This article is one of four about the secret influence of The Family – the secretive Christian group that runs the National Prayer Breakfast – on recent U.S.-Guatemala relations. TYT’s reporting on The Family can be found here.
The Family has “key men” in countries around the world. Occasionally, these key men are the boss. More often, they’re the boss whisperer, hearing confession and connecting the boss with the bosses of other key men. The Family leaves its mark on history without leaving fingerprints.
To varying degrees, that’s been true in Guatemala for decades. And although The Family’s key men in Guatemala have a history of getting run out of town, The Family keeps making more.
When Guatemala’s version of Donald Trump became president in 2016, priority one was staying in power. For Jimmy Morales, that meant blunting the power of the task force that had taken down his predecessor: The UN anti-corruption team known by its Spanish acronym, CICIG.
Related: How The Family Won Guatemala
Weakening CICIG would mean eroding its support in the U.S., with help from Republicans. Like many Republicans, Morales was both conservative and genuinely evangelical. What Morales lacked was a network to connect him with his American counterparts.
For years, The Family had been grooming someone who had that network, a young guy, from the next generation of key men.
Manuel Espina was the son of a disgraced former vice president who had helped a previous Guatemalan president try to seize power from the courts and legislature. This didn’t make Espina super popular in Guatemala. But The Family would help change that.
In 2003, Espina formed an organization called Guatemala Prospera, bringing together Christian business leaders in a forum that was purportedly apolitical and ecumenical. Guatemala Prospera started holding prayer gatherings as early as 2006.
By 2006, Espina later wrote, “Due to my international leadership, I was invited...to attend the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington.” If it hadn’t been there before, Espina’s Family connection was now in place.
But signs of Espina’s “international leadership” in 2006 are hard to discern. Rodrigo Arenas, a college friend of Espina and political activist on the right who says CICIG was corrupt, attended some of Espina’s early gatherings and said they had “no political leaders, the … events were more like leadership.”
In evangelical circles, there is a culture of “leadership” that doesn’t always entail actually leading anything. “Leadership” speakers, seminars, and nonprofits abound – with few signs of anyone who’s led anything other than their leadership endeavors.
The network Espina describes having at the time is dominated by “business leaders” from the world of corporate evangelicals. And even their leadership credentials, as promoted by Espina, were often questionable, inflated, or long faded.
Probably the best known is former Dodgers General Manager Kevin Malone. But for others, their defining leadership experience appears to be that they taught leadership. Some are associated with a Christian organization called La Red Business Network. A couple hail from Walmart’s executive ranks.
Others don’t quite live up to Espina’s billing. His former GNC “owner” Mike Ukleja, for instance, sat on GNC’s board and married the daughter of GNC’s founder, but didn’t own the company. Espina’s Coca-Cola president and COO actually only ran the Coca-Cola Bottling Company of Los Angeles. Espina’s ExxonMobil CEO has a LinkedIn page referring to himself as a “manager” there. A woman Espina identified as the COO of FedEx shares the same last name as current CEO Fred Smith, but TYT was unable to find any sign of her existence. And executives Espina touted from Apple and Compaq hadn’t been at those companies for years.
Independent journalist Claudia Méndez Arriaza, editor of the Guatemalan TV and radio program ConCriterio, first attended Espina’s gatherings in 2009. Even then, three years after The Family recognized his “international leadership,” Guatemala’s leaders weren’t at his gatherings, Méndez Arriaza said.
Although Espina was just a teenager when his father was vice president, she said, “After the 1993 coup, the Espinas were not welcome at all at the elite’s circles in Guatemala.” Espina’s contact list, however, would soon improve.
Over the coming years, three Family leaders oversaw the relationship with Espina, nurturing him and introducing him to American politicians. The three Family leaders included two sons of Doug Coe (the Family’s then-leader), Tim and David, and their college roommate, Marty Sherman. A fourth Family insider, Chick-fil-A executive Tim Burchfield, served as the trio’s point person for The Family’s relationship with Espina.
