Several days after national prosecutors and the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) dramatically arrested 22 alleged conspirators in a customs tax scheme, political fallout in Guatemala continues. The April 16 raid may already have decisively weighed on the politics around the question of extending CICIG’s mandate beyond September, which President Otto Pérez Molina announced in its immediate aftermath. Now it has spurred public demonstrations, even as the case itself has generated controversy in the judiciary.
CICIG and the public prosecutor allege that the private secretary to Vice President Roxana Baldetti, Carlos Monzon, led the scam that deprived the state of much needed revenue. Wiretaps played in court on April 17 made reference to “el Presidente” (the President), “la Señora” (the Lady), and “la Dos” (the number two), further hardening public suspicions that the president and vice-president participated in or knew about the network. Vice-President Baldetti says that she informed Monzon about the charges against him and told him to turn himself in while they were on a visit to South Korea together. He fled and remains at large despite a red notice from Interpol, and many Guatemalans accuse Baldetti of having assisted his escape.
Public anger coalesced through social media networks and became unmistakable when an estimated 15,000 Guatemalans rallied in Guatemala City’s main square on Saturday, April 25. Protesters represented a rare cross-section of Guatemalan society aligned together in outrage at public corruption. Poor, rich, left-wing, and right-wing Guatemalans were well represented at the protest, where they called on President Pérez Molina and Vice President Baldetti to resign. Organizers staged parallel demonstrations in city squares around the country, and Guatemalan expatriates around the world sent messages of support. Some protesters and journalists complained about suspected government attempts to block phone signals around the Guatemala City rally in order to dampen its impact. President Pérez Molina responded to the protest, calling for common sense and saying that “everybody has the right to protest, but no one can judge a person as long as there is no judicial decision against him.”
Meanwhile, during preliminary proceedings, Judge Marta Sierra de Stalling released six of the 22 detainees in the case from pre-trial detention and sent the case to trial, giving prosecutors two months to gather additional evidence. Last week, Judge Sierra de Stalling gave an interview to the press in which she expressed doubts about the strength of the prosecution case. Judge Sierra de Stalling also explicitly asked the public prosecutor to request that the case be brought before one of the country’s two high-risk courts.
If the case does move to trial in two months, it will begin during the formal campaign period ahead of general elections on September 6, 2015. Continued political fallout from the case is all but assured.