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Guatemala's Former President Is Jailed as Protesters Oppose Weekend Election

The week’s developments have exacerbated an already politically chaotic period for Guatemala as it speeds toward national elections that many voters are insisting be deferred.
Photo by Esteban Biba/EPA

After a corruption scandal engulfed Guatemala's presidency and forced Otto Perez Molina to resign, the retired general and director of military intelligence was arrested on Thursday and taken to court. Alejandro Maldonado Aguirre, who was appointed by Congress to replace Perez Molina's previous vice-president, Roxana Baldetti, after she resigned in May, was sworn in as the nation's chief executive that afternoon.

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During Perez Molina's appearance before the court, prosecutors played wiretapped conversations that they said illustrated his links to a customs scheme known as "La Linea" ("the Hotline") in which importers paid bribes to officials to avoid paying duties, defrauding the country of millions. Though they suggest that Perez Molina and Baldetti pocketed about half of the proceeds, he has steadfastly denied any involvement.

The judge in the case ordered that Perez Molina be held at Matamoros prison, located on a military base in the nation's capital, while the court considers whether to proceed with charges that prosecutors filed against him last month. The decision to impose pre-trial detention was made to guarantee his safety, the judge explained, and out of concern that the former president is a flight risk.

"I respect what the judge said," Perez Molina later remarked to reporters before he was jailed, "but I don't have the slightest intention of leaving the country or, much less, of fleeing." He said that he was prepared to face the allegations and clear his name.

Alejandro Maldonado Aguirre, center, takes the oath of office as Guatemala's new president. (Photo by Esteban Biba/EPA)

Maldonado will serve out the remainder of Perez Molina's term, which ends in January. He is a career politician who was a member of the far-right National Liberation Movement during the country's "dirty war" with leftist guerrillas — the party was accused of employing death squads against communists.

This week's developments have exacerbated an already politically chaotic period for Guatemala as it speeds toward elections for the presidency and lower offices that have long been scheduled for this Sunday. Term limits had already prevented Perez Molina from running.

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Many Guatemalans have called for the vote to be deferred in order to implement anti-corruption reforms and reassess the candidates for office. In Guatemala City, demonstrators assembled outside of the Guatemalan Electoral Council to demand a delay. Some protesters have called for general strike to disrupt the elections if they proceed, argued that the present conditions delegitimize the vote. Few expect the exercise in democracy to bring much-needed changes to Guatemala's political system, and pollsters have suggested that this sentiment is likely to weigh heavily on turnout.

The campaign season has been plagued by the customs scandal and other allegations of malfeasance. Manuel Baldizon, whose vice-presidential candidate has been dogged by accusations of corruption, is seen as an associate of Perez Molina. Some protesters have called for the wholesale suspension of candidates from the Baldizon's populist Lider party, but Baldizon is nevertheless the country's leading candidate for president.

The other frontrunners include Jimmy Morales, a comedian whose appeal derives mainly from his unconventional background, and Sandra Torres, a former first lady who divorced herself from former President Alvero Colom to qualify as a candidate. They have also drawn the ire of disenchanted Guatemalans who insist that none of the available candidates represent the electorate.

The distribution of voter support among them indicates that none of them are expected to win more than 50 percent of the vote on Sunday if the elections do proceed, meaning a run-off election would be held on October 25.

Reporting contributed by Jeff Abbott in Guatemala.