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Rural and Urban Voices Are Banding Together in Movement to End Corruption in Guatemala

An unlikely alliance has emerged in 11 weeks of protest against the government Otto Perez Molina: Rural, mostly indigenous groups are joining urban protesters, surprising deeply divided Guatemala.
Imagen por Jeff Abbott

The anti-corruption protests that have gripped Guatemala for the last 11 weeks have entered a new phase. In addition to seeking the resignation of President Otto Perez Molina, demonstrators are now calling for sweeping reforms to the laws that govern the country's elections and political parties.

Since June 6, a coalition of campesinos, indigenous organizations, women's groups, and student representatives has occupied the street in front of the Guatemalan National Congress. "This is a citizens roadblock," Sandra Morante, a member of the Political Alliance of Women, told VICE News. "We are prepared to stay here day and night."


Morante's group is part of the Popular and Social Assembly, which formed to create a place of discussion among students, social organizations, and citizens about finding a solution to the political crisis. "This is our time to create another democratic revolution in Guatemala," Morante said.

Although the numbers for the protests have died down somewhat, the demonstrations show no signs of letting up. And amid the protests, an unprecedented characteristic has developed. The mostly urban anti-corruption movement has joined with movements representing Guatemala's rural populations, something that's never really been seen before in Guatemala.

Related: Protesters Whip Effigy of Guatemalan President and Call for Him to Resign Amid Corruption Scandals

A member of the Guatemalan Anonymous group in a Guy Fawkes mask stands on stage with the Guatemalan flag during a demonstration on May 30. (Photo by Jeff Abbott)

The calls for Molina's resignation began in mid-April, shortly after revelations about corruption in his administration. A United Nations commission exposed a lucrative customs fraud scheme that involved several top government officials. Wiretapped conversations later revealed lawyers bribing a judge to release individuals connected to the case.

In May, the UN commission, known by its Spanish initials CICIG, exposed another scheme involving the president's former personal secretary and 16 other officials accused of pilfering funds from the country's health care system. The scandals have led to the arrests of more than three dozen officials. Molina's vice president, Roxana Baldetti, and six public ministers have been forced to resign.


The protesters have maintained their demand that Molina also step down. In addition, they're asking for electoral reforms, seeking changes that would prohibit congressional deputies and municipal mayors from running for re-election.

On July 2, more than 95 organizations representing indigenous groups, women's collectives, campesinos, youths, the private sector, students, and unions, met at the Paraninfo campus of the University of San Carlos to discuss the reforms, which would delay elections scheduled for September by two months.

The organizations argue that the current atmosphere of crisis is no time to hold a vote.

Related: Former Dictator of Guatemala Ruled Mentally Unfit to Face Retrial for War Crimes

Protesters sing outside the Guatemalan National Palace during a protest on June 13. (Photo by Jeff Abbott)

Guatemala is a deeply divided country with a long history of conflict between its rural and urban centers. But the recent protests, combined with revelations about widespread corruption and faltering public institutions, have helped foster a unity not seen before.

"It is a movement that has brought together the people of Guatemala," Pablo Ceto of the Ixil University of Nebaj told VICE News. "With or without Otto, the corruption will continue. But this is the beginning; the city is rising up. We will continue to protest corruption."

The protest movement has increasingly received support from the rural campesinos.

These communities, which are largely comprised of indigenous Mayans, have historically had an antagonistic relationship with the government and with Molina's administration. In April, as the protests were just beginning, the administration assured striking rural farmers associated with the Campesino Committee of the Plateau that Molina would resolve conflicts over land in 44 communities. Despite the assurances, several farming communities were still evicted from their lands.


'Corruption is the unifier of the Guatemalan political system.'

The rural communities have been at the center of Guatemala's political clientelism, where presidential candidates provide farmers with seed, cement, or cash payments in exchange for votes. But after an election, the rural communities rarely — if ever — receive any benefit, and are ignored when they raise concerns about policies that affect them.

"Since the beginning of this administration in 2012, indigenous and campesino communities have consistently denounced this government," a spokesman for the organization HIJOS Guatemala told VICE News. "Unfortunately, Guatemala City has historically been the center of the conservative vote, and they were not in agreement with those protests. But today, we are seeing a popular dissatisfaction with the politics of the right-wing parties emerging in the city."

The upcoming election is itself already showing signs of corruption. Several candidates have been accused of money laundering, including the vice-presidential candidate of front runner Manuel Baldizon, for the Lider party.

On Thursday, CICIG president Ivan Velasquez presented a report on campaign financing in Guatemala that found a historic connection between political parties' coffers and narco traffickers, as well as payoffs from transnational companies. "Corruption is the unifier of the Guatemalan political system," Velasquez said.


Related: Guatemala's President Says He Won't Resign After Massive Anti-Corruption Demonstration

A young protester raises his fist against the administration of Otto Pérez Molina during a march of rural farmers on May 20. (Photo by Jeff Abbott)

In recent years, the rural, largely indigenous communities have been at the forefront of the movement against corporate-backed mining, industrial agriculture, and privatized hydroelectric projects. In light of the recent scandals, which have involved the ministries that govern such projects, campesino groups that previously focused on protecting their land have joined forces with the anti-corruption movement.

"We are suffering because of this corruption and impunity that exists in the government," Antonio Rez, a member of a group that has protested a mining project backed by a Nevada-based company, told VICE News. "This is why we are part of the movement 'Renuncia Ya' [Resign Now], we want to see all corrupt politicians go."

Rez and others traveled from San Jose Del Golfo and San Pedro Ayampuc, communities an hour north of Guatemala City, to join in the demonstrations.

"Our conflict is the product of the inability of the government to govern with the interests of the people in mind," Rez said, blaming several corrupt officials who have since resigned for approving one mining project that has affected his community. "They all manipulated the laws to approve these projects."

Related: Guatemalans Demand Justice After Vice President Resigns Amid Corruption Scandal

Follow Jeff Abbott on Twitter: @palabrasdeabajo