In Guatemala, Prayer Breakfasts Blossom into a Coup Attempt

Reps. Vicente Gonzalez (D-TX) and Henry Cuellar (D-TX), Guatemala's then-Pres. Jimmy Morales, and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) on Feb. 7, 2018, in a photo posted by a Guatemalan government website.



There’s a slow-motion coup attempt happening in Guatemala. Right-wing officials, backed by some of the country’s wealthy, are trying to limit the ballot in the Aug. 20 presidential runoff to a single candidate. And it’s not the progressive.

The seeds for this would-be coup were planted by some of the people behind the National Prayer Breakfast. They stood up a spinoff operation in Guatemala that over the last decade has supported and become an arm of that country’s autocratic, right-wing governments. Despite claims that prayer is politically unifying, in the case of Guatemala, it has proved to be just the opposite.

One former senior U.S. diplomat whose portfolio included Guatemala told TYT that the evangelical movement there is being “used for political purposes” and that the U.S. government has struggled to assess its role.

That’s less true on the right, where Americans involved in Guatemala’s evangelical conservative shift include Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and other members of Congress, as well as insiders at the prayer breakfast group, known informally as The Family.

The progressive candidate in Guatemala’s Aug. 20 runoff is Bernardo Arévalo. Last month, a prosecutor in the office of Guatemala’s attorney general got a court to disqualify Arévalo’s entire party. The judiciary said Arévalo is still on the ballot, and it’s unclear whether his opponents have any legal avenues left to defeat him. He’s polling at 77%.

But it’s also unclear how far Arévalo’s opponents will go and what they’re willing to do with the levers of power they still control.

His rival for the presidency is Sandra Torres, widow of a former president, standard-bearer for Guatemala’s wealthy, a past target of prosecutors, and a prayer breakfast veteran.

In fact, Torres and the attorney general targeting Arévalo’s party have been guests at prayer breakfasts not just in Guatemala but in the U.S. And the founder of Guatemala’s breakfast – who’s been the Guatemala coordinator for the U.S. breakfast – is now a lobbyist in Washington for some of the same allegedly corrupt business interests backing Torres.

That lobbyist, Manuel Espina, has been a prayer partner with Rubio and other Republicans tied to The Family. Espina also has been praised publicly by Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE). Other Democrats have helped along the way, and at least one is still siding with the powerful Guatemalan forces labeled corrupt by the Biden administration.

Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), Guatemalan then-Pres. Jimmy Morales, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO), and then-Ambassador Manuel Espina at The Family's C Street facility.


The Family – which runs the U.S. prayer breakfast and is formally called the Fellowship Foundation – has a decades-long history of supporting right-wing autocrats and even coups. Its congressional allies pulled off a Guatemalan coup more than half a century ago. Espina’s dad was part of a political cohort with Family connections that tried its own coup in the ‘90s.

But today's efforts to thwart democracy in Guatemala may be the first in which The Family’s role was at least partially known in real time rather than revealed years later with leaks or the unsealing of archival records.

And some Family insiders have shown increasing comfort with flouting democratic norms in the name of Jesus even here at home. Top Family insiders and donors actively boosted then-President Donald Trump after he began trying to nullify the results of the 2020 U.S. presidential election. (Trump’s loudest cheerleader, Mike Lindell, would be known today solely as a pillow pitchman if it weren’t for Family insiders using the National Prayer Breakfast to radicalize Lindell religiously and politically.)

The Family has also shown a willingness to stand by allies violently hostile to LGBTQ+ and reproductive rights. As TYT reported earlier this year, The Family’s point man in Uganda remains intimately involved with Christian legislators there who finally succeeded in passing the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality.”

All these issues are at stake in Guatemala. Also on the line are campaign-finance norms, the drug trade, corruption, and even immigration to the U.S.

Guatemala’s right-wing governments have largely sided with U.S. Republican immigration policy in recent years. Seeking Trump’s okay to kill a UN anti-corruption task force that was coming for his family, then-President Jimmy Morales signed on to Trump’s “safe third country” plan, taking in would-be U.S. immigrants.

