Santa Cruz del Quiche – Thousands took to the streets in several major cities and small towns in Guatemala on Thursday, demanding the resignation of dozens of legislators and officials, including President Jimmy Morales.
The protests were prompted by Morales’s decision last month to not renew the UN-backed International Commission Against Impunity’s (CICIG) mandate, which is set to expire in September 2019. He also barred CICIG’s head commissioner from re-entering Guatemala.
“We’re tired of so much corruption,” Luz Emilia Ulario told Al Jazeera, who marched with about 1,000 others in Santa Cruz del Quiche, 129km northwest of Guatemala City.
“We’re here protesting the injustices the government commits against the people,” said Ulario, who is part a community development organisation in the Quiche department. “The president of the republic has never been on the side of the people. He’s always defending the country’s oligarchy.”
Government defies court ruling
For more than a decade, CICIG has helped bring down high-profile officials for corruption. Under the tenure of head commissioner Ivan Velasquez, the commission has helped Guatemalan prosecutors investigate and prosecute dozens of judges, executives and officials, including former president Otto Perez Molina.
Elected in 2015, President Morales initially supported CICIG, but soon became the subject of investigations into illegal campaign financing. He has denied wrongdoing. Morales’s party and relatives have also come under fire for alleged corruption.
Morales’s decision to end the work of CICIG and ban Velasquez from the country set off a flurry of protests and legal challenges. Last week, the Constitutional Court issued an injunction against the ban of Velasquez, ordering Morales to permit the commissioner back into the country.
The government responded by saying the ruling did not apply to Velasquez because he was not specifically named in the ruling. It gave the UN 48 hours to suggest a replacement.
On Wednesday, the UN said Velasquez will stay on as commissioner. The Constitutional Court also clarified its ruling to specifically name Velasquez and order Morales to abstain from making statements and taking out measures against the commissioner.
‘Attack on the democracy’
Thursday’s protests were organised in small towns, as well as urban centres, including in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala’s second-largest city where civic groups organised marches through the city.
Parts of the largely indigenous highland department of Quiche were shut down due to Thursday’s actions.
“The people of Guatemala are demanding that Morales submits himself to the law and that he not end CICIG’s presence in the country,” Miguel de Leon, the indigenous mayor of Nebaj, Quiche and member of the traditional Ixil Maya Ancestral Authorities, told Al Jazeera.
De Leon and other residents Nebaj blocked the highway that passes through their region as part of the actions against Morales. Neighbouring communities established similar roadblocks across the northern regions of the department.
“We utterly reject the actions the government is taking,” de Leon told Al Jazeera. “Their actions are an attack on the democracy that they claim to protect. The government itself is causing the destabilisation that they speak of.”
University students were also among the groups who organised the protests.
In Guatemala City, AEU, the student association of the University of San Carlos of Guatemala (USAC), initially called a march, but the university governing council and student groups from other universities are now backing the action.
AEU president Lenina Garcia told Al Jazeera that the support of the USAC governing council is an important development, as is the unity among students, workers and faculty across universities in the face of the president’s refusal to respect the Constitutional Court ruling and UN agreement.
“We think we’re already experiencing a coup d’etat,” she said, from Guatemala City.
Thursday’s national day of protest is in preparation for a nationwide shutdown, Garcia added.
“We’re committed to continue making statements and organising actions until the rule of law and human rights are restored in the country.”