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Inside The Family

The Family and Guatemala: The Chick-fil-A Connection

How Right-Wing Christian Fast-Food Executives Helped Serve Up an Entire Country

Future Guatemalan Ambassador to the U.S. Manuel Espina, left, at The Family's estate with Chick-fil-A executive Tim Burchfield and another Family insider in an undated photo first archived in Sept. 2017.

 

(Image: Excerpt of uncredited photo posted by The Leadership Passage.)

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.

A Family insider whose behind-the-scenes work helped a Latin American president escape prosecution was a longtime National Prayer Breakfast organizer and Chick-fil-A executive, internal Family documents show.

And the seed for the secret networks that shaped Guatemala’s future may have been the controversial fast-food chain’s quest for a better cup of coffee.

As TYT has previously reported, the Chick-fil-A executive is a politically active conservative in Tennessee who invited multiple anti-LGBTQ guests to the National Prayer Breakfast. He was also tapped by the NRA to host Russian official Alexander Torshin and Maria Butina when they were in Washington for the National Prayer Breakfast. Chick-fil-A, which has funded anti-LGBTQ organizations through its charities, says that the executive, Tim Burchfield, went to Guatemala on company business.

A source close to The Family confirmed that Burchfield was friends with The Family’s liaison in Guatemala, Manuel Espina. Publicly, Espina has been associated with and worked with evangelical speaker John C. Maxwell, who has been a speaker for anti-LGBTQ organizations.

Privately, Espina was groomed for years by Burchfield and three Family leaders who introduced Espina to American conservatives, making Espina an ideal ambassador to the U.S. for Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales. As TYT reported, Espina and other Family insiders then helped Morales take down a UN anti-corruption task force before the task force could prosecute him for violating campaign-finance laws.

Related: How The Family Won Guatemala

A spokesperson for Chick-fil-A did not specify when Burchfield’s Guatemala trips began, and declined to answer follow-up questions. Burchfield’s LinkedIn page has been scrubbed of references to The Family, but an archived version of it from last year said that he has been an associate of the International Foundation, The Family’s dba, since 1992, coordinating the National Prayer Breakfast “for Tennessee, West Indies and Latin America.” He has been with Chick-fil-A even longer.

In an email, Chick-fil-A’s spokesperson wrote that Burchfield’s “international travel with Chick-fil-A included work with our coffee farmers in Guatemala,” embedding a link to a company webpage. The spokesperson added that, “Serving people from Guatemala has become a passion for him, which is why he works with the Guatemalan Consulate in Atlanta to help them get documented.”

And Burchfield doesn’t just work with the consulate; after Espina assumed his post as ambassador, Morales made Burchfield honorary consul. The following year, Morales appointed another Family insider as honorary consul: Scott Myers, executive director of the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame. (Neither Burchfield nor Myers responded to requests for comment.)

If Espina had a role in Morales appointing Burchfield and Myers, the Guatemalan government didn’t say so. In a podcast interview last year, Burchfield says that he became friends with eight young Guatemalans, four of whom he says went on to become ambassadors. “One of them,” Burchfield says, “as a gesture of our friendship had me appointed as consul to Guatemala.”

A spokesperson for the State Dept. confirmed Burchfield’s diplomatic status. Burchfield also said in the podcast that Guatemala now has a consular presence in the Johnson City, TN, offices of the Summit Leadership Foundation, an evangelical Christian nonprofit where Burchfield is an advisor. The State Dept. spokesperson declined to confirm whether Guatemala has such a facility there, and referred questions to the Office of Foreign Missions, which did not respond to multiple inquiries.

In a statement, Summit said that Burchfield asked last year to use a room as an honorary consulate and Summit agreed at no cost. Burchfield, the statement said, “has been a longtime friend” of Summit’s president (also a Chick-fil-A alumnus), and Summit’s founder, who went through the John Maxwell Team’s leadership certification program but has no current affiliation there.

The statement said that Summit is supported by “many…regional Chick-fil-A operators” and serves “communities worldwide with the love of Jesus Christ by creating relational hubs” but has “no affiliation or current working relationship with the Fellowship Foundation,” the Family’s legal entity.

The Guatemalan embassy and other government offices did not respond to requests for comment. A Guatemalan government list of honorary consuls, however, includes both Burchfield and Myers.

Last year, Chick-fil-A told TYT it was not involved in the National Prayer Breakfast. However, as TYT reported, multiple Chick-fil-A executives have been invited to the annual event.

In addition, Burchfield and another Chick-fil-A executive were part of the “USA delegation” to Guatemala’s inaugural National Prayer Breakfast, according to disclosure forms filed by the two Republicans who traveled to the event on The Family’s dime. The filing from Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL) lists two meals at which the U.S. delegation met with Guatemalan officials and leaders of Guatemala’s National Prayer Breakfast, but does not identify who was in the U.S. delegation.

The filing of then-Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-IL) names the ten delegation members but does not identify them. Matching the names with details from Family documents and publicly available information, TYT was able to determine that all ten members of the U.S. delegation have ties to The Family or to Chick-fil-A. Aside from Burchfield, Myers, and Reps. Aderholt and Hultgren, the delegation includes two other Family insiders.