A source close to The Family called it “wildly plausible that Doug Coe knew [Espina’s] father… and that’s how Tim, David, and Marty met him. That would be a very, very typical thing.”
Asked about the trio’s politics, the source said they’re “pretty independent human beings.” The source called them “three peas in a pod in terms of their lives together and doing all this work together.” However, although they all live at the end of the same Annapolis cul de sac, the source said, “they're definitely very different personalities.”
Doug Coe’s ethos was “Jesus plus nothing,” and that included politics. So for his sons and their friend, “Because of the work they do, they would be as apolitical as possible,” the source said. However, “No one that age, religion-adjacent or not…rarely are those people turning to the left or anything. So they would probably say, ‘Oh, we're apolitical,’ or whatever, but the reality is, my instincts might trend conservatively.”
According to the source, “David, in particular, did sort of go down the Trump road, just thinking that he was awesome.”
Nevertheless, the trio “would love” to forge relationships with LGBTQ leaders and others on the left, the source says; it just doesn’t happen because of how The Family operates. Led by Jesus, they follow their hearts. Which means no one pursues inclusion methodically by picking up the phone to reach the people they’re not reaching.
“They don't pick up the phone and call Espina 20 years ago,” the source said. “They met Espina because their dad introduced them to him… Nothing comes out of the blue. It's all sharing relationships.”
The source said that The Family’s method, or lack of one, has political consequences for The Family’s political circles. ‘[I]f all of the inertia is generally conservative or generally to the right... is that circle typically including socialists? Probably not.”
The source gave the example of David Coe teasing one of The Family’s rare remaining Democrats, Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE): “David Coe refers to Chris Coons as a socialist, but like his friend.” Coons, the senior senator from Delaware, is a devout Christian, The Family’s most visible Democratic ally, part of the family that owns Gore-Tex, and far from a socialist.
The trio is closer to a far more conservative congressional veteran, former Rep. Zach Wamp (R-TN), the nearest thing The Family has to a public face.
“Zach was their guy,” the source said. “Zach was Tim, David, and Marty's longest-tenured and closest disciple, if you will, over their career of working with members.” So, when it came time to decide who should run the breakfast, the trio preferred Wamp over fellow Family insider former Gov. David Beasley (R-SC).
“Beasley had too much standing for them to be able to direct him,” the source said. “They knew Zach maybe a little better, but they also knew that they could guide Zach if they chose to… Zach is going to constantly look for guidance to those guys. And he did.”
Sherman is also close to Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), the source said. But the trio is not in the same evangelical mold as Lankford. “[T]hey were always trying to tame Lankford,” who wanted to do an altar call – asking guests to accept Jesus as their savior – at the National Prayer Breakfast.
According to the source, the trio wanted to focus on Family activities other than the National Prayer Breakfast. Around 2011, however, internal Family dynamics brought them back to the breakfast table. That same year, The Family started inviting Espina’s colleagues from Guatemala Prospera to Washington for the National Prayer Breakfast, according to a congressional disclosure form filed by Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL).
The Family has decades of experience setting up prayer breakfasts in towns around the country and in countries around the world. They knew what it would take to transform Espina’s gatherings from humble prayer meetings into a Guatemalan version of the annual DC gathering of international power players.
The Family worked with Espina to build his operation. Tim, David, and Marty – said almost as one word, “TimDavidnMarty,” within The Family – know a lot of American politicians. They introduced Espina around.
By 2013, two years later, Espina was ready to roll out his own National Prayer Breakfast for Guatemala. His contact list had improved.
Aderholt’s August 2013 filing says that The Family had been “assisting the Guatemalan Prayer Breakfast hosts to provide organizational and relational support for their inaugural event.”
The filing doesn’t specify what The Family’s support entailed, but by 2013, they weren’t just inviting his Guatemala Prospera team to the DC breakfast, they were letting him bring others, too.
According to Arenas, Espina’s college friend, beginning in 2013, Espina “usually took five to seven people” to DC for the breakfast. Espina’s network was growing.
