On September 1, 2015, the Guatemalan Congress unanimously voted to strip President Otto Pérez Molina of his immunity from prosecution. It was an unprecedented event in the nation’s history. A retired general, Pérez Molina was the first former military officer to lead Guatemala since the end of a long succession of dictatorships in 1986. As news of the vote against him reached the streets, crowds gathered outside the chamber erupted in celebration and set off fireworks. The following day, a judge issued an order for the president’s arrest, and that evening, Pérez Molina submitted his resignation to Congress. Within 24 hours, he was sitting before a judge in connection with a multimillion-dollar customs fraud scheme.
The former president now faces charges of illicit association, customs fraud, and bribery, and has been ordered to remain in the Matamoros military prison while standing trial. Nearly 100 public officials and business people, including former Vice President Roxana Baldetti, cabinet ministers, and government functionaries, have been arrested and put on trial for their alleged involvement in the same criminal network.
The massive scale of the fraud sparked widespread, nonviolent protests larger than any Guatemala has seen in its recent history. For months, thousands of Guatemalans from a diverse cross section of society poured into the streets throughout the country to demand an end to corruption and greater government accountability.
A country mired in poverty and violence carried out one of the most remarkable crusades against corruption in the region’s history. Inspired by its success, citizens in neighboring El Salvador, Honduras, and even Mexico have called for robust anticorruption mechanisms in their own countries. Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras are among the most violent countries in the world, with El Salvador reportedly reaching an unprecedented homicide rate of 104 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2015. Weak justice and security institutions in all three countries render the state unable to address such high levels of crime and violence, allowing corruption and impunity to flourish.