Just days after jubilantly celebrating the resignation and arrest of its former president, retired general Otto Perez Molina, approximately 70 percent of Guatemala’s registered voters participated in Sunday’s regularly scheduled national elections. They did so with an understanding that the top three contenders for the presidency and their political parties represent more of the same—corruption and ties to shadowy former military officials—and that their struggle to turn a new page in the country’s history will need to continue when new political officials take office in January. Final votes are still being counted. As of right now, however, Jimmy Morales of the National Convergence Front (FCN) will advance to an October runoff against either Manuel Baldizon, representing the Renewed Democratic Liberty (LIDER) party or Sandra Torres, of the National Union of Hope (UNE) party, who remain separated by less than 2,000 votes.
For the last six months, Guatemalans have taken to the streets in protest against a corrupt political class. The country’s political elites had been exposed by investigations launched by the public prosecutor’s office and the innovative United Nations-sponsored International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), confirming the worst of what Guatemalans already suspected. The investigations led to the discovery of a multi-million dollar customs fraud allegedly involving over two dozen officials, including the vice president and president. Perez, former vice president Roxana Baldetti, lawyers, former military officials, and former and current government officials are alleged to have benefited from a network to defraud the Guatemalan people of millions of dollars in tax revenues. Perez personally is accused of illicit associations, customs fraud, and receiving bribe money. Baldetti and President Perez each resigned, in May and September, respectively, and are now in jail and facing various corruption-related charges.
Perez’s resignation and arrest is a tremendous step forward in the fight against impunity. While there are divisions within the ruling class, Guatemala has been ruled by a small group of political, economic, and military elites since the 1954 US CIA-backed coup that removed the democratically elected Jacobo Arbenz government. These elites have used the state to protect and advance their personal interests at the expense of the vast majority of the people. The democratic process that began in 1984, and the peace accords that ended the country’s thirty-six year conflict in 1996, have done little to bring about a government that would respond to the needs of the country’s vast majority.
Nearly a decade ago, the Guatemalan Government and the United Nations agreed to the establishment of CICIG, an innovative UN-sponsored commission to work alongside local partners in order to root out criminal networks involving former and current military and government officials and to strengthen the country’s judiciary. In the years since, CICIG has helped the public prosecutor’s office to investigate, prosecute, and convict a number of accused criminals and to strengthen the country’s sociopolitical institutions. While impunity remains a challenge in Guatemala, recent developments provide a glimmer of hope that the country is in the process of strengthening its rule of law.
Otto Perez was elected president in 2011. In office, Perez oversaw continued economic growth and decreasing homicide rates that had begun under his predecessor, Alvaro Colom, and attracted international attention due to his advocacy on behalf of ending the war on drugs. However, Perez had long been linked to illegal armed groups. Indeed, it was the presence of Perez and other retired military figures like him that led to the establishment of CICIG in the first place. The endemic corruption of the Perez administration prevented more Guatemalans from benefiting from the improvements experienced during its rule, including improved economic growth and lower homicide rates. It also led to his downfall. CICIG’s success has led other Latin American countries, such as Honduras, El Salvador, and Mexico, to ask whether a CICIG-type institution would help them in their fight against corruption and impunity.
Ever since evidence supporting the allegations of fraud were brought to light in April, Guatemalans have taken to the streets in protest to demand an end to corruption. The protesters came from diverse socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds. When even more evidence of the administration’s corruption surfaced, Guatemalans demanded the resignations and prosecutions of all those involved in the corruption scandal. The vice president and president were not spared. Public pressure eventually caused members of the economic elite and the president’s cabinet, who had once backed Perez, to turn against him lest they end up on the wrong side of history; even so, some of them might not avoid jail time. The same went for the notoriously corrupt national congress which voted to strip the president of his immunity from prosecution last week. Last but not least, pressure came from the US Vice President, Joe Biden, and the US Embassy in Guatemala. They have supported CICIG, the public prosecutor, and the Guatemalan people both publicly and behind the scenes.
As the protests make clear, many Guatemalans are outraged and disappointed that the president and vice president—which the people had voted into power just four years ago—allegedly took advantage of their positions to enrich themselves and their allies. However, the people's determination over the last several months through weekly demonstrations, as well as dogged work of the public prosecutor’s office and CICIG, gives the country an opportunity to overcome a legacy of corruption and an unresponsive political system. Perez's ouster and arrest does not guarantee a long-term transformation of Guatemalan politics, but it is a step forward in undoing decades of impunity and in strengthening the rule of law.
No matter who emerges in next month’s electoral run-off, the challenges ahead will be significant. Jimmy Morales is a political newcomer whose political party was founded by former right-wing military officers linked to the country’s genocidal counterinsurgency program. Manuel Baldizon has systematically violated campaign finance laws while his vice presidential candidate, Edgar Barquin, has been publicly linked to money laundering networks. Sandra Torres’ party, for its part, has been linked to drug traffickers and former military officers as well, and her husband’s administration was allegedly involved in politicizing many of their social programs that were meant to assist poor Guatemalans. Given these realities, the Public Prosecutor, CICIG and the people of Guatemala will need to remain vigilant for the next four years in order to ensure that recent progress continues.
Mike Allison is associate professor in the Political Science department at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania. He blogs at Central American Politics. Follow him on Twitter at @centampolmike.