Ironically, though, Guatemala’s corruption may increase the flow of undocumented migrants more than the “safe third country” might mitigate it. For one thing, Guatemalan politicians and their wealthy backers know that their economy rests heavily on the $18 billion sent home every year by Guatemalans working in the U.S. That number has soared since Morales took office.

Guatemala's elite are said to be happy to see people flee to the U.S. “They’d rather have them migrate, get rid of the complainers and have them send money home,” the former diplomat said, adding that emigration also cuts social safety-net costs. “The cherry on top is you get to lecture the gringos on non-interference in their affairs.”

National Security Council Senior Director for the Western Hemisphere Juan Gonzalez told NPR in 2021, "You have, frankly, a predatory elite that benefits from the status quo, which is to not pay any taxes or invest in social programs." He said, "Migration is essentially a social release valve for migrants."

“Things throughout the region, including Guatemala, are going south,” the former diplomat said.

None of this has stopped a handful of Democrats, including Coons and Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D-TX), from backing The Family’s allies in Guatemala. Even after Morales barred the head of the UN anti-corruption task force, known as CICIG, Coons gave Espina a glowing introduction at the 2019 U.S. National Prayer Breakfast.

Also nabbing a prestigious invitation to that 2019 NPB was Maria Consuelo Porras, one year after Morales made her his attorney general. The Family never revealed who invited Porras; they leave the impression it’s the president or Congress. But a source close to The Family tells TYT that Espina was directly involved in picking the Guatemalan delegation that year. As Coons noted in his remarks, Espina was still running the Guatemalan spinoff at the time.

Now, in 2023, it’s Porras who’s led the effort to remove Arévalo from the ballot.

The Attorney General

When Morales picked Porras as his attorney general in 2018, he knew he needed her on his side. CICIG had already arrested Morales’s brother and father and everyone knew Morales himself was on the to-do list.

Morales had gotten elected with the help of at least an estimated $2 million in illegal campaign cash, prosecutors said. As TYT previously reported, some of that alleged dirty money came from wealthy Guatemalan business leaders who had coalesced around Espina’s prayer breakfast when Espina got them access to U.S. lawmakers close to The Family.

As CICIG broadened its focus from drugs to include illegal campaign contributions – which Guatemalan business interests made to keep politicians in their pockets – the task force was counting on Guatemalan prosecutors to keep prosecuting.

Guatemalan politics aren’t so autocratic that any one person or even party has a single hand on the tiller. Control means assembling alliances, and winning the financial backing of the nation’s wealthy, sometimes shorthanded as the G8, eight billionaire families.

During the Morales presidency, the former diplomat said, “According to a lot of the cases that CICIG and [Guatemalan prosecutors] put together, it seems pretty clear that the government at the time was using corruption to build these alliances.”

So, when she was appointed in early 2018, Porras was asked whether her office would continue working with CICIG. Appointees, she responded vaguely, have “the independence to take the path that she deems appropriate to improve the country’s justice system.”

The following year she attended the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington. At the time, Guatemalan media reported on the apparent connections between Porras and Espina, who was now Morales’s ambassador to the U.S.

Espina denied media suggestions that he had a role in setting Porras’s agenda while she was in Washington. But in reality Espina was directly – albeit still secretly – involved in drawing up the guest list for that fateful breakfast.

A source close to The Family told TYT that Espina as of 2019 was still overseeing The Family’s NPB invitations to Guatemala.

Six months later, when Porras attended the 2019 Guatemalan prayer breakfast, Espina was publicly known to still be involved in picking that event’s guests, as well. It was Espina who invited Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), another Family insider, to deliver the keynote address, including claims about the unifying power of prayer.

Lee and Morales used the occasion to explicitly celebrate Morales evading prosecution, which he had achieved by running CICIG out of the country with help from Lee, Rubio and other Family insiders.

