Guatemala is in the midst of its worst political crisis in the two decades since the end of the country’s civil war in 1996. Weekly marches, sit-ins and demonstrations keep drawing tens of thousands to the streets, denouncing corruption and demanding the President’s resignation, as well as a purge of politics and the judiciary (among other things). The scope and size of the demonstrations has been something of a surprise, given that the Guatemalan public often seems uninterested in political affairs or reluctant to express dissent. Although the protests originated in the capital, they have now spread to the whole country, and brought lower and middle classes together. The main cause of this discontent? Public anger over a string of corruption scandals.
The demonstrations—which some believe are the start of a “Guatemalan Spring”— began this past April, when the Office of the Public Prosecutor against Impunity, together with the UN-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG in Spanish) published an investigative report linking fraud in the Customs Department to the Vice President’s Office. Specifically, Vice President Baldetti’s private secretary, Mr. Monzón Rojas, stands accused of being at the helm of a wide tax and customs fraud scheme known as La Linea (“the line”), which has defrauded the state of about US$120 million. Although Vice President Baldetti, tried to distance herself from her Secretary (who’s still on the run), mounting public and political pressure forced her to resign on May 8. In addition, there were further revelations that lawyers representing detainees in connection with La Linea attempted to bribe Chief Justices of the Supreme Court. And there were other scandals as well: the head of the Ministry of Energy and Mining lost his post over corruption charges, the Ministers of the Interior, Environment, and Energy resigned, and the President of the Central Bank and the head of the Guatemalan Institute of Social Security (who was formerly the President’s personal secretary) have been forced to resign after being accused of fraud and influence peddling.
Although there are many interesting aspects of these anticorruption protests, let me highlight what seem to me especially important features of both the protests and the underlying problems that triggered them—features which, though specific to Guatemala, may have broader implications for the fight against entrenched political corruption. Continue reading