A new era of accountability appears to have dawned in Guatemala. Faced with massive protests and overwhelming public outrage over his alleged involvement in a major corruption scheme, former President Otto Pérez Molina has resigned from office. President-elect Jimmy Morales, who was elected on October 25, is now under pressure to respond to citizen’s demands to advance anti-corruption measures and much needed political and institutional reforms.
As WOLA Senior Associate Adriana Beltrán notes, these events are a major sign of progress in the country. “This is a triumph of hope, of new possibilities created by those who are working for a different Guatemala. This is proof that justice and the rule of law can prevail, even against corruption at the highest levels of government,” said Beltrán.
For Beltrán, the development also has important implications for Guatemala’s neighbors. “Central America has been mired in corruption and a lack of accountability. The clear lesson of this moment is ‘si se puede, it can be done’. Those living in the region can not only envision a better future; they can make it happen peacefully,” Beltrán added.
For more on the unfolding situation in Guatemala, see the list of frequently asked questions below:
1. What led Otto Perez Molina to resign?
In April, the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala, CICIG) and the Guatemalan Public Prosecutor’s Office unearthed a massive multimillion-dollar corruption scheme that reached the highest levels of government. The criminal network, dubbed La Linea (“The Line”) by investigators, involved a longstanding arrangement in which officials charged importers bribes in exchange for lower import taxes. More than a dozen officials have been arrested for their involvement in the case, which prosecutors say extends all the way to the office of the president. Several officials in his cabinet have resigned in protest, and Vice President Roxana Baldetti has been arrested for her alleged role in the scheme.
For months, thousands of Guatemalans have been peacefully protesting, demanding accountability for corruption and sending a strong message that impunity will no longer be tolerated.
Perez Molina submitted his resignation in the early morning hours of September 3 after a judge issued an order for him to appear in court for his alleged involvement in La Linea. This comes after the Guatemalan Supreme Court ruled in favor of allowing impeachment proceedings, and a five-member commission appointed by Congress recommended stripping Perez Molina of his immunity. Congress then voted unanimously to support this recommendation, with all 132 members present voting in favor of opening up an investigation against the president.
After his resignation, Perez Molina’s duties will now fall to Vice President Alejandro Maldonado.
2. Why is the recent wave of protests in Guatemala so significant?
None of this would have been possible without the advocacy of civil society groups and the massive, peaceful protests that have occurred since “La Linea” was uncovered. The scandal triggered widespread public protests larger than Guatemala has experienced in recent history. They brought together tens of thousands of Guatemalans of different socioeconomic, political and class lines to demand an end to corruption, an overhaul of the political system, and the resignation of President Pérez Molina.
Guatemalans around the country participated in a general strike on August 27, with universities, schools, businesses, unions, indigenous groups, and social movements all joining the protests. According to local media reports, an estimated 100,000 Guatemalans gathered in the capital’s central plaza. Protests took place in over 140 municipalities across the country.
These mobilizations paved the way for leading societal institutions and governmental offices to support Perez Molina’s resignation. The Comptroller General’s Office, the national Prosecutor General, various business and trade groups, the National Council of Bishops, and eventually the Congress itself joined the call for the president’s resignation in the wake of the protests. This is a sign of hope that profound change can be possible in Guatemala.
3. What’s next for Guatemala?
The final round of presidential elections were held on October 25. The victor of the race, Jimmy Morales, will take office in January.
Meanwhile, there is growing consensus around the need for greater accountability. A number of leading groups in civil society, government, and the private sector have voiced support for a concrete reform agenda, and the coming months will see a significant push for anti-corruption legislation.
4. What is the CICIG? What is its mandate?
As WOLA has noted in an in-depth report on the Commission’s work, the CICIG was created in 2007 by an agreement between the United Nations and the Guatemalan government. It seeks to support Guatemalan institutions in investigating, prosecuting, and ultimately dismantling the networks of criminality and corruption deeply embedded in the country’s institutions. To do so, the CICIG was endowed with the ability to investigate a small number of complex cases and to bring criminal charges as a complementary prosecutor in local courts. It also has the power to propose public policies, including legislative, judicial and institutional reforms, and to request disciplinary procedures against any public official that fails to cooperate or obstructs the CICIG’s work. In contrast to other mechanisms of international cooperation for strengthening the rule of law, the CICIG is an independent investigative entity that operates under Guatemalan law and works alongside the Guatemalan justice system. As a result, it works hand-in-hand with the country’s judiciary and security institutions, building their capacities in the process. The Commission is supported exclusively by the voluntary contributions of the international community.
5. In addition to the current investigations, what other accomplishments has the CICIG achieved in the fight against corruption and impunity?
The Commission has helped launch over 200 investigations involving more than 30 criminal structures and hundreds of government officials in its eight years of existence. Among its achievements are the convictions of a former president, several ministers and other high-level government officials, and the removal of public officials who had been colluding with criminal and corrupt organizations. The CICIG has also strengthened the investigative capacity of the Public Prosecutor’s Office by helping to establish a special investigations unit, a criminal analysis unit, and a witness protection program. It has also proposed a series of legal reforms and equipped the country with modern crime-fighting techniques, including the use of supervised wiretapping capabilities and the creation of special courts to try complex cases.
6. Has the model of the CICIG been replicated anywhere else in the world?
The CICIG is a mechanism of international cooperation without precedent anywhere in the world. Beyond Guatemala’s borders, the CICIG offers a model mechanism of international support to strengthen the rule of law in countries fraught with high levels of criminal violence, as well as weak and often corrupt security and judicial institutions. In Honduras, revelations of massive corruption scandals have driven thousands of Hondurans to the streets to peacefully demand an end to corruption and the creation of a CICIG-like body. In El Salvador, past administrations have floated the idea of establishing a similar mechanism.