In the years since Porras heard Lee explain how prayer brings political unity, she has used her power to pursue Guatemalan judges, journalists, and prosecutors who had once pursued corruption.

Porras has transferred, fired, and even prosecuted officials whose resumes included pursuing the crimes of the rich. Some have fled the country. Others are in prison. Human Rights Watch (HRW) has tracked Porras’s progress with a critical eye.

Over the first four years of her tenure, “Porras undermined investigations into corruption and human rights abuses, including by transferring or firing the prosecutors in charge,” HRW said. “Her office also brought seemingly arbitrary prosecutions against independent judges and prosecutors.”

Porras’s targets included judges, one of whom had ruled on high-profile corruption cases, and a former prosecutor in Guatemala’s anti-corruption office who went to prison in early 2022 and was recently moved to house arrest.

Some who escaped prosecution were transferred out of positions that threatened people in power and into positions that didn’t. Porras removed the head of her human-rights unit and tasked him with investigating crimes against tourists. As HRW notes, Guatemala wasn’t exactly awash with tourism at the time, thanks to COVID.

An organized-crime prosecutor got transferred to deal with appellate cases. A prosecutor who coordinated with international law enforcement was switched to investigate crimes against private property. Another was removed from a unit recovering stolen assets in corruption cases and tasked with protecting the intellectual property held by Guatemala’s intellectual-property owners.

The transfers, HRW says, were legally questionable and flouted international norms. In September 2021, U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken announced that Porras had been officially added to the so-called Engel List of “perpetrators” who had “undermined democracy and obstructed corruption investigations.”

In a statement, the Department of State said: “Porras’ pattern of obstruction included ordering prosecutors in Guatemala’s Public Ministry (MP) to ignore cases based on political considerations and actively undermining investigations carried out by the Special Prosecutor Against Impunity, including by firing its lead prosecutor, Juan Francisco Sandoval, and transferring and firing prosecutors who investigate corruption.” Sandoval is now a refugee in the U.S.

But the Engel List hasn’t deterred right-wing American religious figures. Last year, Porras was praised by evangelical speaker John C. Maxwell as “one of the best leaders I have ever met anywhere in the entire world.”

Maxwell, a speaker who has addressed anti-LGBTQ+ organizations, made his remarks at an event staged jointly by his own organization, a Guatemalan business group with allegedly corrupt elements, and Espina’s group that runs Guatemala’s prayer breakfast. Maxwell’s and Espina’s organizations have worked together for years.

Maxwell is also connected to The Family, which runs a Washington DC hangout for politicians known as C Street. In his second book about The Family, author Jeff Sharlet in 2011 described Maxwell as “a management guru on C Street’s Prayer Breakfast circuit.”

Around the same time Maxwell was praising her last year, Porras was hoping to be re-appointed as attorney general. Espina had a vested interest in her succeeding, since a different prosecutor might resurrect the scuppered investigation into his family’s alleged corruption.

The Guatemalan commission in charge of generating a list of candidates for the attorney general post was the target of efforts to undermine its independence. According to HRW, those efforts were undertaken by officials in the government of Guatemala’s new president – right-wing evangelical Catholic Alejandro Giammattei – and by a right-wing group called the Foundation Against Terrorism that backed Porras and was backed by Guatemala’s wealthy.

Porras managed to get herself onto the short list.

It’s not clear what the U.S. did to preserve the integrity of the process, but Porras had at least one defender in Congress. Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) was a Family insider who was a key player in killing U.S. support for CICIG, and when Porras’s political survival seemed in doubt, Smith rose to her defense.

In April 2022, Smith pressed Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman about the U.S. embassy’s alleged intervention in the selection process, explicitly defending Porras. Later that month, Smith raised the same issue with Sherman’s boss, Secretary of State Tony Blinken, during Blinken’s testimony before Congress.

Porras was reappointed by Giammattei the following month, dismaying international human-rights advocates and drawing new U.S. sanctions.

