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Guatemalans protest attempts to overturn the results of presidential election

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're back in this hemisphere now. For just over a week now, roads across Guatemala have been blocked to protest what demonstrators say is an attempt to overturn the results of the recent presidential election. The protest kicked off after the attorney general's office raided the country's electoral commission. They tore into election materials and forcefully took boxes from the hands of election commissioners. Since then, tens of thousands of Guatemalans have taken to the streets. NPR's Eyder Peralta has this report.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Speaking Spanish).

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Just 22 miles outside of the capital, the Inter-American Highway is blocked by a few dozen people. They've thrown tires on the ground. Out with the corrupt, they chant. If the people don't have peace, a sign reads, the damn government won't, either.

PRUDENCIA MACHAN AZURDIA: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: Prudencia Machan Azurdia is in her 70s. She says her heart was moved. Bernardo Arevalo, an anti-corruption crusader, won the presidential race by a landslide, she says, and she's here to defend her vote. Then, unexpectedly, she turns to something closer to her heart.

AZURDIA: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: Azurdia says her daughter went missing during the Civil War in the 1980s. Like many other Indigenous people here, she's never found a body, never found confirmation that she was killed.

AZURDIA: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "We're here fighting, demanding that they at least give us the bones." And maybe, she says, the president she voted for can do that.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Singing in Spanish).

PERALTA: We traveled through dozens of roadblocks. What we found was that a country that had descended into cynicism and apathy the past few years had suddenly found its voice. Back in August, Arevalo have surprised everyone by winning the presidential race. And suddenly, a huge swath of Guatemala has found reason to hope. Maybe, they say, Arevalo could finally bring equity. Maybe he could fix an education system that leaves so many illiterate. Maybe, they hope, he could kick-start an end to endemic corruption.

(CROSSTALK)

PERALTA: Across the roadblocks, the hope of every Guatemalan is projected onto the president-elect. We see people dancing. We see them sharing food. One huge intersection is blocked by Indigenous shamans performing a blessing ceremony.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: The shamans have started a huge fire here in the middle.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: And they're praying for end to the violence, they say, an end to the killings.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: They're praying for this protest movement to be successful.

AMILCAR DE LEON QUECHE: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "We did not want this fight," says protester Amilcar de Leon Queche. But there's a reason. In Guatemala, he says roads get built with public money, and just months later, they fall apart. Hospitals are lacking supplies because politicians steal the money. He says the last straw was when he saw investigators forcefully make their way into the electoral commission.

QUECHE: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "We're sick of their abusiveness," he says. "We're sick of them stepping on our dignity. We're sick of them stepping on our votes."

QUECHE: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "Let's fight today," he says, "so we don't have to fight tomorrow." The organizers of the strike say they will not lift the roadblocks until the attorney general has stepped down. And beginning today, the plan is to paralyze the capital. Eyder Peralta, NPR News, on the road across the highlands of Guatemala.

(SOUNDBITE OF NORTH AMERICANS' "CUTTY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.