Guatemalan Justice System and Citizen Mobilization Lead to Major Victory in the Country’s Fight Against Impunity

9/3/2015

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Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina resigned from office on Wednesday night, September 2, after the country’s Prosecutor’s Office issued a warrant for his arrest on charges related to a multi-million dollar corruption scandal. The day before, in a unanimous decision, Guatemala’s Congress voted to strip him of immunity from prosecution. The International Commission against Impunity (CICIG), a hybrid body established in 2007 with UN support, has led the investigative effort and lent great support to the country’s justice institutions in this process.

Pérez Molina is accused of directing a customs scam, referred to as “La Linea,” or “The Line,” in which importers used a phone hotline to pay bribes in order to avoid being charged full import duties to the customs agency. More than 40 people have been charged in connection with the scandal, including Vice President Roxana Baldetti, who is now in prison.

Since April when the first charges were filed, for weeks, thousands of Guatemalans have taken to the streets to protest, calling for an end to impunity and corruption. In this podcast, ICTJ’s Marta Martinez speaks with Director of Programs Marcie Mersky about these important steps forward in the fight against impunity at the highest levels and about the political and social turmoil currently facing Guatemala, as the country prepares for presidential elections this Sunday, September 6.

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Mersky stresses that it was years of joint work by the CICIG and the Prosecutor’s Office that allowed the investigation on the corruption network to move forward and prove how “organized crime within the state was able to penetrate so deeply.”

CICIG’s main contribution were technical resources that were vital in building the case, such as the over 80,000 legal wiretaps that have been analyzed, says Mersky, “and especially the political weight that CICIG –as an internationally supported body– brought to the process as well.”

A key ingredient to this success, Mersky underscores, is the “massive civic citizen mobilization in support of the justice system.” For 20 consecutive weeks, thousands of Guatemalans have been demonstrating peacefully both in the capital and the main regional cities calling for the president’s resignation and to put an end to impunity and corruption. “Without that civic energy, especially of young people, perhaps the prosecutorial effort wouldn’t have had the results it’s had so far with the resignation of the president,” says ICTJ’s Director of Programs.

Mersky points at the country’s civil war as the root cause for such entrenched corruption within the Guatelaman executive branch’s power. “The State has been seen as a source of enrichment for emerging sectors, including the military, going back to the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s,” Mersky explains. Corruption crimes were often overlooked during those years while grave human rights violations such as enforced disappearances or killings were terrorizing the population. Pérez Molina himself is a retired Army general and was deployed in one of the regions that most suffered the violence during the conflict.

“The oligarchy has such a tight hold on the country’s wealth –mostly natural resources but now also the financial institutions–that for emerging sectors the State became a place to loot,” says Mersky.

Those corrupt structures within the State remained ensconced, Mersky says, and now the judicial institutions are exposing how those structures maintain a “strong hand in corruption, drug trafficking, and all kinds of illicit operations.”

“We are now seeing the fruits of eight very difficult years for CICIG, similarly difficult years for the Attorney General’s Office, but enormous advances in the commitment to justice, the technical skills to bring that commitment to life, and the political force in the citizenry of the country that’s willing to fight for these things,” says Mersky.

As the country prepares for presidential elections this Sunday, September 6, Mersky is not optimistic about the upcoming president, but is hopeful about long-term change in the country. “The parties who are strongest have the same belief in using the State as a source of wealth, so I think the outcome will be very complicated, no matter what it is, and certainly whoever is elected will not have a lot of legitimacy,” says Mersky.

Deep institutional reform is needed in Guatemala, she insists, and that includes measures involving the judiciary, political party financing, and electoral reform among others. “I am hopeful that some important reforms will come out of this and that there will be a sense among prosecutors and judges that the society is willing and happy to reward honest officials who defend their rights,” Mersky says.


PHOTO: A boy waves a Guatemala national flag during a vigil in front of the Supreme Court in Guatemala City, Wednesday, July 22, 2015. (Luis Soto/AP Photo)