|Tens of thousands gather in Guatemala's central park to demand an end to impunity |
and corruption. Photo credit: SkyCam Guatemala
A crime ring that defrauded the Guatemalan national tax collection agency (SAT) and customs office, and implicated high-level authorities in different government institutions all the way up to Vice President Roxana Baldetti’s private secretary, was dismantled on April 16th with the arrests of 22 people. Guatemala’s Public Prosecutor’s Office and the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) carried out the joint investigation, which immediately sparked massive and ongoing public protest and political crisis. The VP’s private secretary, Juan Carlos Monzón Rojas, is still at large.
While the investigation into the criminal network known as “La Linea”, has yet to explicitly name Vice President Baldetti, suspicions of her involvement in criminal activity were immediately raised after the arrest warrant for Monzón was issued while he was traveling with the VP in South Korea. Baldetti lied publically about her return to Guatemala from said trip and Monzón has been on the run ever since. On May 8th, after popular protests the size of which had not been seen in recent Guatemalan history and pressure from the powerful economic sector CACIF, Vice President Baldetti resigned. With resignation also comes the end of immunity for Baldetti, opening the doors to a full investigation into her involvement in the corruption case.
The layers of corruption exposed by this investigation continue to unfold and have resulted in the arrest of three lawyers representing members of “La Linea” who are accused of influencing judicial authorities in order to guarantee impunity for their clients. For more information and analysis, see InSight Crime article “Guatemala Corruption Scandal Leads Investigators to Judicial Corruption” or from The Guardian, “Guatemala on brink of crisis after vice-president falls to corruption scandal”.
Reverberations of the “La Linea” corruption scandal have also been felt in other cases, including the April 30th request by the CICIG and Guatemalan Public Prosecutor’s office to withdraw Judge Carol Patricia Flores’ immunity from prosecution. Flores, whose rulings led to the current quagmire of Guatemala’s genocide case against Efraín Ríos Montt and José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, is being investigated for money laundering, illicit enrichment and other crimes. Also caught up in the fallout of the current political crisis is head of the Ministry of Energy and Mines, Erick Archila, who resigned on May 15th. Archila is facing allegations of corruption, money laundering and anomalies in the granting of government contracts and is under investigation for his handling of contracts for the proposed Xalalá dam project.
Guatemala's new Vice President: An old face from the extreme right
A little over a month after the scandal broke, Guatemala now has a new Vice President. President Pérez Molina, tasked with submitting a slate of three candidates to Congress, struggled to put together his list after two proposed candidates withdrew. In the end, Héctor Alejandro Baltazar Maldonado Aguirre was the last candidate to be added to the list and was approved by Congress. Maldonado Aguirre is not a new figure in Guatemalan politics, rather has a long history of representing the extreme right – a founder of the Movimiento de Liberación Nacional or the National Liberation Movement (MLN), a political party known for promoting organized violence and death squadrons during the 1960s-70s.
From there, Maldonado Aguirre went on to serve as the Guatemalan representative to the United Nations during the military government of Romeo Lucas García during which time the Guatemalan government worked hard to convince the international community that it was not participating in massive human rights violations. Maldonado Aguirre was later the Minister of Education during the military government of Carlos Arana Osorio and ran for president in 1982 as a candidate for the National Renewal Party, a slightly less extreme version of the MLN. He was finally elected as a member of the Constitutional Court in 1986-1991, returning again to the position in 2006 and reelected to the Court by Congress once more in 2011.
According to Gustavo Illescas of Guatemalan Independent Media (CMI-G), “Thanks to his discursive capacity to present the ideas of the extreme right in a moderate way, Maldonado Aguirre has been called upon in various moments of his life to deflect the tensions that have been provoked by the violent actions of the State and during the political crises that develop as a result.”
In Guatemala, these violent actions and political crises have often revolved around crimes committed during the internal armed conflict and the unwavering effort to bring those responsible to justice. Examples of Maldonado Aguirre's role as a “Fire extinguisher of Justice” are outlined in an article by CMI-G and include: delaying investigations for one year in the case for the 1998 murder of Archbishop Gerardi in order to protect Byron Lima Oliva, a member of the Presidential General Staff (EMP, Estado Mayor Presidential) and authoring the judicial resolution that allowed former General Efraín Ríos Montt to avoid extradition to Spain where he would have been tried for genocide and terrorism.
