GUATEMALA CITY – For the fifth consecutive week, protesters gathered in front of the presidential palace on Saturday to demand President Otto Pérez Molina’s resignation after his administration was tainted by yet another corruption scandal.
As has become the custom in the country’s recent wave of anti-corruption protests, demonstrators sang the national anthem and waved homemade placards that read: “It’s Otto’s turn to face trial” and “Give us back what you’ve stolen!”
The protests began after the U.N.-supported International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) revealed, on April 16, that a number of high-level government officials were involved in a massive customs fraud network known as “La Línea” that was allegedly led by former Vice President Roxana Baldetti’s private secretary, Juan Carlos Monzón.
Neither Baldetti’s resignation on May 8 nor Pérez Molina’s recent decision to sack three Cabinet ministers and his head of intelligence in a desperate attempt to clean up his government’s image have managed to placate protesters’ indignation.
Far from dying down, a fresh scandal involving another close ally of President Pérez Molina has fanned the flames of discontent.
The latest protest was spontaneous and was not organized on social media, which explains why it was considerably smaller than the ones held in previous weeks – Prensa Libre newspaper estimated that 200 people attended this impromptu demonstration as opposed to 60,000 on May 16. But although it was small in numbers, those who took to the streets on Saturday were undeterred by the persistent rain and were determined to make their voices heard.
Some donned the stylized Guy Fawkes mask made popular by the Anonymous hacktivist group that has become the symbol of anti-government protesters worldwide.
And in a particularly dramatic gesture, a protester, disguised as Jesus, mock crucified himself in front of the presidential palace. On the cross, he had posted the words CACIF corruptores (CACIF– Guatemala’s influential private sector lobby – you are the bribers), a reference to the fact that a number of businesses bribed the customs officials involved in “La Línea” in order to pay less than the legal tariff on imports.
Although CACIF has sought to distance itself from the Pérez Molina administration by calling for a “national crusade against corruption” many demonstrators have highlighted the fact that the businesses that greased the palms of corrupt officials should also be held accountable.
Another massive demonstration organized on social media is expected to take place on May 30.
A government in disarray
Guatemala’s political crisis deepened last Wednesday when another cohort of government officials including the president of the Guatemalan Social Security Institute (IGSS), Juan de Dios Rodríguez, and the head of the Bank of Guatemala, Julio Roberto Suárez, was arrested on corruption charges involving a $14.5 million dialysis contract.
According to El Periódico newspaper, Rodríguez, a retired army officer, served under the G2 military intelligence unit and was part of a group of officers loyal to Pérez Molina known as “Los Titos” (named after Pérez Molina’s military pseudonym “Tito Arias”). He was allegedly one of the PP’s campaign donors, and in 2012 Pérez Molina made him his private secretary.
A year later, he was appointed IGSS president after Pérez Molina controversially used troops to forcibly remove his predecessor, Luis Reyes Mayén, following his involvement in a sex scandal. Pérez Molina justified Rodríguez’s appointment by describing him as “well qualified” and stating that he had “great trust” in him, words that have come back to haunt him following his arrest on corruption charges.
Among those arrested was Otto Molina Stalling, son of Judge Blanca Aida Stalling Dávila, who is president of the criminal chamber of the Supreme Court.
The Stalling family became embroiled in the “La Línea” scandal after CICIG revealed that key defendants in the case allegedly bribed presiding Judge Marta Josefina Sierra González de Stalling – Stalling Dávila’s sister-in-law – in exchange for obtaining release on bail and unguarded house arrest instead of prison.
Stalling Dávila was also mentioned in wiretap recordings although she insists that the names of the two judges were mixed up and voluntarily agreed to cooperate with investigators in order to clear her name.
A day after the IGSS scandal hit the headlines, Pérez Molina tried to confront the deepening crisis by firing three ministers, a vice minister, his intelligence chief and the Guatemalan consul in Miami.
Those sacked are: Interior Minister Mauricio López Bonilla, a retired lieutenant colonel regarded as Pérez Molina’s right-hand man; Vice Minister for Public Security Edy Juárez Prera; Minister of Energy and Mining Erick Archila Dehesa; Minister for the Environment Michelle Martínez; head of intelligence Ulises Anzueto; and the Guatemalan consul in Miami, Gabriela Aparicio.
López Bonilla, Juárez Prera and Anzueto have been accused of granting inflated contracts for the purchase of police surveillance equipment. Archila Dehesa is accused of granting overpriced contracts for the purchase of electricity generators, and Martínez is accused of spending $17.9 million on an Israeli manufactured disinfectant to clean up Lake Amatitlán without carrying out a mandatory environmental impact study.
Aparicio, a young make-up artist who had a close friendship with former Vice President Roxana Baldetti, had long been derided by the press for lacking the necessary qualifications for the position.
“The president fired ministers involved in dubious public contracts in an attempt to be one step ahead before more scandals are uncovered. It’s a palliative measure but it’s not enough. The protests will continue because he’s regarded as a leader who’s surrounded by corrupt officials,” political scientist José Dávila said.
The current crisis has led to a strong perception that ousting a handful of corrupt officials is a merely cosmetic change and that only a a far-reaching political reform can stamp out a deeply ingrained culture of graft and crookedness.
“We’re riding on the crest of a wave that will bring about change. Ideally we need a new electoral law,” said sociologist Álvaro Velásquez.
The reform would usher in tighter regulations on campaign finance to prevent candidates from being beholden to powerful interest groups and organized crime, measures to punish transfuguismo – or candidates’ habit of repeatedly switching from one party to another – anti-nepotism regulations to prevent parties from becoming dynastic fiefdoms, and a prohibition on the serial re-election of mayors and legislators.
Although there is a growing consensus around the urgent need for a systematic overhaul, securing a reform that requires a congressional majority four months before the general elections will not be an easy task.