One of them is Robert Mayes, CEO of a financial services company called Keel Point, a wealth-management firm based in Aderholt’s home state of Alabama, with an office in Tennessee. According to a source close to The Family, Keel Point’s leadership and clientele include multiple connections to The Family. (Internal documents from the National Prayer Breakfast show that both Mayes and fellow Keel Point executive Dave Parks – a former staffer at the anti-LGBTQ religious organization Young Life – were allowed to submit guest names for the 2016 breakfast in Washington.)

The other Family insider in the U.S. delegation to Guatemala’s first National Prayer Breakfast was former Gov. David Beasley (R-SC). Until Pres. Trump made him head of the UN’s World Food Programme, Beasley was also one of the top Family insiders running the National Prayer Breakfast.

The only other members of the U.S. delegation were Chick-fil-A’s director of corporate communications, Greg Thompson, his wife, and his son, a Wheaton College student at the time who was interning with a lobbyist. According to multiple online bios, Thompson has been a missionary in Guatemala and elsewhere around the world, including work with Samaritan’s Purse. (As TYT previously reported, Samaritan’s Purse is one of the two anti-LGBTQ organizations Franklin Graham has used to fund the National Prayer Breakfast.)

According to one bio, “After 10 years of rejecting God and searching the world for contentment, Greg came to know and follow Jesus Christ in 1983.” Thompson began to focus on sports ministry, the bio says, in 1990, when he joined the board of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA). (Chick-fil-A drew protest for funding the FCA, an anti-LGBTQ organization that has proselytized to student athletes; as TYT reported, MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell began funding the FCA after Family insiders got influence over his charitable operations.)

According to Hultgren’s filing, the Family insiders and Chick-fil-A delegates participated in a two-hour recap of the breakfast with the Guatemala Prospera board, and then another two-hour recap with Hultgren. The Guatemalan participants included five board members from Espina’s group, three of whom would later be given diplomatic postings by Morales.

Aderholt’s itinerary indicates he had a breakfast meeting with Guatemala Prospera and the U.S. delegation. The subject: “future partnership for Guatemala.”

It’s not clear what future their partnership envisioned, or what role was played by Chick-fil-A’s delegates. Both Aderholt and Hultgren have track records with The Family that include Family-sponsored trips to build anti-LGBTQ networks in other countries. As TYT has reported, Aderholt met with anti-LGBTQ leaders in Europe. Hultgren met with Norwegian anti-LGBTQ prayer breakfast organizers. The Family official who signed their Guatemala travel disclosure forms also works for a past Family board member, Ron Cameron, a GOP megadonor who has supported Trump and other Republicans opposed to LGBTQ rights.

After Espina’s first Guatemalan National Prayer Breakfast, The Family ramped up its work with him. Burchfield’s relationship with Espina was part of an informal international portfolio held by Tim and David Coe, sons of Family leader Doug Coe, and their college roommate, Marty Sherman. Referring to Guatemala, the source close to The Family said that, “Tim, David, Marty and Tim Burchfield… they just started going down there quite a bit.”

With The Family’s help cultivating international contacts, Espina and two other Guatemala Prospera board members became ambassadors in a Guatemalan presidential administration that was openly hostile to LGBTQ rights. Morales ran on a platform opposed to same-sex marriage and abortion.

In 2016, Morales’s first year as president, all the Guatemalan invitations (other than pro forma diplomatic ones) to the Washington National Prayer Breakfast were submitted by Burchfield and Myers, according to an internal Family document. The document doesn’t mention Espina, but the source close to The Family says the budding relationship with Espina was driving the invitations. One Guatemalan guest that year told TYT that Guatemala Prospera even picked up the cost of their registration fees.

“The increase in Guatemala [invitations] – and Tim, David, and Marty's involvement in it – it was all connected to Manuel, even if his name wasn't on something,” the source close to The Family said. “So Tim Burchfield wanting to invite 20 people from Guatemala, that was all part of Espina, all of those guys involved in Guatemala… It was all Espina-adjacent even if, at some point, his name wasn't on something.”

Rodrigo Arenas, a self-described “Ronald Reagan type” and college friend of Espina, confirmed the source’s assessment. Arenas says that Espina began taking Guatemalan guests to the National Prayer Breakfast in 2013. Who got to go? “That was his choosing,” Arenas says.

One of the 2016 breakfast co-chairs, Rep. Juan Vargas (D-CA), said in a statement at the time that “leaders from all walks of life” were there. That claim hasn’t been true of other countries, and it wasn’t true of Guatemala, the invitation list shows.

In 2016, for instance, 14 Guatemalans (other than pro forma diplomatic guests) were invited. Only one of those guests was a member of the clergy, but although Guatemala was majority Catholic, its one clerical guest invited to the breakfast was an evangelical megachurch pastor: Carlos “Cash” Luna.

