Source: Flickr, availableCandidatos via photopin (license)Source: Flickr, availableCandidatos via photopin (license)

Guatemalan president resigns and is arrested within hours; Victory for anti-corruption movement; National elections set for 6 September

In less than 24 hours, General Otto Pérez Molina went from being Guatemala’s president to an inmate in Matamoros prison. His downfall was swift, but followed months of protests from Guatemalans demanding his resignation over his alleged role in a corruption scandal known as ‘La Línea.’

The dramatic turn of events are the result of an investigation conducted by Guatemala’s justice department along with the United Nations International Commission against Impunity (CICIG). Also key to Mr. Pérez Molina’s downfall is the energetic cross-party social movement which for several months has been exerting strong pressure on him to resign.

In April, an internationally backed investigation revealed a corruption scheme worth millions of dollars in which the Guatemalan customs agency offered importers reduced rates in return for generous kickbacks. More than 50 officials were implicated, including Pérez Molina and his former vice-president, Roxana Baldetti.

Baldetti’s capitulation came a couple of months ago as it was revealed that one of her closest aides was the ringmaster of the operation. She resigned in May but only more recently, on 21 August, was she arrested for her role the scam.

Despite weekly public protests to demand his resignation, Pérez Molina firmly denied all corruption charges, and until now, had refused to step down. He was spared from impeachment when a motion in Congress to strip him of his immunity failed to gain the two-thirds majority needed in August.

But the second time round, members of his own party, el Partido Patriota (Patriotic Party- PP) showed him no such loyalty. On Tuesday, Guatemala’s Congress, by a 132-0 vote, voted unanimously to strip the general of his immunity. At midnight on Wednesday, he resigned. And on Thursday, he was arrested by Guatemalan authorities.

Pérez Molina continues to deny the corruption charges as hearings over his alleged role take place.

Former President Otto Pérez Molina. Source: Casa de América, via Flickr

Former President Otto Pérez Molina. Source: Casa de América, via Flickr

Meanwhile, former vice-president Alejandro Maldonado, sworn into office in May, will govern until 14 January.  He has promised transparency and a government of ‘salvation’.

Corruption scandals and the misappropriation of public funds have long plagued Guatemala. In fact, all four presidents to have held held office since the end of the country’s civil war in 1996 have been embroiled in corruption scandals. One, Alfonso Portillo, has even served a jail sentence in the United States for embezzlement. But Pérez Molina is the first to be physically forced out of office.

In an attempt to overcome the country’s history of corruption, a UN-backed commission to investigate high-level crimes was created in 2007. Unsurprisingly, Pérez Molina was never very enthusiastic about the commission but he was forced to renew its mandate for another year in April due to domestic and international pressure.

His demise is a massive victory for the anti-corruption movement in Guatemala and the region. Thousands of Guatemalans, plagued by civil war, violence and poverty, have shown no tolerance for corrupt practices.

But Guatemala’s political future remains uncertain. National elections will be held on 6 September with 14 candidates in the running. Manuel Baldizón of the Renewed Democratic Liberty Party (LIDER) is favourite to win but not before a run-off on 25 October.

In the case of victory, Baldizón will have to keep a clean record and promise a clear break with the past. A failure to do so will see Guatemalans on the streets again.