Guatemalan Congress clears way for arrest of president in corruption case

By Joshua Partlow

September 1, 2015

MEXICO CITY -- The Guatemalan Congress voted Tuesday to strip President Otto Perez of his immunity from prosecution for his alleged role in a kickback scheme, clearing the path for his possible arrest just days ahead of a presidential election.

The vote was akin to an impeachment, and it passed decisively, prompting a jubilant celebration outside Congress. More than 80 percent of the legislators voted to remove the president's shield from prosecution -- easily clearing the two-thirds majority needed -- and the rest abstained. The country's attorney general has already urged Perez to resign following accusations that he was part of a vast conspiracy to defraud the customs department.

It is unclear how quickly authorities plan to move against him or whether he will last through the end of his term in January.

With his support rapidly dwindling, Perez lost even the backing of his governing Patriot Party. He has already been widely abandoned by politicians and business leaders. The crisis has generated weeks of street protests, [1] roadblocks and business shutdowns.

Attorney General Thelma Aldana has accused the president and other top officials of participating in a kickback scheme known as "La Linea," in which dozens of people allegedly received bribes in return for allowing businesses to avoid paying customs fees. The vice president, Roxana Baldetti, was arrested last month [2] and accused of receiving $3.7 million in bribes. More than a dozen cabinet members have resigned, including the ministers of defense and interior, who have apparently left Guatemala.

In a country with weak institutions that is still recovering from a brutal three-decade-long civil war, [3] the corruption probe has been hailed by many as a sign that the rule of law could prevail.

"It's very unusual for a sitting president to be held accountable," said Eric L. Olson, associate director for Latin America at the Wilson Center in Washington. If prosecution comes after a leader leaves office, "then it has the smell of political vendetta."

"This is pretty important," he added.

On Monday, Perez denied wrongdoing in a televised address to the country and said he would not resign before the scheduled handover of power. He called the scandal "humiliating and a situation I never thought I would face." A retired military officer, Perez has been president since 2012.

The investigation is the work of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, working alongside the Guatemalan attorney general's office. The commission was set up nearly a decade ago by the United Nations as an independent body, and it is funded by the U.S. government and other countries. Currently led by a Colombian prosecutor, the group attacked organized crime and then zeroed in on political corruption cases, including the customs scam and another involving theft from government funds to treat patients with kidney trouble.

On Tuesday, protesters squared off outside Congress ahead of the vote. Those supporting Perez, including women, children and men holding sticks, formed a human chain to block legislators from entering the building. Guatemalan newspapers reported [4] that the man leading them had been sentenced to three years in prison for theft.

Riot police responded, and the president's opponents forced open a pathway for lawmakers to get inside.

The U.S. Embassy in Guatemala tweeted in Spanish that it supported those protesting peacefully against corruption and impunity and in favor of transparency.

Some Guatemalans have argued that any prosecution should take place after Sunday's elections and the end of Perez's term to avoid further unrest, while others say that accountability shouldn't be postponed.