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The 2nd of September 2015 will be remembered throughout Guatemala as an historic victory for the Guatemalan people in their struggle to end corruption, impunity and injustice. At 7pm on that day, Guatemala’s President, Otto Perez Molina, officially handed in his resignation to the Guatemalan congress.
Molina had become embroiled in a corruption scandal called La Linea, whereby the Guatemalan customs agency was found to be offering importers greatly reduced tariffs in exchange for kickbacks that were shared among dozens of government officials.
Ten days before resigning, Molina delivered a televised address to declare his innocence, but he could not have foreseen the public’s reaction or moves by the Attorney General to accelerate judicial proceedings against him.
On Thursday, 27th August, the capital came to a standstill as businesses, universities, schools and public ministries shut down and over 100,000 people gathered in Guatemala City’s central square, as well as in rural areas, to demand Molina’s resignation.
Protests continued on an almost daily basis and on Tuesday, 1st September, the Guatemalan Congress voted to strip Molina of his presidential immunity, paving the way to bring charges against him.
On Wednesday 2nd September, the Attorney General’s office issued a warrant for his arrest. With no other option, he delivered his resignation.
Guatemalan’s celebrating Otto Perez Molina’s Resignation. Photo: Jorge Campo
Otto Perez Molina came to power in January 2012. His appointment was controversial from the beginning. A retired army general, he promised to tackle insecurity, crime and rising levels of violence with an iron fist. While this promise may have convinced the urban middle classes and the elite, Guatemalan’s indigenous people had not forgotten his involvement in massacres against indigenous communities during Guatemala’s 36-year conflict.
Guatemala was the scene of one of the most violent civil wars in Latin America’s history between 1960 and 1996. Over 200,000 people were murdered and one million displaced, most of them indigenous people. 70 percent of these murders took place in the early 1980s.
During the war, Molina formed part of the Guatemalan ‘Kaibiles’, an elite army squad trained to carry out special operations and intelligence gathering. He was Commander of the military base in Nebaj, Quiche, between April 1982 and May 1983, when atrocities were carried out against the Ixil people under the Presidency of General Ríos Montt.
In 2013, Montt became the first Head of State to be tried for genocide in a national court. He was found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity and sentenced to 80 years in prison. The sentence was later overturned and a retrial is expected.
In the four years of Molina’s Presidency, violent crime and homicide rates have increased with a reported 21,203 violent deaths over the course of his mandate. He has used military operations against poor farming communities resisting extractive projects on their land such as mining and large African Palm plantations. In 2012, his government was responsible for the massacre of unarmed indigenous rights protesters in Totonicapan, leaving six dead and 38 injured.
Protesting corruption in Guatemala. Photo: Jorge Campo
The Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, which is supported by Trócaire, registered 2014 as the most violent year for human rights defenders since the signing of the peace accords, with over 813 registered attacks, more than double that registered in 2012.
Molina’s government also took steps to weaken an already fragile justice system. He appointed judges that were favourable to his government and orchestrated the early dismissal of Claudia Paz y Paz, the former Attorney General responsible for bringing the case against Ríos Montt to trial.
Molina’s downfall is the greatest political crisis the country has faced in over 20 years, with the legitimacy of the entire political and electoral system being called into question. In addition to the La Linea case, another corruption scandal reared its head in the Guatemalan Institute of Social Security, where funds were illicitly diverted from essential public services into the bank accounts of politicians and public officials.
Former Vice President, Roxana Baldetti, was arrested in late August on charges relating to ‘La Linea’ and has been remanded in custody at a local women’s prison to await trial. Many other politicians and public official are pending investigation or have already been arrested.
The protests in Guatemala against corruption and the decisive legal action taken have set an historic precedent for tackling impunity throughout Central and South America.
Guatemalan organisations funded by Trócaire have been working for years to address injustice, corruption and impunity in the country, monitoring government policies and expenditure and advocating for more responsible governance. This work is bearing fruit.
One of the biggest tasks for the future government of Guatemala will be to work towards a more equal future by tackling discrimination and exclusion. Recent developments have sparked a new hope in the struggle to defend human rights and promote democracy.