Guatemala’s Vice President Roxana Baldetti resigned on Friday, May 8, amidst a burgeoning customs tax scandal. Baldetti’s decision followed weeks of popular protests, in which Guatemalans have demanded her resignation and that of the president himself. Demonstrators took to the streets following the April 16 arrests of individuals accused of participation in a massive scheme to defraud the government of customs tax.
In announcing Baldetti’s resignation, President Pérez Molina said her decision reflected a desire to cooperate with the ongoing investigation. Investigations from the public prosecutor’s office and the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) have so far resulted in 27 arrests related to a criminal ring allegedly made up of at least 50 officials and private citizens. Juan Carlos Monzon, Baldetti’s former private secretary, was the alleged ringleader. He remains at large, and many Guatemalans suspect that Baldetti aided his escape because the two were on a visit to South Korea at the time news of the scandal broke. Suspicion that the vice president was involved in the scheme grew when prosecutors played recorded phone conversations in court. In those tapes, defendants made reference to someone as “La R,” “La 2,” and “La Señora.” In a public statement last Wednesday, the Central Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial and Financial Associations (CACIF) – Guatemala’s powerful business lobby – demanded Baldetti’s resignation as necessary to ensure an independent investigation and strengthen democracy.
Three days prior to her resignation, the Supreme Court of Justice unanimously ruled in favor of on an application by opposition parties to lift Baldetti’s immunity from prosecution in relation to the affair, while rejecting a request to lift President Pérez Molina’s immunity. The ruling opened the possibility for her investigation by an investigative commission of the congress, formed by five randomly chosen deputies. The commission would make a recommendation to the plenary of the congress, which could convict with a two-thirds vote. When the commission formed on Thursday, three members were from the opposition, which had expressed a desire to lift Baldetti’s immunity. The Constitutional Court subsequently rejected her appeal of the Supreme Court decision that had lifted her immunity. Yesterday, the public prosecutor obtained a judicial order forbidding Baldetti to leave the country during the investigation.
Meanwhile, the scandal has also expanded to touch the legal establishment and the judiciary. Three lawyers were arrested in relation to the case on Friday, after CICIG and the public prosecutor used wiretaps to gain information on the lawyers’ alleged negotiations with the pre-trial judge in the case, Marta Sierra de Stalling, to obtain bail for their clients. In a controversial decision, Judge Sierra de Stalling granted pre-trial release to six of those allegedly involved in the customs fraud. CICIG and the public prosecutor have requested that Judge Sierra de Stalling’s immunity from prosecution be lifted.
In a further development, the AP news agency reports that it has obtained wiretapped conversations among lawyers, a businessman, and suspects discussing the payment of bribes to Judge Sierra de Stalling’s sister-in-law, Supreme Court Justice Blanca Stalling Davila, also over pretrial release decisions. She denies any wrongdoing.
As CICIG found itself in the middle of one of its highest profile cases, Guatemala’s government sent an official letter on May 6 ,to the UN Secretary General to formally request an extension of the CICIG mandate for a further two years. President Pérez Molina had announced that he would seek the extension in the immediate aftermath of the April 16 customs fraud arrests. The letter requests no modification to CICIG’s mandate but does request a meeting with United Nations representatives to discuss the recommendations of a government executive committee that evaluated CICIG’s work. The committee recommended, among other things, that CICIG and the executive committee jointly define areas for investigation and associated work plans; and that a government instance be created that would be authorized to review CICIG’s decisions and hold it accountable.