President Karin Herrera appear at a news conference denouncing the arrest of Blanco and others. (Video: The Washington Post)

Young people have played key roles in U.S. presidential bids from Ronald Reagan’s campaign to Sen. Bernie Sanders’s triumphs in state nominating contests. What makes Guatemala different is its dark history.

More than 200,000 Guatemalans were slain or forcibly disappeared in a civil war that slogged on for three decades. The majority were rural Mayan Indigenous people, targeted in a military offensive against suspected leftists that was marked by “acts of genocide,” according to a U.N.-backed truth commission. In the cities, university students and opposition political activists, some tied to leftist guerrillas, also suffered brutal repression — disappearances, torture, murder.

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Even after the war ended in 1996, “there was a lot of fear in society in general about participating in politics,” said Pérez. The traditional power structures remained largely intact. Business executives, former military officers, criminals and shady politicians formed a loose alliance, dubbed the “pact of the corrupt.”

But by this year’s election, nearly two-thirds of the nation’s 17 million citizens were under 30, with little or no recollection of the war years. They didn’t identify with the polarized, left-vs.-right language of the past.

This was something Marcela Blanco intuitively grasped. She was strikingly pretty, with bright red lipstick, a luminous smile and nearly 100,000 TikTok followers. She helped Semilla understand Gen Z’s “codes of communication,” said Pérez. “Like Taylor Swift.”

In April, Arévalo made a TikTok video expressing admiration for the American pop star. It went viral. “That’s where everything changed,” said Ignacio Laclériga, who served as his spokesman.

Young people started to share posts about “Uncle Bernie.” In Google searches, they discovered who he was: the son of Juan José Arévalo, who became Guatemala’s first freely elected president in 1945, ushering in a “democratic spring.” (It ended nine years later, in a CIA-backed coup.) Arévalo’s appeal wasn’t so much his campaign promises — more jobs, less corruption, lower electricity prices — it was his identity. The sociologist was known as much for his honesty as for his gray goatee and rumpled suits.

The Semilla party had no money for foreign consultants. Pérez carried a well-thumbed copy of Obama’s presidential memoir, which he scoured for tactics. He and other candidates decided to wear denim jackets. They sent a message “that politics isn’t just for old people. It’s not guys in black suits,” said Roberto Wagner, a political scientist at Rafael Landívar University, a Jesuit school in the capital.

Wagner began spotting the Semilla emoji — a seedling — on students’ social media accounts. Some kids started turning up in jean jackets. Pérez and another young congressman visited the campus about three weeks before the June 25 election. They were “rock stars,” Wagner said.

Still, Arévalo was only polling at about 3 percent. To many analysts, that paltry showing explained why he had been allowed to stay in the race. Electoral authorities had disqualified three more-prominent anti-establishment candidates, in “a clear abuse of judicial power,” as a Human Rights Watch official, Juan Pappier, put it.

On election night, Arévalo captured about 12 percent of the vote, second place in a field of 22 candidates. Buoyed by the youth vote, the party vaulted from five to 23 deputies in the 160-seat Congress.

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Two months later, in a runoff, Arévalo crushed a longtime politician, Sandra Torres, by 20 points.

“What happened here was a fluke, an error in the matrix,” said Alexander Aizenstatd, a prominent lawyer. “Someone got elected who wasn’t supposed to.”

Indigenous groups become a political force

At the courthouse, Blanco faced a judge who read the accusations against her. Less than a mile away, influencers of a different sort were camped outside the attorney general’s office. “We have to defend our vote!” Carlos Sajmolo, a 51-year-old Indigenous leader, yelled into a microphone. Dozens of people — women in embroidered blouses, men in baseball caps — clapped and cheered.

Misrahi Xoquic, 44, an Indigenous leader in a flannel shirt, looked on approvingly. “We are tired,” he said. Communities like his paid taxes, but the money seemed to vanish. “Guatemala has been robbed blind.”

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Indigenous people make up nearly half the population of this Tennessee-sized nation. For centuries, they’ve suffered discrimination and a lack of government services. But now, even people in isolated, impoverished villages have cellphones and access to news. Some are even on TikTok.

