Guatemala's president has been sent to jail amid allegations of massive corruption, flinging the country into uncharted territory as it prepares for Sunday's elections.
- By Louisa ReynoldsLouisa Reynolds is an independent journalist based in Guatemala City.
GUATEMALA CITY — Mid-afternoon on Sept. 1, the crowd of nearly 1,000 protesters gathered outside the Guatemalan Congress erupted into euphoria, as they heard the news they’d been awaiting for months: 132 out of 158 lawmakers had just voted to strip President Otto Pérez Molina of his prosecutorial immunity. This would pave the way for him to face trial for allegedly masterminding “La Linea,” a massive customs fraud network in which corrupt businesses paid bribes in exchange for lower import duties. Pérez Molina and his former vice president, Roxana Baldetti, allegedly received half of the bribes between May 2014 and April 2015 — a total of $3.8 million.
Then, in the early hours of Sept. 3, Pérez Molina succumbed to the mounting pressure and stepped down; hours later, Congress ratified his resignation. By early evening he had been detained, as a judge decided whether to bring corruption charges against him. Outside the courthouse, protestors waved placards with the words: “Guatemalans rule.” In the wake of the president’s resignation, recently appointed Vice President Alejandro Maldonado Aguirre was sworn in and will remain in office until Pérez Molina’s successor takes office.
Up until the moment that Congress stripped him of his immunity, Pérez Molina had appeared confident that he could weather the storm. In late August, two days after prosecutors presented incriminating evidence of his alleged involvement in La Linea, including wiretapped phone conversations in which Pérez Molina could be heard ordering the appointment of key officials involved in the scam, he insisted in a pre-recorded televised address to the nation that he was innocent and would not resign. He also lashed out against the body that uncovered La Linea — the U.N.-supported International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, known by its Spanish acronym CICIG — making underhanded references to “an interventionist strategy that seeks to take political decisions in this country.” Since the La Linea scandal hit the headlines last April, a total of 14 cabinet ministers have resigned, saying they felt “let down” by evidence of Pérez Molina’s involvement in La Linea.
Meanwhile, demonstrations against Pérez Molina surged, but he held fast. On Aug. 27, the day of a massive strike across Guatemala that brought some 100,000 to the streets, he reiterated what he had said in a recent radio interview. “I respect their freedom and their constitutional right to voice their demands. They can ask me to resign, but that’s my decision to make,” he said. Make it, he did.
None of this would have happened without CICIG’s massive investigation into La Linea, which drew on 88,920 wiretap recordings, 5,906 emails, and some 175,000 documents. And CICIG couldn’t have stood up without the help of the United States, which provided nearly $21 million to finance its work — including investigations into the increasing flow of drug money streaming into Guatemala’s party system. According to CICIG, a quarter of the money fueling Guatemalan elections comes from criminal organizations, particularly drug traffickers. CICIG has also implicated Edgar Barquin, the leading vice presidential candidate, in a huge scandal, in which laundered money was diverted to his party’s coffers in the 2011 elections.
During his visit to Guatemala last March, Vice President Joe Biden exerted considerable pressure on the Pérez Molina administration to renew CICIG’s mandate, which was set to expire in September. Biden also promoted an ambitious $1 billion aid package for Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, known as the “Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle,” which includes measures to boost economic growth, employment, access to healthcare and education, and improved security conditions. He argued forcefully that Colombia has been plagued by similar problems, including violence and corruption, but that huge progress has been made to overcome them since a similar initiative, Plan Colombia, was implemented 15 years ago.
Biden also made it clear that allowing CICIG to do its work would be a prerequisite for any such plan. “CICIG’s mandate should be renewed. Of course, this is a sovereign decision, but it must be renewed if anyone expects Congress to join the initiative by pledging millions of dollars. You must commit to cleaning up the system. Impunity is a huge problem in the Northern Triangle, period,” he said, referring to Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.
Rumors that the United States intends to request the extradition of former Vice President Baldetti, who was charged with corruption for her involvement in La Linea on Aug. 25 and was allegedly tied to Marllory Chacón Rossell, Guatemala’s most powerful money launderer, have intensified since she was sentenced by the U.S. District Court of Southern Florida on May 5. Chacón is allegedly cooperating with U.S. authorities by providing key information about the involvement of high-level Guatemalan politicians and members of the business elite, possibly including Baldetti, in exchange for a reduced prison sentence.
In Guatemala, U.S. Ambassador Todd Robinson has voiced support for the anti-corruption protests and proposals to make the electoral system more transparent through tougher sanctions against nepotism and prohibiting mayors and lawmakers from seeking reelection for more than two consecutive terms. On June 1, he announced that in order to support Guatemala’s fight against corruption, officials from the U.S. Department of the Treasury would subject local tax administration officials to polygraph tests.
In the days leading up to Pérez Molina’s resignation and detention, some demonstrators called for the elections to be postponed until a number of pro-transparency measures, including electoral law reforms, are approved. They feared that a new administration led by opposition leader Manuel Baldizón, a right-wing populist who seeks to reintroduce the death penalty in order to tackle soaring crime rates, would be just as corrupt as Pérez Molina’s. Since Baldizón was embroiled in his own scandal last July, his popularity has fallen dramatically. With practically every candidate on the ballot now tainted by corruption allegations, voter discontent is growing by the day, and a record-low turnout is expected for the election. In a recent poll by Prensa Libre, around 18 percent of voters surveyed said they’d vote blank or null.
Now, anything seems possible. The latest poll published by Prensa Libre on Sept. 3 — 48 hours before the elections — showed a surprising result: Comedian Jimmy Morales, of the minuscule National Convergence Front, or FCN, is in the lead, with 25 percent of those surveyed saying they would vote for him. Baldizón follows closely with 22.9 percent, and UNE candidate Sandra Torres, first lady to former president Alvaro Colom, trails in third place with 18.4 percent.
Morales, an eloquent, media-savvy conservative, is a newcomer to the political scene. In recent weeks, his popularity has soared among the urban middle class and is one of the few remaining candidates who have not been tainted by corruption. However, critics point out that most FCN party members are retired army officers. Given that Pérez Molina is a retired army general, they point out that voting for the FCN amounts to choosing more of the same.
U.S. officials have yet to make any statements about Pérez Molina’s resignation and the legal proceedings now underway. According to an AFP story published on Sept. 2, government sources in Washington said that recent political turmoil should not prevent the elections from going forward.
On the streets, people like David Jerez Escobar, an activist from Resistencia Ciudadana, one of the many protest groups, is excited for what’s to come. “It’s a question of reinventing ourselves and finding ways of reaching a consensus. What conservatives are really worried about is that left-wing progressive groups are included in the transitional government,” he told Foreign Policy.
As protesters danced and cheered in Guatemala City’s central square after Pérez Molina inched closer to impeachment, many remarked that his downfall would not mark the end of the demonstrations. The impeachment was “obviously a strategy to divert attention towards Pérez Molina and away from the elections,” says Jerez. “The message was that everything is okay, and the system works. It doesn’t. The struggle continues, and this is just a step.”
Photo credit: Johan Ordonez/AFP