After Arévalo had stunned observers in June by making it through the first round of voting in the presidential election, one of Porras’s prosecutors announced on July 12 that Arévalo’s entire party, the Seed Movement, was being stripped of legal recognition. The prosecutor, Rafael Curruchiche, claimed that the Seed Movement had ineligible signatures on its petitions.

“This is a corrupt system’s coup,” said even a conservative candidate, the self-styled populist Roberto Arzu, who’d also been kicked off the ballot. The U.S. State Department agreed.

The tribunal that determines ballot eligibility, the former diplomat told TYT, has “a majority of people who are loyal to the current president,” Giammattei.

One year before trying to get Arévalo off the ballot, Curruchiche too had been added to the Engel List. The State Department said in its announcement that Curruchiche had “obstructed investigations into acts of corruption by disrupting high-profile corruption cases against government officials and raising apparently spurious claims against [anti-corruption] prosecutors, private attorneys, and former International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) prosecutors.”

The beneficiary of Curruchiche disqualifying Arévalo, of course, would be the one candidate left.

The Candidate

Guatemalans have known Sandra Torres a lot longer than they’ve known Porras or Espina. Torres was the nation’s first lady for four years, 2008 through 2011, and has sought the presidency for herself ever since, divorcing her husband to sidestep the legal barrier against presidential relatives holding the office.

Campaigning against Giammattei in 2019, Torres vowed to oppose abortion and LGBTQ+ rights. She was also charged with campaign-finance violations. Torres called the charges political, blaming her rival at the time, former Attorney General Thelma Aldana, an anti-corruption champion.

Torres publicly asked Porras to investigate Aldana. Porras got a judge to force Aldana off the ballot and Aldana fled the country soon after, living now as a refugee in Washington.

The case against Torres, meanwhile, dragged on for three years and was ultimately dismissed last year (by a judiciary now under suspicion of corruption), just in time for Torres to file her current candidacy.

And when Torres had visited the U.S. a few months after the 2019 prayer breakfast, her itinerary – just like Porras’s – reportedly was set by The Family’s Guatemalan point man: Espina.

Espina denied it, but the Guatemalan newspaper Diario La Hora reported that it had information identifying him as engineering the trip.

And Torres had had a connection to Espina for years. In 2014, after The Family first started supplying American politicians for Espina to showcase at his prayer breakfast spinoff, Torres was one of the earliest Guatemalan elites to start attending.

Torres wasn’t alone. Guatemala’s wealthy class had started showing up. As TYT previously reported, a number of them would later face accusations of corruption, including the illegal funding of Morales’s successful presidential race.

One prayer breakfast attendee was Roberto Alejos, whose brother Gustavo was Torres’s allegedly corrupt fundraiser. (Torres’s fundraiser was also accused of laundering $1.5 million with Espina’s father, and was prosecuted by Sandoval, one of the prosecutors now living in the U.S.)

Sandoval gave TYT several names of “Guatemalans possibly linked to the National Prayer Breakfast. For example, the former Minister of Energy [and Mining] Erick Archila, who has an arrest warrant in Guatemala and is living in Miami.”

He added, “Or, for example, Eduardo Liu, who was president of Banco de Los Trabajadores, and in that case was a collaborator,” referring to Liu eventually testifying against his co-conspirators.

“And, for example, there is the case of Rodrigo Arenas, who belongs to the national civic movement, [and] participated in the triangulation of funds to pay Jimmy Morales’s [poll watchers] in the elections in which he won in 2015,” Sandoval said.

The names Sandoval mentioned all appear in congressional travel filings as Guatemalan prayer breakfast attendees. Although Arenas last year told TYT he didn’t break the law by supporting Morales, he largely confirmed how Espina’s prayer breakfast worked, providing Guatemala’s elite unmediated access to American politicians.

What drew these allegedly corrupt business interests to Espina’s breakfast table was not so much the prayers, but the players, the chance to hobnob with American politicians.

