A Central American spring?

September 2, 2015

Sarah Lynne reports on angry protests against government corruption in Guatemala.

MASS PROTESTS against systemic corruption shook Guatemala last week, culminating in a national day of action and general strike held on August 27.

The protests crossed class lines, with some businesses closing to support the cause, including the fried chicken franchise Pollo Campero. Protests included strikes, roadblocks and peaceful demonstrations, despite a concern that right-wing government supporters might try to instigate violence.

The anti-corruption movement, which has been building since April, has reached a critical point and the crisis holds the potential for Guatemalans to create real social and political change. Actions taken this week will be paramount in determining Guatemala's future.

Protesters last week demanded that Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina resign due to his probable involvement in a multimillion-dollar customs racket that was exposed earlier this year.

In mid-August, an organization of powerful Guatemalan business owners, essentially the nation's oligarchy, issued a statement in favor of Pérez's resignation as did the Attorney General. Since then, five out of eight ministers in the president's cabinet have resigned, as has Guatemala's Ambassador to the UN.

Guatemalan students arrive for solidarity demonstrations during a general strike
Guatemalan students arrive for solidarity demonstrations during a general strike

Former Vice President Roxana Baldetti stood trial on August 24 for her involvement in the scam. Prosecutors alleged that she accepted $3.7 million in bribes from different business entities seeking to receive lower import taxes. Baldetti is currently in jail awaiting the next phase of her trial, and was denied bail because she is considered a "flight risk."

THE SCANDAL rocking the government stems from top Guatemalan officials taking bribes from businesses in exchange for artificially lowering import tariffs as a part of the customs racket now referred to as "La Línea," ("The Line" in English), named after a hotline used to coordinate the scam. Twenty-nine high profile arrests have been made in conjunction with the racket, and it has been estimated that the network made upward of $300,000 per week in bribes.

La Línea was exposed in April by an investigation into official corruption performed by the UN-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). CICIG has investigated systemic corruption in the country since 2007 and has uncovered corruption in many spheres of the corporate and political elite.

Most recently, the CICIG reported that the La Línea racket was led by Juan Carlos Monzón Rojas, Baldetti's personal aide. However, a series of 60,000 wiretaps conducted as part of the CICIG investigation uncovered references to "La Dos" (which carries the double meaning of "The Number Two" and "The Lady" in English--both appear to be references to Baldetti). Also overheard in the wiretaps were references to "the big boss" and "the owner of the ranch," assumed to be references to President Pérez Molina himself.

In an August 23 address to the nation, Pérez Molina rejected calls for his resignation and denied involvement in the scandal. "I will not resign, and I will fully submit myself to the legal process," said Pérez Molina. "I categorically reject any link [to the scandal]."

The president has not been seen in public since and is reported to be seeking out exile options. Though nothing is official, some hypothesize that Pérez Molina's military friends might orchestrate a short coup in order to provide the opportunity for him to flee the country.

GUATEMALA IS set to hold elections on September 6. Although national laws prevent Pérez Molina from running for re-election, he has close ties to the leading presidential candidate, Manuel Baldizón, from the center-right Lider party (based on the acronym in Spanish for Libertad Democrática Renovada). Opinion polls suggest that no candidate will receive more than 50 percent of the total vote, triggering a runoff election scheduled to be held on October 25.

Given the outpouring of protests, many people are calling for the election to be postponed while voting laws are rewritten to eliminate the potential for corruption. Reforms demanded include limits to campaign finance donations and anti-nepotism laws. A common slogan of the movement is: "We don't want elections under these conditions."

Pérez Molina is set to leave office in January 2016, yet many are demanding an early end to his term--what amounts to a presidential impeachment process. On August 25, the Guatemalan Supreme Court approved Attorney General Thelma Aldana's request for the president's special immunity to be revoked in order for an impeachment process to commence. Now it is up to Congress to vote on the measure.

Last week, the Guatemalan Congress established a five-person panel to determine whether enough evidence exists to prosecute the president for his involvement in La Línea. According to a report by the Associated Press, a legislative commission urged Congress on Saturday to lift the president's immunity.

Earlier in August, more than 50 percent of Congress voted to cancel the Pérez Molina's immunity, but the vote required a two-thirds majority to take effect. It remains unclear if the required two-thirds threshold can be met, but more legislators are expected to line up against the president.

Update: After this article was written, Guatemala's Congress voted on September 1 to strip Pérez Molina of his immunity from prosecution, and a judge barred the president from leaving the country.

Pérez Molina won the 2011 elections with promises of combating poverty, stemming violence and cracking down on corruption. While he has done little to end poverty, street violence has exploded under his watch. In the last four years, the Guatemalan Mutual Support group reports that some 17,890 people have died as a result of violent crime--out of a population of less than 16 million.

That, combined with the widespread belief that he is personally involved in La Línea scandal, explain why an August poll reported that 88 percent of Guatemalans disapproved of Pérez Molina's record as president.

However, demands for change will not be easily placated by tossing the president overboard. Guatemalans' anger with corruption and impunity runs much deeper than the La Línea scandal.

FOR YEARS, Guatemalans have put up with scandal after scandal with little to no public protest. Despite corruption diverting funds for desperately needed infrastructure and a "critical" level of violence throughout the country, Guatemalans have largely kept on the political sidelines. Until now.

The La Línea scandal has struck a nerve. Perhaps it was the straw that broke the camel's back. The majority of Guatemalan society has stood up in recent months and said enough is enough.

Current levels of outrage can only be understood in the context of Guatemala's history of corruption and violence.

In 1954, democratically elected Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz Guzman was overthrown in a CIA-backed coup. For the next 36 years, from 1960 to 1996, civil war ravaged Guatemala. By the end of the war, 200,000 Guatemalans--mainly rural indigenous people--had been murdered or disappeared by government-backed death squads. Now, Guatemala is considered one of the most violent, politically unstable countries in the world.

