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Is the end in sight for corruption in Guatemala?

Guatemala
Social Change
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On 27 August, thousands gathered on the streets of Guatemala City to march against President Otto Perez Molina. © Jorge Luis García Cardona

In December 2009, I was in Honduras for the general elections. Four months after the coup d’état that ushered President Manuel Zelaya out of the country in his pyjamas, many Hondurans were adamant: conditions did not exist in Honduras to elect a new president.

None of the candidates, they argued, represented the people. Voting in sham elections would validate the military intervention that ousted a president who was starting to work for the people.

Cross the border and fast-forward 6 years to this month’s general election in Guatemala. Despite widespread calls to abandon voting stations, elections have gone ahead. Just days earlier, Otto Perez Molina had stepped down as president after his political immunity was stripped by Congress.

A former military general, Perez Molina has been implicated in a customs fraud, in which he and others within his closest circle, including then Vice-President Roxana Baldetti, pocketed 2.3 million Guatemalan quetzales ($300,000) in a 2-week period; add that up over years and the total is overwhelming.

Many argue that the tens of millions of dollars in customs taxes that were pocketed by Perez Molina could have been used to fund Guatemala’s underfunded public healthcare system or rural schools that have been left abandoned.

Guatemala has long been criticized as a haven for impunity and corruption. After much debate, in December 2006 the Guatemalan government signed an agreement to allow for the UN-mandated International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) to open an office in the country.

Tasked to investigate emblematic cases and clandestine and illegal security groups, CICIG works as an independent international organism to support the Guatemalan Public Prosecutor’s Office and National Civil Police. It’s the only body of its kind in the world – that’s how serious the situation of impunity is in Guatemala.

In April 2015, CICIG and the Guatemalan Public Prosecutor’s Office broke the customs fraud ring, known as La Linea, and charged Juan Carlos Monzon, Private Secretary of the Vice-President. Other names were given. An outburst of national indignation led to impromptu marches and the hashtag #RenunciaYa (#ResignNow) was born. Three weeks later, on 8 May, Vice-President Roxana Baldetti resigned.

In the months that followed, more Guatemalans joined the call for President Molina to resign. More than a dozen ministers, vice-ministers and functionaries within the Perez Molina administration stepped down, and more arrests were made.

In late August, Baldetti was charged with customs fraud, conspiracy and bribery. At her arraignment hearing, the criminal structure of La Linea was uncovered. Perez Molina, who was referred to as ‘Number 1’ and ‘Head Honcho’ in the wiretap evidence presented by CICIG, was also named.

Days later through a televised address, Perez Molina blamed the international community for meddling in Guatemala’s affairs and refused to step down. Two days later, the Constitutional Court accepted a request to take away Perez Molina’s political immunity, which Congress approved through a vote.

Moving quickly, the Public Prosecutor’s Office issued an arrest for Perez Molina’s involvement in La Linea. An hour later, the President stepped down; 7 hours later, he was in a court room.

Over the course of two days, 77 different wire-taps were presented, along with text messages and photos incriminating Perez Molina and the criminal structure of La Linea. Evidence suggests that corruption and fraud within the national tax office has existed for years, but Perez Molina and Baldetti, along with Juan Carlos Monzon (who is still at large), worked to streamline the criminal activity and pocket the money.

On Friday 5 September, a Guatemalan judge ordered Perez Molina to spend the weekend in a preventative jail until he makes a decision on whether or not there is enough evidence to warrant further investigation and a trial. 

When Perez Molina stepped down, Vice-President Alejandro Maldonado Aguirre stepped in.

Maldonado Aguirre was only named vice-president after Baldetti stepped down in May. He will now remain President until 14 January 2016, when the new president is sworn in.

On Sunday 6 September Guatemalans were out on the streets to elect that new president. Though there was a national call to shun the vote because the conditions didn’t exist for elections, reports suggest a 50% turnout of registered voters. This number is down significantly from 70% 4 years ago.

Do the conditions exist for a new president to be elected in Guatemala? If Perez Molina’s case shows us anything, it’s that Guatemala is just beginning to unearth the truth.

Known as Tito Arias during his time in the Guatemalan military, Perez Molina has been accused by human rights and justice groups of ordering massacres of Maya Ixil villagers in the 1980s, at the height of Guatemala’s internal armed conflict.

At the 2013 Genocide Trial against ex-dictator and de facto President Efrain Rios Montt, Perez Molina was implicated by a former soldier for his involvement in perpetrating the violence.

Perez Molina has not been charged for these crimes, though now, without political immunity, the thought is certainly being bounced around. Will it be a while yet before impunity no longer reigns in Guatemala? Some say the time for justice has finally come.

Jackie McVicar has been living and working between Guatemala and Canada for the past 11 years. She is co-coordinator of the Maritimes-Guatemala Breaking the Silence Network and is watching Guatemala’s general election unfold from her cabin in Tatamagouche, Nova Scotia.

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