In March 2013, Guatemala Prospera posted pictures of Espina’s “private meeting” in Washington with then-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), a Family insider, along with members of the Guatemala Prospera board. Two other Family insiders were on the agenda. One picture shows Espina and then-Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) at what is said to be dinner at the home of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL).
But to fill the seats back home with Guatemala’s wealthy, Espina needed his friends, his American headliners, to come to him. And two of them did, courtesy of The Family.
In August 2013, The Family sent Reps. Randy Hultgren (R-IL) and Aderholt to participate in Espina’s inaugural Guatemalan National Prayer Breakfast. And “sent” isn’t hyperbole – disclosure forms show that The Family paid for flights and hotels for both Hultgren and Aderholt, two of the members of Congress most intimately involved with The Family.
Also on the bill were two staunch Family insiders no longer in office – and no longer obliged to disclose who paid their tab. One was former Rep. Tony Hall (D-OH), who had also worked with the UN on food relief. The other was Beasley, who would follow in Hall’s path, becoming Trump’s choice to run the UN World Food Programme.
Espina had Americanized his marquee. And it worked.
Méndez Arriaza, the journalist who said Espina’s earlier gathering was shunned because of his father’s crimes, attended again in 2016. She says she saw a change. “[I]t was different when an invitation from Espina’s son came along with the names of senators and congressmen from the U.S.,” Méndez Arriaza said. “The elites will attend Espina’s invitation because he invited them along with top officials in the U.S.”
The itinerary for 2013’s inaugural prayer breakfast bears out Méndez Arriaza’s assertion. Guatemala’s leaders showed up, from the president on down. With members of America’s Congress on hand, Guatemala’s rich people showed up, too.
Hultgren’s itinerary for the trip includes a three-hour “Reception with members of G8 Group (Guatemala’s 8 Billionaires).” At least one of the G8 was engaged at the time in illegal corrupt practices, CICIG later alleged.
Excerpt from congressional disclosure form showing the Guatemalan National Prayer Breakfast itinerary, including a meeting with Guatemalan billionaires.
The second night of the breakfast, Aderholt and Hultgren met for at least two hours with four members of Espina’s board. Two of the four would ultimately join Morales’s diplomatic corps, including Mario Bucaro, who had joined Espina for that private meeting with Sessions earlier in the year and would later become Morales’ ambassador to Israel. The other was Willy Gomez, who remains the ambassador to Taiwan. (Guatemala is one of the few countries that recognizes the independence of Taiwan, which was reported last week to be paying $900,000 to fund lobbyists working to improve Guatemala’s now-damaged standing in Washington.)
Like the American prayer breakfast on which it’s modeled, Espina’s Guatemalan version leaned toward the theocratic, and strayed from the ecumenical.
Guatemala’s president at the time, for instance, told attendees, “Today we name Christ as Lord of Guatemala.” One participating politician said he’d start work on legislation recognizing an official day of prayer.
The marriage of church and state endured into the following year. And The Family again provided an American headliner. What was different in 2014 was that, this time, Espina’s marquee name was a Democrat.
A Family Democrat Helps Out
At 3pm on Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2014, Manuel Espina was at the airport in Guatemala City to pick up the keynote speaker for his second National Prayer Breakfast. Just like the year before, The Family was covering the travel costs for Espina’s star attraction. Rep. Janice Hahn (D-CA), and a staffer traveling with her, had a packed itinerary, including a side trip with Beasley, the Family insider. Hahn was the breakfast headliner, but other participants would soon make headlines themselves.
Over the next few years, several of Hahn’s fellow breakfast speakers and dinner partners were implicated in illegal schemes to fund Morales’s campaign and his party, giving all of them motive to want CICIG gone.
Now a Los Angeles County supervisor, Hahn came from a family of faith. The granddaughter of missionaries, her father had a well-remembered record of public service in Los Angeles. That record, however, included occasional offenses to the First Amendment’s separation clause, such as incorporating a cross into the county seal and pushing voluntary prayer in public schools.
