Guatemala: President ousted, jailed amid mass anti-corruption protests

Otto Perez Molina appears in court, September 3.

Just hours after an arrest warrant was issued against him, Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina announced he would step down from office on September 2, in the face of a worsening corruption scandal and huge anti-government protests. The next day, a judge sentenced Perez Molina to a provisional jail sentence while the charges against him are heard.

Perez Molina, who had had vowed he would not resign, stepped down and handed himself over to authorities just after Congress withdrew his immunity over corruption charges. The attorney-general’s office had presented a warrant for Perez Molina's arrest for his alleged role in the “La Linea” custom fraud ring.

The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) obtained documents detailing how the customs fraud ring, including internal Tax Authority staff and external members, took control of charging companies bribes on imported products.

Several leading government officials had already resigned over the scandal. Perez Molina's former vice president, Roxana Baldetti, was arrested and detained on August 21 for her role in La Linea. Anti-government protests were snowballing in size, with pressure on Perez Molina escalating drastically.

Under the law, Perez Molina's resignation leaves Vice-President Alejandro Maldonado as interim president to serve out his term, which ends in January. Maldonado must also submit three nominations for vice president.

Despite the political crisis, Guatemala's presidential elections scheduled for September 6 will proceed, officials say.

Prosecutors accuse the president of masterminding the scheme to embezzle millions of dollars from a customs service.

The Guatemalan Public Prosecutor said Perez Molin had complete knowledge of the customs fraud ring. During the preliminary hearing of the former leader over the corruption case, the prosecutor said Perez Molina collaborated to place certain personnel in the Superintendency of the Fiscal Administration, which oversees customs.

The judge described how La Linea operated across all the main customs offices around the country, through subordinates known as “the tail”, and that about 1500 containers passed by laws established in the country. Perez Molina is accused of receiving half of all bribes paid as part of the fraud between May last year and April.

The allegations against Perez Molina were made by influential sectors in Guatemala, including the office of human rights, the agricultural, rural, industrial, and financial committees, the Peasant Unity Committee, the Catholic and Evangelical churches and members of civil groups.

The Central American country is still struggling to recover from the US-funded civil war that lasted from 1960-1996. During the conflict, more than 200,000 Guatemalans were killed, most of them indigenous Mayans. The country has a 75% poverty rate and ranks among the most corrupt countries in the world.

[Compiled from TeleSUR English.]

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