Few contemporary developments in the struggle against impunity for high-level corruption are as extraordinary—and encouraging—as recent events in Guatemala, culminating last month in the resignation, and subsequent indictment, of President Otto Perez Molina in connection with a corruption ring in the customs service (known as the “La Linea” scheme). Perez, the first Guatemalan president ever to resign, has been on the impunity radar ever since the end of Guatemala’s 30-year civil war in 1996. These latest accusations against him are just a step, though perhaps the most successful step, in the sustained campaign to hold him accountable for various transgressions.
Before he was elected, Perez was the military general responsible for a remote region in Guatemala that saw some of the bloodiest massacres of the civil war. New evidence corroborates what many in Guatemala already strongly suspected – that he not only knew about but actually ordered the raids, murders, and torture that occurred under his watch. Perez—the military’s representative during negotiation of the 1996 Peace Accords—is also implicated in the murder of a Catholic bishop which occurred days after the Bishop published a report about the military’s culpability for genocidal war crimes.
Compared to these other alleged crimes, the customs fraud that triggered Perez’s resignation may seem, if not benign, then at least relatively mild. That is not to diminish the significance of the “La Linea” scheme: Hundreds of thousands of dollars (at least) that could have been spent to improve the welfare of Guatemalan citizens instead wound up in the pockets of corrupt leaders. But it does seem peculiar that a man who not only evaded prosecution but also became president amid allegations of genocide is now facing justice not for these violent crimes but rather for stealing money. (That said, additional charges related to his war crimes could and perhaps must still be filed against Perez. Yet it remains the case that it was the corruption scandal, not the war crimes allegations, that ultimately forced his resignation.) Why has this campaign to force Perez to answer for his crimes been successful, where past attempts have failed? Continue reading