Indigenous groups gather on Nov. 16 in front of the Guatemalan attorney general’s office calling on the government to respect the presidential vote. (Video: The Washington Post)

After Arévalo’s surprise finish in the first round, many Indigenous leaders urged their communities to vote for him. When it appeared the authorities were trying to invalidate the runoff results, the Indigenous groups shut down the nation’s roads. As the losses to businesses surged into the hundreds of millions of dollars, leading economic groups signed an accord recognizing Arévalo’s victory.

“This was something we’d never seen, the major oligarchs sitting down with Indigenous leaders,” said Edgar Gutiérrez, a political analyst. Indigenous groups, he said, “became a national political force.”

The Indigenous groups kept up a continuous demonstration outside the attorney general’s office, insisting she resign. María Consuelo Porras had been reappointed by President Alejandro Giammattei last year, even after U.S. charges that she was obstructing anticorruption investigations.

Porras and Giammattei have denied such allegations. Porras and the president’s office did not respond to requests for comment. Giammattei said last month that Arévalo and the elected deputies “are going to take office on Jan. 14.”

Nonetheless, that Thursday afternoon, as the Indigenous groups protested, prosecutors from Porras’s office made an announcement. They were going to seek to lift the immunity of Pérez and the president-elect, Arévalo.

Shrugging off corruption allegations

At his office in one of Guatemala City’s toniest neighborhoods, behind a wall topped with coils of razor wire, Ricardo Méndez Ruiz had been waiting for this news.

“Bernardo Arévalo is not going to take office,” he said. “I’m sure his judicial problems won’t allow that.”

Méndez Ruiz, 64, a bearded, white-haired businessman, liked to describe himself as a “far-right activist.” If younger generations regarded Guatemala’s old Cold War paradigm as irrelevant, Méndez Ruiz didn’t. His father, an army colonel, had been a top aide to José Efraín Ríos Montt, a U.S.-backed military dictator who seized power in 1982 and ruled during one of the most brutal phases of the war. At one point, insurgents kidnapped Méndez Ruiz — then a college student — and held him for two months.

In recent years, independent prosecutors and judges had gone after former military officers for alleged wartime abuses. The prosecutors had also probed corruption by politicians and business executives. Méndez Ruiz didn’t view them as reformers, but as leftists.

After the war, “The Marxist terrorists decided to continue the war through other means,” he said.

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His organization, the Foundation Against Terrorism, worked closely with Porras’s office on criminal investigations into anti-corruption judges and prosecutors, as well as investigative journalists. Dozens had fled the country.

The U.S. State Department imposed sanctions on Méndez Ruiz and Porras, putting them on a list of “corrupt and anti-democratic actors” in Central America.

Méndez Ruiz shrugged it off. All those who don’t support the left, he said, “are considered part of the ‘pact of the corrupt.’” The U.S. sanctions? “An honor.”

In the cavernous parking lot under the federal court building, Pérez wrapped his arms around Blanco. She looked tiny, in the same navy T-shirt she’d worn in the TikTok video that morning. Now it was past 5 p.m., and she was headed to jail.

“You are not alone!” chanted a crowd of Semilla supporters.

This being Latin America, and she being female, everyone had brought bouquets of flowers, which they pressed upon her, hiding her immobile hands, until she looked like Miss Guatemala, except she was fighting back tears of fear.

The young leaders of the Semilla party leave the Guatemala City court on Nov. 18, following a police van carrying their colleague to jail. (Video: The Washington Post)

In theory, the case against her had nothing to do with the presidential election. It involved the takeover of the public University of San Carlos, by students protesting what they called the fraudulent appointment of a pro-government rector.

All Blanco had done, her lawyers said, was tweet her support and appear at a news conference in June marking the end of the year-long occupation. But the charges included illegal seizure and destruction of government property.

The officers led the influencer away. As she got into a police van, someone took the flowers, and she thrust her hands upward, defiant. The setting sun glinted off the handcuffs.

For Pérez, legal attacks were nothing new. He had been facing them since he became Semilla’s secretary general at 24. Blanco had never held office. “She’s so vulnerable,” he kept saying.

Yet so were they all, as a Cinderella story ran into the realities of Guatemala. Pérez and the other young Semilla activists wrapped themselves in a group hug, and wept.

Nic Wirtz in Antigua, Guatemala, and Lorena Rios in Monterrey, Mexico, contributed to this report.

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