One of them was a Democrat, and devout Christian. Then-Rep. Janice Hahn (D-CA), now a Los Angeles County supervisor, helped The Family make those back-room connections happen.

As TYT previously reported, Hahn’s private meetings included a number of businesspeople later accused of having been involved in corruption at the time. (So did meetings taken by The Family’s other congressional enabler in Guatemala that year, Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AR).)

Torres was already controversial before Hahn stepped off the plane in Guatemala City in 2014. And Hahn couldn’t claim ignorance of Torres’s power-grabbing past. The itinerary prepared and filed by Hahn’s own staff noted for Hahn that, “In her role as first lady, Torres took over crucial parts of the government which she should have no power over according to the [Guatemalan] Constitution.” Hahn was scheduled to lunch with Torres anyway.

The following year, 2015, Torres was tapped by Espina to attend the DC prayer breakfast. A Guatemalan source previously told TYT that Guatemala Prospera, the group Espina founded that ran the Guatemalan prayer breakfast (but doesn't disclose its donors) picked up the tab for the DC trips.

In fact, as The Family has done with affiliates in other countries, now that Guatemala Prospera is up and running, The Family no longer pays to fly American members of Congress over for breakfast; the spinoff group does. Last year, for instance, Guatemala Prospera paid to fly in Rep. Tracey Mann (R-KS), a longtime Family insider, to address their 2022 prayer breakfast (as did Porras).

Torres also attended last year, having maintained her relationship with the Guatemalan prayer breakfast. And the 2022 breakfast did what The Family’s events often do away from the Washington media spotlight: It made the politics overt.

Giammattei used his remarks at the breakfast to push back against reproductive and LGBTQ+ rights and assert that Biblical guidance is a prerequisite for good leadership. His own leadership was praised by another guest, Heritage Foundation President Kevin Roberts.

Like Morales, Giammattei has embraced Guatemala Prospera. For years it’s been contracted by the government to conduct values training. Espina no longer runs Guatemala Prospera, but is widely believed to be still deeply involved with it.

The Family’s Point Man

TYT has already revealed just how central a role The Family and its congressional allies played first in elevating Manuel Espina and then in helping him destroy CICG, the UN task force that had been making progress against Guatemalan corruption. But even after stepping down as ambassador to the U.S. when Morales left office, Espina remains a key figure. And his circle of allies has grown.

As ambassador, he enjoyed a prime speaking spot at the U.S. National Prayer Breakfast, seated by The Family on the dais next to Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV). Coons introduced Espina as “a major real-estate investor” and “perhaps most importantly…the sponsor of the National Prayer Breakfast of Guatemala.”

Coons also referred to Espina’s political lineage. But only the upbeat part. “His father was vice president,” Coons said, “a very important job.” Coons didn’t mention that Espina senior served as acting president for five days, before fleeing the country when it got out that he had abetted the previous president’s self-coup, a bid to seize power from the courts.

Coons’s sanitized introduction of Espina came just months after Espina and Morales succeeded in shattering the previous U.S. bipartisan support for CICIG.

There’s no evidence that Coons, one of The Family's few remaining Democrats, played any part in facilitating the death of CICIG. But as TYT revealed last year, Republican members of Congress who elevated trumped-up charges to make CICIG controversial had also been prayer partners with Espina and Morales beforehand, literally inside the halls of The Family’s C Street hangout. (Even the Trump State Department said that allegations CICIG was helping Russia had no basis in fact.)

And a handful of Democrats joined the Republican chorus against CICIG. In a statement on Sept. 6, 2018, after Morales said he wouldn't renew CICIG's mandate, Reps. Gonzalez and Henry Cuellar (D-TX) said with then-Rep. Filemon Vela (D-TX) that CICIG “violate[d] a nation’s sovereignty,” even though the prosecutions and trials were carried out by Guatemalan officials.