Luna, a Morales ally who teaches that wealth reflects the will of God, has a vivid resume. A 15-year-old girl he claimed to have cured at a 2014 faith-healing rally died before she even left the event. One of Trump’s lawyers represented Luna in a failed lawsuit against Univision, which reported that Luna was backed by drug money. Latin American evangelical pastors who failed to pay into Luna’s ministerial franchise allegedly have a habit of reaching heaven sooner than expected.

Another guest that year was Guatemalan billionaire Mario Lopez, who appears to have been part of Espina’s first breakfast back home (the itinerary included a meeting with Guatemala’s eight billionaires). Also there was Acisclo Valladares, Morales’s future economic minister. (Valladares and Lopez allegedly conspired in an elaborate bribery scheme, and Valladares is now a fugitive from the law.)

Politically, the guest list was more varied. Arenas said Espina invited people from the left and the right, “the whole nine yards.” But at the time, Morales had yet to cross swords with CICIG. Some of Burchfield’s and Myers’s guests in 2016 would soon end up opposing Morales. Attorney General Thelma Aldana sought to prosecute him. Enrique Godoy resigned in protest from the government after Morales went after CICIG’s lead prosecutor. One member of Guatemala’s Congress voiced support for LGBTQ people.

None of those three appear on the 2018 list. By that year, Espina is now listed on the internal Family document as submitting guest names both on his own and with Burchfield. According to the source, “Tim, David, Marty, and Tim Burchfield were very much lobbying to let [Espina] invite a lot of people because they felt like they were really sort of getting something, and started to have some momentum.”

For the 2018 breakfast, Espina submitted at least six names jointly with Burchfield and two on his own. Hultgren was the event’s Republican co-chair.

Now an ambassador, Espina’s guests did not reflect the diversity that The Family claims they bring to the room. The Morales administration only disclosed the attendance of three ministers, and refused to say who was paying for the trips. But Family documents show that all eight of Espina’s guests weren’t just Morales loyalists, they were part of the administration.

Specifically, Espina on his own invited two Morales ministers: Valladares, the one who’s now a fugitive; and Defense Minister Miguel Ralda. Espina’s joint guests with Burchfield were Morales and his wife; press aide Alfredo Brito, who was part of Morales’ 2017 anti-CICIG strategy session; private secretary Andres Castro; Strategic Intelligence Secretary Mario Duarte; and Espina’s boss, Foreign Minister Sandra Jovel, appointed by Morales the same day he first went after CICIG. (A few months after the 2018 National Prayer Breakfast, Jovel would ask Sweden and Venezuela to recall their ambassadors for supporting CICIG.)

And despite Chick-fil-A’s lack of official involvement in the breakfast, Burchfield invited an executive from the fast-food company’s supplier, Thrive Coffee, to the 2016 breakfast. Chick-fil-A first struck its deal with Thrive Coffee in 2014, one year after Burchfield and Thompson joined the “USA delegation” to Guatemala’s first National Prayer Breakfast.

“I recall that Tim was involved in that,” said the source close to The Family. “I don't know if he brokered the [Thrive deal]… I just recall that he had some involvement in that.”

Chick-fil-A’s email to TYT about Burchfield’s “work with our coffee farmers in Guatemala” linked to a company blog about Thrive Coffee, explaining how Thrive eliminates “middlemen,” creating “economic sustainability for farmers.” The site offers statistics reflecting how Guatemalan farmers have benefited from working with Thrive.

But its not clear whether Thrive eliminates middlemen or replaces them. Thrive is not a Guatemalan company. Its founders are Ken Lander and Michael Jones. Both Thrive and Chick-fil-A are based in Georgia. And both are explicitly Christian. The only partners listed on Burchfield’s website for leadership seminars are Thrive, Chick-fil-A, and LifeShape, a charity run by the family of Chick-fil-A’s owners that has funded anti-LGBTQ groups.

In 2018, Thrive and another Chick-fil-A charity teamed up to back summer camps for kids in Costa Rica. The camps would “develop leaders and share key virtues.”

In a promotional interview for Chick-fil-A, Lander explains how the Thrive deal came about: “There was a [Thrive] gift box sent to someone at Chick-fil-A… so it was miraculous.” Lander doesn’t mention Chick-fil-A’s prior participation in the Guatemala prayer breakfast.

Thrive’s Chief Origin Officer is Edgar Cabrera Cozza, of Guatemala, author of the “Choose Life” blog, about “God’s rules for life.” Despite Chick-fil-A’s suggestion that Thrive eliminates middlemen, its chief origin officer appears to be just that, seeking out farmers to buy their coffee. In fact, Cabrera Cozza is reportedly married to a member of Guatemala’s Falla family, the country’s single biggest owner of coffee farms.

Today, Chick-fil-A still offers Thrive Coffee to its customers. Burchfield, however, is no longer active with the National Prayer Breakfast, Chick-fil-A says. And Guatemala has another conservative Christian president, Alejandro Giammattei, also a member of the Falla coffee dynasty.

With additional reporting by TYT News Assistant Zoltan Lucas and a freelance reporter in Guatemala who has asked not to be named out of fear of reprisal.

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

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