After being reelected to the Constitutional Court again in 2011, Maldonado Aguirre played a key role in yet three more extremely controversial decisions, decisions that have had very real consequences on access to justice and the future of judicial independence in the country. First, voting to annul the historic genocide sentence in May 2013 and one year later, voting for the early removal of Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz from her position. Finally in November 2014, Maldonado Aguirre voted to approve a judicial nomination process that was plagued with anomalies, in which both the CICIG and the US Embassy expressed serious concern about the trafficking of influences and the impartiality of the process.
“Maldonado resolves crisis for the right. This is his trump card. In order to have been chosen [as Vice President] he had to have the approval of the US Embassy and of CACIF, and even though it means conservative groups are left without an important player inside the Constitutional Court, he will play an important role in the coming months of this crisis. It is doubtful, however, that this decision will be enough to deflate the protests programmed in various parts of the country for Saturday the 16th or to diminish the feeling of indignation that is blooming toward #OtraGuatemalaYa - #AnotherGuatemalaNow.” Gustavo Illescas, CMI-G.
A new Guatemalan Spring?
The series of protests sparked by the corruption scandal have been a spontaneous and massive expression of frustration in the capital and other parts of the country. Prior to the #RenunciaYa (Resignation Now) protests, the largest scale protests in recent years have been undertaken by indigenous and campesino groups and have lacked participation from the urban population. The first protest on April 25th took place in Guatemala City immediately following the announcement of the “La Linea” arrests, and it was estimated that between 15-25,000 people participated. This action was quickly followed by #RenunciaYa demands added to the traditional May Day marches, with another protest following on May 2nd.
Sundown approaching and #Guatemala #RenunciaYa protestors continue to arrive pic.twitter.com/JeH4KG8h2e— NISGUA (@NISGUA_Guate) May 16, 2015
The protest on Saturday, May 16th, was the largest popular protest in recent Guatemala history, with estimates ranging between 30-50,000 people in the capital alone. Protests also took place in at least 15 other Guatemalan cities, with reports of numerous international protests by the Guatemalan diaspora. These leaderless, popular protests have been compared to those of the “Guatemalan Spring”; massive popular mobilizations that took place during the resignations of military dictator Jorge Ubico and the subsequent de facto military government, and led to Guatemala’s first democratically elected governments of Juan José Arevalo and Jacobo Guzman Arbenz.
It remains to be seen where the current wave of mobilization will land given the diversity of participation and demands, which range from accountability for corruption to total transformation of the political system of the country. What we know is that for the first in recent history, a wide swath of sectors that include business, academic and student, indigenous and campesino, human rights groups, as well as unaffiliated urban youth and citizenry, have come together to express outrage and desire for change. With information from Gustavo Illescas and Guatemala Independent Media (CMI-G)
Click here for more photos or here for a video from the May 16th protest.
UPDATES:May 20: Former private secretary to President Molina arrested in separate corruption scandal
In another joint CICIG/Public Prosecutor corruption investigation unveiled another scandal involving the national health system (IGSS in Spanish). So far, 17 high level functionaries, including the President of IGSS Juan de Dios Rodríguez, have been arrested. Rodríguez was Otto Peréz Molina's private secretary until the President nominated him to the IGSS position in 2013.
Also arrested was the President of Guatemala's National Bank, Julio Roberto Suárez Guerra. Those implicated are believed to have defrauded the national health system of 116 million Quetzals, or roughly 15 million dollars through the granting of illegal contracts for treatments related to liver failure. The fraud ring is accused of negligence in the death of at least seven patients, according to complaints filed by Guatemala's Human Rights Ombudsman.
May 21: Minister of the Interior, Mauricio López Bonilla resigns
One of President Otto Peréz Molina's most trusted cabinet members, Minister of the Interior, Mauricio López Bonilla, resigned this morning. Four additional members of the President's cabinet have also resigned, including Vice Minister of the Interior, Edy Juárez; the Minister of the Environment, Michelle Martínez; and the head of the Strategic Intelligence office, Ulises Anzueto (previously Peréz Molina's Minister of Defense), and the recently named Minister of Energy and Mines.
Bonilla, unike President Molina, has not been the specific target of calls for resignation, nor has he been so far connected to the numerous corruption scandals uncovered by the joint CICIG/Public Prosecutor investigations. His abrupt departure raises questions about the reasons behind the decision and what his future role may be in an increasingly uncertain political context moving toward national elections later this year.