Hahn herself attended Abilene Christian University. In Congress, she received an award from the National Bible Association. She was also active with The Family and Capitol Hill prayer groups, co-chairing them – and the 2014 National Prayer Breakfast – with Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX).
Responding to TYT’s reporting about Hahn’s involvement in the 2016 National Prayer Breakfast (which included leading anti-LGBTQ activists from Ukraine on the guest list), a spokesperson said last year that, “She was not at all involved in determining the guest list in 2016.” But Family records show that Hahn did put one person on the guest list that year.
An internal Family spreadsheet lists Hahn as inviting the president of the National Bible Association to the 2016 breakfast. The organization not only shares multiple ties to The Family – including donor Ron Cameron, and board members Ed Meese and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) – it frequently partnered with Hobby Lobby. The group was funded almost entirely by billionaires John Templeton and Sean Fieler, who have donated more than $1 million each to anti-LGBTQ initiatives.
In other respects, Hahn is an LGBTQ ally. She has said that praying with political opponents “has an amazing way of building trust and overcoming differences.”
It’s not clear that Hahn’s Family activities yielded those amazing results, however. Gohmert, for instance, falsely claims that Pres. Biden stole the 2020 election. When his lawsuit challenging the results failed, Gohmert said on television, “You got to go to the streets and be as violent as Antifa and [Black Lives Matter].”
Beasley makes a similar argument about communal prayer generating reconciliation. In a 2015 video, he endorses prayer breakfasts as a gateway to conflict resolution, citing Guatemala as an example.
In the video, posted by a Christian nonprofit connected to The Family, Beasley says that he helped start prayer groups in Guatemala more than a year prior. In other words, around the same time as Espina’s first National Prayer Breakfast.
“We were meeting with some of the leaders in Guatemala; many different factions,” Beasley says. “God created it such a way that when you break bread, have fellowship, pray together…you can’t hate that other person but so long.”
The coming years in Guatemala sorely tested Beasley’s claim. One of Espina’s guests told TYT they were no longer invited to the Guatemalan prayer breakfast after supporting CICIG.
Regardless of whether Guatemala would find unity as Beasley prophesied, the country’s new prayer breakfast was off and running. Now it was time to make Manuel Espina a star.
By this point, Family leader Doug Coe was elderly and The Family was thinking about the next generation. Tim, David, and Marty were already deeply involved in The Family’s political international endeavors.
“Tim, David, and Marty started getting really involved in Guatemala...five, six, seven years ago,” a source close to The Family told TYT last year. “My understanding was that it was mostly because of their relationship with Manuel Espina. And so they all started going down there, pretty frequently, hanging out.”
They weren’t the only ones. The source says that Sherman and Coe’s sons were also stewards of another Family relationship with Espina.
Tim Burchfield has been a Chick-fil-A franchise owner/operator for more than thirty years. Since as early as 1992, he’s also been involved in the National Prayer Breakfast. Burchfield, too, had been on hand for Guatemala’s inaugural National Prayer Breakfast in 2013.
But building up Espina required more than frequent trips to Guatemala, and the flights between Washington and Guatemala City went two ways. Espina was getting introduced to Washington’s power players.
Tim, David, and Marty, the source said, “bring [Espina] to the Tuesday night dinner on C Street with all the senators and with the members of Congress. They’re palling around.”
By the time Morales and his donors were ready to move against CICIG, it wasn’t complicated to figure out who best to send to Washington, not to unite anyone through prayer, but to divide CICIG’s bipartisan supporters. Espina wasn’t just plugged in to the financial network that had backed Morales’ campaign and now stood poised to lobby against CICIG, he was now pals with exactly the people they needed as allies in Washington.
As the source put it, “If it weren't for his relationship with Tim, David and Marty, I would doubt that he would have become an ambassador.”
And Espina wasn’t the only one entering the ranks of Guatemalan diplomacy. Before leaving office, Morales would make two other Family insiders honorary consuls for Guatemala in the U.S. One of them was Burchfield, the Chick-fil-A executive, as detailed in the next installment of this series.
With additional reporting by freelance reporter Jeff Abbott, based in Guatemala City.