Otto Pérez Molina spends first night out of office in jail (Sept 4, 2015)
Former Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina's fortunes have flipped in a very short space of time: he spent his first night out of office under military custody as hearings proceed against him in a corruption and fraud investigation case.
As that occurred yesterday Guatemala's Congress swore in Vice President Alejandro Maldonado to serve the remainder of Pérez Molina's term, until January. Maldonado vowed to leave "a legacy of honesty" and demanded that ministers and top officials submit their resignations so he could form a transition government, reports the Associated Press.
Maldonado, a conservative former member of Guatemala's top court, asked civil society to help him build a government that could bring together Guatemalans and re-establish trust, reports the Wall Street Journal. His speech was met with thundering applause.
During a break from the court hearings yesterday Pérez Molina told the AP that the process had been "very hard, very difficult," and that he could have derailed the probe but did not. "I had things I could have done," Pérez Molina said, according to AP. "I could have replaced the prosecutor, I could have dug in." Pérez Molina maintains he is innocent of the accusations. (See yesterday's post.)
The decision to jail the now former president -- for his own safety and in order to ensure the continuity of the hearing, according to the judge -- marks a radical change in Guatemalan institutions. The Wall Street Journal noted that it was a "deeply symbolic moment," and "it offered a dramatic validation of a growing street demonstration movement demanding his ouster and prosecution," according to the New York Times.
"For much of Guatemala’s violent history, marked by dictatorship and military repression, such a scene would have been unimaginable: a president forced to resign, then sit in open court to hear charges leveled against him and ultimately spend the night in a prison he once might have overseen as a top general. All that in the course of a single day."
At the Inter-American Dialogue's Latin America Advisor, the Guatemalan ambassador to the U.S., Julio Ligorria says this is just the beginning. "We are starting to see a new trend in Guatemala's justice system that will continue in high-impact cases. But an effort is needed to bring justice to the average citizen. The system will have succeeded only when a campesino can go to a court against those who are powerful and enforce a contract on a level playing field."
But the sudden changes are out of synch with the elections this weekend, notes the NYTimes piece. There has been no serious election reform and most of the candidates are firmly entrenched in the same political system many protesters are rejecting. The piece quotes Eric Olsen from the Wilson Institute who notes that "at their finest moment, Guatemalans are faced with this really difficult choice between candidates who may not lead to the kinds of changes that people have been fighting for."
InSight Crime notes that many of the candidates are dogged by allegations of corruption and criminal ties. The piece profiles the four top candidates and their links to criminal schemes.
Other pieces wonder whether the success of the U.N. backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, which together with Guatemalan prosecutors uncovered this and other corruption scandals that have rocked the political elite in recent months.
The LATimes cites ideas to create similar bodies in Honduras and El Salvador, though experts caution that the CICIG's success took years and required local cooperation and the recent grassroots push to achieve the massive changes of the past weeks.
A body like the CICIG doesn't offer a one-size-fits-all solution, Olsen told the Los Angeles Times. "What happens in Latin American countries confronted by huge problems of crime and violence is that they don't deal with it by enabling the justice system to function appropriately ... They deal with it by focusing on confrontations with criminal groups, prison and incarceration etc., but they never deal with the underlying problem of corruption and weak state institutions, and that's really what's at the heart of it."
Over at InSight Crime, Stephen Dudley analyzes the potential impact of this week's events on Guatemala's "deeply entrenched military criminal networks." Pérez Molina -- a former military general -- built his economic and political power in large part thanks to his connections to the military, explains Dudley. He was also part of the Sindicato "a shadowy network of former and current military personnel that was equal parts criminal facilitator and criminal actor."
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