A Guatemalan judge walked into a meeting at the American Embassy last spring and pulled out a large quantity of cash: The money, she said, was a bribe from one of the president’s closest allies.
The judge, Blanca Alfaro, helps lead the authority that oversees the country’s elections. She claimed the money had been given to her to gain influence over the electoral agency, according to a U.S. official briefed on the encounter and a person who was present and requested anonymity to discuss the details of a private meeting.
American diplomats were shocked by the brazenness of the episode, but not by the allegations. In the volatile political climate consuming Guatemala in the run-up to presidential elections on Sunday, there has been one constant: a steady drumbeat of attacks on democratic institutions by those in power.
In a country that has shifted from a staging ground for rooting out corruption to one where dozens of anticorruption officials have been forced into exile, the first round of voting will be as much about who is not on the ballot as who is.
The nation’s electoral agency has disqualified every serious candidate in the race who could challenge the status quo, which is embodied by President Alejandro Giammattei, a conservative who critics accuse of pushing the country toward autocracy and who is barred from running for another term.
The remaining front-runners are people with links to some segment of the political or economic elite. Alongside their names on the ballot will be several blank boxes, representing four candidates excluded from the process by the electoral authority.
Judge Alfaro told American officials that she had received the bribe from Miguel Martínez, a close confidant of Mr. Giammattei’s and a key official in his party, said the person who attended the meeting and the U.S. official.
She said the money she had with her amounted to 50,000 Guatemalan quetzales (the equivalent of more than $6,000), according to the person who was present.
The Times has not substantiated Judge Alfaro’s claim that she was bribed. In an interview, Ms. Alfaro denied that she went to the embassy and made the allegation.
“I have no relationship with Miguel Martínez,” she told The New York Times. “I doubt that 50,000 quetzales can be brought into the embassy because you go through so many security measures.”
Mr. Martínez denied giving Judge Alfaro a bribe, saying he had never met with her. He said he was aware of an effort by people who were unable to participate in the elections “to get me involved in some legal situation” with the American Embassy.
“Now we are realizing that this is the legal situation they are trying to involve me in,” Mr. Martínez said, “to affect the electoral process that is being carried out in a clean and democratic way.”
Later, Mr. Martínez told reporters that The Times would soon publish an account of Ms. Alfaro’s trip to the embassy in a statement captured on video and circulated widely on social media. “This is something malicious they want to do to destabilize the elections,” Mr. Martínez said in the video.
When asked about Ms. Alfaro’s allegations and the embassy’s response, a State Department spokeswoman, Christina Tilghman, said, “We do not confirm the existence of alleged meetings nor discuss the contents of diplomatic discussions.”
Ms. Tilghman said that whenever the American government receives allegations of corruption that “meet evidentiary requirements under U.S. regulations and law,” it imposes sanctions or otherwise punishes those involved.
The actions of the electoral authority have led civil rights groups to question whether Sunday’s presidential contest can truly be considered free and fair.
“Legality is not the same as legitimacy,” said Juan Francisco Sandoval, a former anticorruption prosecutor who now lives in the United States and is among the dozens of prosecutors and judges who have gone into exile in recent years.
The vote, he said, will be marred both by “arbitrary rulings” on who was allowed to run, and a surge in illicit campaign financing using public funds.
Though from different ideological backgrounds, at least three of the excluded candidates were viewed as unsettling to Guatemala’s political establishment.
One of them, Carlos Pineda, positioned himself as an outsider businessman and used TikTok to become a front-runner in the polls.
“They went after us because we were climbing so much in the polls that we could make history by winning in the first round,” said Mr. Pineda, referring to the fact that if no one wins more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff will be held between the top two candidates. “This election is illegitimate.”
Another barred candidate, Thelma Cabrera, is a leftist from a Maya Mam family trying to organize Guatemala’s Indigenous peoples, who account for roughly half the population, into a unified political force. A third, Roberto Arzú, is a right-wing scion of a political family who had positioned himself as an opponent of the country’s elites.
Mr. Giammattei, prohibited by law from seeking re-election, has remained silent about the barring of several top contenders. The race has largely become a contest among three leading candidates who are viewed as providing some continuity with the status quo.
Sandra Torres was the first lady from 2008 to 2011, when she was married to President Álvaro Colom. They divorced when Ms. Torres first sought to run for president in 2011 (Guatemalan law prohibits a president’s relatives from running for office).
Ms. Torres was arrested in 2019 in connection with campaign finance violations, but the case was dismissed by a judge in 2022 just weeks before campaigning officially got underway, allowing her to run. Her platform highlights promises to expand social programs, including cash transfers for the poor.
Another leading candidate, Zury Ríos, is the daughter of Efraín Ríos Montt, a dictator of Guatemala in the early 1980s who ordered extreme tactics against a guerrilla insurgency and was convicted of genocide in 2013 for trying to exterminate the Ixil, a Mayan people indigenous to Guatemala.
Ms. Ríos has been unrepentant about her father’s actions, going so far as to deny this year that the genocide happened. An evangelical Christian, she gained popularity among conservatives after allying with figures seeking to blunt anticorruption initiatives. When she served in Congress, she emphasized women’s issues, but on the presidential campaign trail she has stressed adopting hard-line security policies to combat crime.
Another top contender, Edmond Mulet, is a former diplomat who generally hews to conservative views. Mr. Mulet, whose proposals include expanding internet access and providing free medicines, has criticized the persecution of journalists and prosecutors, but has also forged ties with powerful entrenched political figures, avoiding the fate of excluded candidates.
Polls in recent weeks suggest that none of the three are expected to come close to winning a majority of the votes on Sunday, which would force a runoff on Aug. 30.
The contest, experts said, lays bare how effective Guatemala’s power brokers have been at extinguishing any real source of dissent.
“The weaponization of the judicial system is driving some of the brightest minds in the country to leave and intimidating anyone that’s left,” said Regina Bateson, a scholar at the University of Ottawa who specializes in Guatemala. The result, she said, is an “election undermining democracy.”