EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Sunday’s elections in Guatemala were calm and fair for the most part, but fears remain that the country’s ruling elite will try to prevent the anti-corruption candidate from taking over as president in January.

So says a member of an El Paso-based faith group who witnessed an election that could affect migration patterns from Central America to the United States.

“We felt this was a crucial moment in the history of Guatemala,” said Jesus de la Torre, senior research fellow at the Hope Border Institute. The group is part of the Root Causes Initiative seeking to understand why people in other countries migrate to the United States. Initiative members were invited by the Guatemalan clergy to witness the voting.

“The purpose of us being there is that we on the border accompany people from Guatemala, Mexico, Central America and other parts of the world and it is crucial we understand why they are fleeing,” De la Torre said.

Supporters of presidential candidate Bernardo Arevalo celebrate after preliminary results showed him the victor in a presidential run-off election in Guatemala City, Sunday, Aug. 20, 2023. Arevalo appeared to be the “virtual winner” of the election to be Guatemala’s next president. The official results will still have to be certified. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

The faith-based delegation saw a society in which 54% of the people live in poverty, corruption prevents money from getting to needy communities and a power elite composed of generals, business tycoons, and families that have been in politics for decades have stood in the way of change. But they also saw a people with the will to improve their country despite shortcomings and political obstacles, he said.

“The people of Guatemala gave us a very important message: We have dignity,” de la Torre said. “People in Guatemala and in Central America are working very hard for their rights, for democracy and freedom of expression, at times risking their lives. […] Migrating (to the United States) is a last resort” for many.

The delegation left Guatemala earlier this week hopeful that Bernardo Arevalo, who defeated establishment candidate Sandra Torres by a margin of 58% to 37% running on an anti-corruption platform, will be able to make the changes he champions.

However, establishment forces that failed to allegedly tilt the voting last Sunday are now contesting the results in court, de la Torre said. “There were attempts to buy votes with basic food staples; what we heard is that people (may have taken) the food but still voted” their conscience, he said.

The Root Causes Initiative is a coalition of faith-based groups from the United States, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador trying to identify the reasons people migrate from Central America, what can be done to prevent forced displacement and create safe lawful pathways for those that still want to migrate.