Gonzalez has been friendly with Espina for years and attended the 2018 National Prayer Breakfast. In 2020, Gonzalez traveled to Guatemala with Espina to meet with a congressional leader, Alvaro Arzú Escobar, who had led drives to immunize politicians from prosecution for campaign-finance and other corruption charges.

Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D-TX) meets with Guatemala's congressional then-Pres. Alvaro Arzú Escobar and then-Ambassador Manuel Espina on Jan. 6, 2020.

(Roberto Aguja/

On the same trip, on Jan. 6, 2020, even amid corruption allegations around Morales, Gonzales accepted Guatemala’s highest honor from the then-president. Later that month, Gonzalez and Espina co-authored an op-ed piece along with Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), promoting investment in Guatemala.

Espina’s op-eds came after he entered the private sector. And he co-authored another one with former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) and Rep. Rick Crawford (R-AR).

Like Rubio and Gonzalez, Crawford seems to have taken a special interest in Guatemala. “On several occasions,” La Hora reported, Giammattei had “rapprochements with the Republicans,” including Crawford and Roberts, the Heritage Foundation president.

The Heritage Foundation’s high-profile conservatives have included Family insiders such as Ed Meese and former Sen. Jim DeMint (who had the financial backing of a top Family funder who also backed Big Lie candidates). Heritage and Daily Signal writer Genevieve Wood was also an invitee to at least the 2016 NPB, Family records show.

Roberts’s first international trip as Heritage president was to Guatemala, and Giammattei has addressed the foundation in person in Washington. “Roberts praised Giammattei for his leadership of Guatemala” during that trip last year, the Heritage Foundation announced, “and promised that Heritage would continue to work closely with his administration on issues ranging from pro-life policies to economic management.”

Sandoval told TYT that Guatemala’s “corporate dictatorship promoted the participation of various [presidential] candidacies to ensure the continuity of the system.” He added, “All these candidacies have an affinity, in terms of proposed ideas, with the group that is promoted by Manuel Espina.”

While the State Department has publicly called out Guatemala’s persecution of anti-corruption legal officials and journalists, it has studiously avoided treading closely to the inner circle of Giammattei, whose cooperation is needed on high-profile immigration initiatives.

But in a remarkable joint statement, the two House and Senate leaders on foreign relations, one Democrat and one Republican, explicitly spoke out last month against “Threats to Guatemala’s Democracy.”

Issued by Senate Foreign Relations Chair Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and House Foreign Affairs Chair Michael McCaul (R-TX), the statement directly took on the actions of Porras, the same attorney general who was defended by Smith, who serves on the committee under McCaul:

“...we are deeply concerned by the Guatemalan Attorney General’s Office’s attempt to illegally revoke the legal status of the political party of an opposition candidate in advance of the country’s August 20 runoff presidential elections. The Attorney General Office’s decision is a blatant attempt to undermine the will of the Guatemalan people that attempts to circumvent the electoral certification.”

McCaul and Menendez vowed to monitor “and respond to” further attempts to steal the election. McCaul specifically called on Biden to levy sanctions.

The statement, however, didn’t address the U.S. coalition, including some fellow members of Congress, that has sided with Porras, Giammattei, and Espina.

“In general, the religious aspect, or the evangelical aspect in this case, has often been hard for the U.S. to place an appropriate value on,” the former diplomat said. “There’s a general reluctance to criticize people because of their religion, but I think in this case the evangelical movement in a lot of countries, including Guatemala … is still something that has lent itself to being, I think, used for political motives.”

The former diplomat said that, “The U.S. government in my opinion is not ignorant of it, it’s just always hard to properly evaluate.”

And that makes it hard to address, especially as the election nears. With ten days until the vote, no fewer than 13 criminal investigations now under way could be used to justify disqualifying the Seed Movement from eligibility, removing Arévalo from the ballot.

With additional reporting, research, and translation by freelance reporter Jeff Abbott in Guatemala.

Additional research by TYT intern Mahima Tanksalker.

Jonathan Larsen is TYT’s managing editor. You can find him on Twitter @JTLarsen.