The bloodiest years of the civil war, 1982 and 1983, saw mass murder on a genocidal scale. For instance, in the early 1980s, the independent-minded Ixil Maya set up co-ops and unions. They fiercely defended their land and even attempted to take land back that had previously been stolen from them.

Survivors report that between 1982 and 1983, death squads descended on towns in the Ixil region, burned houses and crops, murdered men, women and children, cut unborn babies from pregnant women's stomachs, raped people inside their own churches, and forced victims to dig their own mass graves before their murders.

In all, 70 to 90 percent of the Ixil Maya were destroyed during the civil war. One former soldier testified that his orders at the time seemed simple: Indio visto, Indio muerte. (See an Indian, kill an Indian.)

The genocide was orchestrated by then-military dictator Efraín Ríos Montt. Ríos Montt took power in a coup in 1982, promptly dissolved congress, suspended the constitution and declared the Maya an internal threat. His reign lasted just 17 months before another coup deposed him. Now, more than 30 years after he lost power, Ríos Montt and his ex-military intelligence chief, José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, are facing trial in Guatemalan courts for genocide and crimes against humanity.

The historic trial of Ríos Montt is the first time an ex-dictator has ever been tried for genocide inside their own country. Some such trials have taken place in international courts, but the trial against Ríos Montt was an important step in Guatemala's fight against ruling-class violence and impunity.

In a first for Latin America, in 2013, Ríos Montt, then 86, was convicted of genocide and sentenced to 80 years in prison. But the ruling was overturned on procedural technicalities, and the prosecution was forced to start over from square one.

In the two years since the ruling was overturned, Ríos Montt's attorneys delayed any new prosecution and now claim he is no longer mentally fit to stand trial. A special tribunal is set to open on January 11, 2016, where Ríos Montt will be once again judged for the crime of genocide. However, this time, even a guilty ruling will not lead to any prison time. At most, the trial will result in "safety measures" being invoked, such as sending Ríos Montt to a mental health facility. This has sparked outrage among victims who have fought hard to make the ex-dictator pay for his crimes.

WHILE RÍOS Montt is the face of genocide due to the scope and brutality of the violence he orchestrated, he is not the only high-ranking official to have committed violence. Many members of the Guatemalan ruling class have ties to mass murder during the more than three decades of civil war.

The current president is himself personally implicated in the genocide conducted during the 1980s and Guatemalans' anger towards Pérez Molina can only be understood in the context of his military role.

The now-retired general turned president is a graduate from the School of the Americas. During Ríos Montt's rule, Pérez Molina served as a military commander in the Ixil zone, where he and his troops carried out massacres. Since then, Pérez Molina has tried to bury his dark past while pursuing a political career.

Award-winning investigative journalist Allan Nairn interviewed Pérez Molina in 1982 in the Quiché region of Guatemala where Pérez Molina, then known as Mayor Tito, staged his military campaigns. In the interview, a clip of which can be seen on the August 27 Democracy Now!, Pérez Molina talked about how the military needed another shipment of helicopters from the U.S.

In the 1980s, throughout the Central America, the U.S. supported right-wing military campaigns who aimed to violently repress leftist rebels, unionists and pro-democracy supporters. According to Nairn's report, Pérez Molina was on the CIA's payroll. The U.S. also financed, armed and trained the Guatemalan military.

The current political crisis and eruption of protest in Guatemala is both the explosive rejection of official corruption that has come to rule Guatemala and the culmination of a growing movement against the impunity with which Guatemala's political and business leaders have traditionally carried out violence against their own people.

As Nairn explained on Democracy Now!:

If it [the current movement] becomes an even broader, deeper movement, and you move from the question of corruption to the question of justice for mass murder, that can only be resolved by implicating not just Pérez Molina personally, but also the Guatemalan army as a whole institution, also the U.S. government, which has armed, trained and financed that army, backed that program of slaughter, which the American CIA had Pérez Molina on the payroll when he was head of G-2, the intelligence unit. And it also can't be resolved without implicating CACIF, the association of the oligarchy, which backed the army during the slaughter and which, individually, ran its own death squads.

THE MOVEMENT, so far largely coordinated through the twitter handle #RenunciaYa, has spread across the borders into neighboring Honduras. Six weeks after the RenunciaYa protests began in Guatemala, the Honduran Attorney General exposed a network, led by the former director of the country's social security board, that had defrauded the government of around $120 million between 2010 and 2014. Some of that money was allegedly funneled into the last presidential election.

In response, thousands of Hondurans took to the streets denouncing corruption. The biggest demonstration was held on June 5 when some 20,000 people marched with torches and shouted "Juan Orlando Hernández, out!"

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández came to power in 2014 after he was elected in a what were widely considered to be fraudulent elections. In April, the Honduran court overturned a constitutional prohibition preventing incumbent presidents from running for a second term--opening the door to four more years of rule by Hernández, who is considered by many to be a golpista--someone who helped orchestrate the 2009 coup (golpe in Spanish).

Back then, President Manuel Zelaya, who had been friendly to unions and rural farmers and was considering a sweeping agrarian reform package, was driven from office in a U.S.-backed coup. Hundreds of thousands of Hondurans protested the coup fiercely in the following months, yet severe repression took its toll, and much of the initial resistance died down. The last big protests took place during the 2013 election cycle. Now, the country is seeing a resurgence of struggle.

Images emerging of Hondurans taking the streets with torches, and Guatemalans holding hands outside of Congress, are leading to talk of a "Central American Spring," named after the Arab Spring. While it is too early to tell how far these mobilizations can go, the coming weeks may set the political and social terrain of struggle for years to come.

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