An end to impunity in Guatemala?

The law has always been used to protect the powerful in Guatemala.

Demonstration demanding the resignation of Guatemalan President Otto Perez [AFP]
Demonstration demanding the resignation of Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina [AFP]

When retired general Otto Perez Molina was elected president of Guatemala, many feared that progress in the fight against impunity stemming from the country’s 30-year civil war and from organised crime that has plagued the post-war era, would suffer under this former general’s administration.

Nearly four years later, Perez’s actions and those of his closest confidants have confirmed our worst suspicions. Perez and his allies have undermined the struggle for transitional justice and have proven to be as corrupt, if not more so, than previous administrations. Two recent corruption scandals involving Perez’s administration have outraged the Guatemalan people and led to demands for his resignation.

Guatemala protests continue over government corruption

An estimated 200,000-250,000 Guatemalans were killed or disappeared between 1960 and 1996. The vast majority of victims were civilians of the country’s indigenous populations. They were killed, often in the most brutal of ways, by the government’s security forces.

Efforts to prosecute

A United Nations Commission found the Guatemalan state responsible for 93 percent of all human rights violations, including acts of genocide between 1981 and 1983.

While efforts to prosecute former military officials accused of crimes against humanity and war crimes continued under Perez’s administration, hidden powers stymied efforts to hold former dictator Efrain Rios Montt accountable for overseeing genocide.  

Ten days after a national court found Rios Montt guilty on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity in April 2013, the Constitutional Court (CC) annulled the verdict over a questionable technicality committed by the panel of trial judges. Since that verdict, the four-year term of Guatemala’s well-respected attorney general, Claudia Paz y Paz, was terminated prematurely following another CC decision, while the lead judge who oversaw the historic verdict, Yassmin Barrios, was reassigned to low impact cases.

The United States and the international community should join in solidarity with those Guatemalans who are demanding effective citizenship.


Perez and his Patriotic Party (PP) and the main opposition party then engaged in shenanigans to ensure that the new Supreme Court and appeals court magistrates would respond to their narrow interests.

In the months following the trial, Perez made it clear that he had no intention of renewing the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala’s (CICIG) mandate. CICIG is a unique initiative established by the Guatemalan government and the international community that has been widely credited with improving the country’s judicial environment.

However, in April, CICIG and the Public Prosecutor’s Office arrested two dozen individuals, including the country’s current and former tax chiefs, for soliciting bribes and kickbacks from various businesses in exchange for charging them less than the legally established tariffs on imports.

Public outrage

Several suspects were linked to Perez’s PP, including the private secretary to Vice President Roxana Baldetti, who allegedly headed the criminal network. Public outrage over the scandal forced Perez to reluctantly accept an extension of CICIG’s mandate. Baldetti has since resigned under public pressure and threat of impeachment.

Weeks later, the Public Prosecutor’s Office and CICIG arrested the presidents of the Social Security Institute (a close confidant of Perez) and Central Bank for fraudulently awarding a $15m contract to a Mexican company to provide dialysis treatment and medicine to kidney patients. At least 13 Guatemalans died as a result of the fraud.

Perez’s damage control included accepting the resignations of his interior, environment, and energy and mines’ ministers, as well as the state intelligence secretary, under clouds of suspicion related to separate scandals. Reading the writing on the wall, the PP’s candidate for the September presidential elections, as well as dozens of mayors and congressmen, resigned from the party.

Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina [AFP]
Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina [AFP]

Guatemalans demands 

However, Guatemalans are demanding more than a few resignations. For the past nine Saturdays, thousands of Guatemalans from diverse backgrounds have occupied Central Park demanding the president’s resignation and an end to systemic corruption. They are calling for another major protest on July 4. Unfortunately, no one really knows how this is going to end.

The Supreme Court recently gave Congress the authority to investigate Perez for his connection to the two corruption scandals. Ironically, the head of the commission responsible for investigating Perez resigned amid accusations of corruption by the Public Prosecutor’s Office and CICIG in a separate social security fraud. The CC then suspended the investigation into the president because they ruled that there had been a procedural error. The law has always been used to protect the powerful in Guatemala.

The United States and the international community should join in solidarity with those Guatemalans who are demanding effective citizenship. While the international community has to be careful about encouraging Perez’s resignation (or intervening any more than they already are in Guatemala), it should support CICIG and the Public Prosecutor’s Office’s investigation into any connection Perez might have had to these and other frauds, as well as illegal efforts to shield the president from prosecution.

They are doing disservice to the rule of law if they are simply deferring a decision on Perez until he leaves office in January.   

Mike Allison is associate professor and chair of political science as well as coordinator of Education for Justice at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania and maintains the Central American Politics blog

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.