After an estimated 15,000 protesters flooded the central plaza of Guatemala City on Saturday in a grassroots anti-corruption demonstration, President Otto Perez Molina promised justice but said he would not be stepping down as protesters demanded.
The weekend protest was organized entirely on social media and seems to have caught top political leaders by surprise. Demonstrators also called for the resignation of Vice President Roxana Baldetti, after a United Nations anti-corruption body revealed a tax-fraud and customs scandal involving dozens of high-ranking officials.
"As president, I repeat my commitment to the free liberty of expression of all Guatemalans. […] I've received your message loud and clear," Perez Molina said in a televised statement on Monday. "It doesn't matter who you are, you must face the full weight of the law with due process."
The scandal broke last week, when the UN's International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (or CICIG in Spanish) revealed that a network of public officials had been accepting bribes in exchange for illegal tax cuts and decreased fees at customs.
At least $21.8 million is linked to the scandal, which has been dubbed "La Línea," or "The Line."
Twenty-two people are under arrest in relation to La Línea. Among them is Omar Franco, the current head of the national tax administration, or SAT, and former SAT chief Carlos Muñoz. Authorities are still searching for Juan Carlos Monzón, Baldetti's former personal secretary. He is considered to be at the center of the corruption ring but his whereabouts are unknown since April 16.
Protesters chanted "Resign now!" in Guatemala City and other communities in the country, as well as among Guatemalan expatriates in Argentina, Chile, and the United Kingdom. A bride and groom on their wedding day also apparently attended the demonstration before saying their vows.
The protests were admittedly "peaceful, respectful, and especially orderly," Perez Molina said in his Monday address. But despite the outpouring of public indignation, Perez Molina told reporters he would not be resigning.
"We could easily see that Baldetti concealed the fleeing of Monzón, the head of this criminal structure," Alejandro Rodríguez, a student leader at the University of San Carlos, told the news agency AFP on Saturday.
Perez Molina this week promised the people of Guatemala that Monzón will be brought to justice for his role in the scandal.
"The government must have zero tolerance for abuse of authority, which is why I have instructed the national security forces, and asked for help from the international community for [Monzón's] swift capture," he said.
Perhaps anticipating public anger over the scandal, Perez Molina last Thursday extended the mandate of the UN's anti-corruption body in the country by two years.
US Vice President Joe Biden, in a visit to Guatemala in March, had made the extension of the UN's mandate in the country a condition for US funding of an anti-organized crime drive in the so-called Northern Triangle region of Central America — a request that at the time was denied.
On Tuesday, Perez Molina announced the creation of two government commissions aimed at tackling corruption.
One of them, comprised of economists, is intended to oversee the proper functioning of the SAT agency. The other commission, Perez Molina said, would supervise the government's licensing and contract deals.
"We don't want the thieves to govern anymore," María Letona, a 70-year-old woman who attended the protest, told reporters on Saturday. "They see us as toys. It's shameful what they're doing to the people of Guatemala."
The next anti-corruption protest in Guatemala City is scheduled for May 16. Guatemala's next presidential elections are in September.
"This is a call to every politician and policymaker — look at us," Catholic priest Armando Gonzalez told AFP at the demonstration. "The people of Guatemala are taking a stand because we don't want any more corruption."
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