Guatemalan president takes office amid asylum deal controversy

Alejandro Giammattei has not stated his position on contentious deal that allows US to send asylum seekers to Guatemala.

Giammattei is sworn in during his inauguration ceremony at the National Theater in Guatemala City [Johan Ordonez/AFP]

Guatemala City – Guatemala‘s new president was sworn in on Tuesday amid protests against the outgoing leader and uncertainty over the future of an asylum deal with the United States.

Alejandro Giammattei, a doctor and former prison system director from the right-wing Vamos party, was sworn in for a four-year term on Tuesday night.

“This is the moment to rescue Guatemala from the absurd. It is the moment to combat corruption and malnutrition,” Giammattei said in his first speech as president.

“We will govern with decency, with honourability, and with ethical values,” he said.

Giammattei apologised for keeping guests waiting at the inauguration, which began five hours late largely due to complications and delays in the congressional transition earlier in the day.

He also reiterated several key campaign pledges. His promised presidential anti-corruption commission would be established at the outset of his presidency and his administration would soon present several legislative proposals, including reforms to designate street gangs as “terrorist” groups.

Giammattei takes over from the tumultuous presidency of Jimmy Morales, who kicked out a popular UN-backed anti-corruption commission after he and his party were accused of illegal campaign financing. He has denied any wrongdoing.

US asylum deal

The Morales administration also came under fire for signing an asylum cooperation agreement with the US last July. The deal allows the US to send asylum seekers from third countries to Guatemala, forcing them to request asylum there or return home.

The deal has been widely criticised in Central America and the US. Guatemala is now the top country of origin for migrants and asylum seekers apprehended at the US southern border. Tens of thousands flee violence, poverty and persecution in Guatemala every year.

“If they send us to Guatemala, they are sending us back to potential death,” Edwin*, a 37-year-old Honduran asylum seeker currently in Mexico with his family after fleeing extortion and death threats last year told Al Jazeera.

The US has sent more than 120 Honduran and Salvadoran asylum seekers to Guatemala since the implementation of the controversial agreement began last November. US officials have claimed they may also send Mexican asylum seekers to Guatemala, but Morales claimed he had not agreed to that.

Giammattei does not yet have a clear position on the asylum cooperation deal. He initially criticised the way in which it came about and stated he would consider reforms. But during the entire five-month transition period, he called on Morales to share the agreement and annexe documents with him.

On Monday, a day before he took office, Giammattei said he still had not been given the documents. As soon as his team received and analysed them, he would announce his position, he added.

Giammattei met on Tuesday morning with US officials in Guatemala who were there to attend his inauguration. The small delegation included Chad Wolf, Acting Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, the agency behind the asylum deal and similar agreements in the works with Honduras and El Salvador.

“The United States remains committed to working with President [Giammattei] and his cabinet to continue progress on security and stability in the region,” Wolf tweeted on Tuesday.

International attention remains focused on Giammattei, but for many Guatemalans, the importance of the inauguration was that it ended Morales’ term, and with it, his immunity from prosecution.

“There is profound indignation for the actions of his government,” longtime social movement activist Brenda Hernandez told Al Jazeera.

Hernandez and other protesters rallied all day outside the Central American Parliament headquarters to call for Morales’ immediate arrest for corruption before he could regain immunity upon induction into the regional body.

*The individual’s name has been changed to protect their identity.

Source: Al Jazeera