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From Comic to President Under Pressure — Jimmy Morales Takes Office in Guatemala

Morales won a landslide victory in elections last October thanks to his image as an outsider, but now a major new judicial effort to prosecute war crimes from the 1980s has highlighted his links to former military officers accused of atrocities.
January 15, 2016, 1:00am
Imagen por Moises Castillo/AP

Former TV comedian Jimmy Morales was inaugurated as Guatemala's new president on Thursday with questions hanging over his ability to deliver on pledges to clean up corruption, as well as about his links to former military officers accused of human rights atrocities.

Morales came out of nowhere to win a landslide victory in the second round of Guatemala's presidential election in October 2015.

His victory drew on public anger with the traditional political class within the context of a UN-backed probe into a massive corruption scandal that led to the resignation of President Otto Pérez Molina and his imprisonment just before the election. Morales was, he claimed, a political outsider untainted by the sins of the past.


But Morales is taking office under the shadow of a major new judicial effort to bring war criminals to justice. The case has highlighted allegations that, rather than representing citizen power, the new president is backed by former military officers tied to some of the worst episodes of the country's bloody history.

Morales's party — the National Convergence Front — was founded by retired officers in 2004, at least one of whom said the aim was to protect the military from prosecutions stemming from the country's 36-year-long civil war. Morales joined the party in 2012 and has played down the military link.

The theme is harder to avoid, however, in the wake of a major wave of prosecutions for massacres and forced disappearances that was launched just a week before the inauguration.

Guatemala's chief prosecutor Thelma Aldana announced arrest warrants for 18 high-ranking former members of the military for crimes allegedly committed during the conflict that lasted until peace accords were signed in 1996. A UN-sponsored truth commission concluded that the army carries most of the blame for the estimated 245,000 people killed or disappeared during its war with left wing guerrilla groups.

The 18 arrested include Manuel Benedicto Lucas García, a former Major General who was a leading figure in the counter-insurgency, and Byron Humberto Barrientos Díaz, a former head of intelligence.

But the most uncomfortable problem for the new president is related to additional efforts by prosecutor Aldana to strip retired colonel and newly-elected deputy Edgar Justino Ovalle Maldonado of his immunity from prosecution as a member of the legislature. Ovalle Maldonado is a member of President Morales' inner circle.


The announcement of the arrests, and the potential charges against Ovalle Maldonado, was seen by many observers as a warning to the new president.

"These charges represent a direct message from the judicial system that the military will not govern again in Guatemala," said Jesús Hernández, a political science professor at the Rafael Landívar University in Quetzaltenango. "The old guard of the military surrounds Jimmy, but this sends the message that this is a new era and the judicial system will fight impunity; we are not returning to the past."

Related: Former Comedian Wins Guatemala's Presidential Election

The warrants, as well as the legal effort to strip Ovalle Maldonado of his immunity from prosecution, stem from a three-year investigation, but the cases are moving quickly now. The arrested former officers began going before judges to hear the allegations against them this week.

The cases are divided into two blocks. Four former soldiers are accused of disappearing a 14-year-old called Marco Antonio Molina Theissen in 1981 — at the height of the army's repression of communities seen as potentially sympathetic to the guerrillas.

"Molina Theissen was a child and had no idea of what was occurring in Guatemala at the time," said Soloman Estrada of the Foundation Amancio Samuel Villatoro and director of the Museum of the Martyrs in Guatemala City whose own brother was also disappeared in 1984. "This case is very symbolic."


The 14 other military officials — along, potentially, with Ovalle Maldonado — are accused of holding some responsibility for the massacres and forced disappearances revealed by the grisly excavation of Military Zone 21 in the city of Cobán.

"With this case, we are possibly talking about one of the largest cases of forced disappearances in Latin America," prosecutor Aldana said when she announced the warrants.

The Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala — that has dug up multiple clandestine graves across the country — began exhuming 88 unmarked graves within the former military base in February 2012. Of the 558 skeletal remains recovered, 90 have been determined to be children.

Ovalle Maldonado served briefly as the operations officer at the base at the beginning of 1983. In 2012 he told Guatemalan newspaper El Periodico that the situation was "very delicate," and that he was unaware of any bodies at the site.

Related: Guatemala Arrests 14 Retired Military Officers for Civil War Atrocities

In the meantime the cases have prompted military supporters to rally in support of the officers, some of whom held a demonstration in Guatemala City on the weekend.

The protest, in the capital's central square, coincided with another demonstration by groups demanding justice for war crimes. Police separated the two groups when they began to argue about the current case.

Morales himself has yet to say anything about the arrests.


Beyond the political ramifications, the case against the former officers has been welcomed by victims.

"We thought this day would never come," said Estrada, the human rights activist. "Today these former members of the military have the advantage of being tried before a judge, and of having a lawyer to defend them. These are opportunities that our family members never had. They were abducted, sequestered, and then disappeared."

"Today they continue to remain disappeared," he added. "Today we are demanding to know where they are in order to close this circle of pain in an era of peace."

Related: Protests, Scandals, and Drug Money Tarnish Guatemala's Presidential Election

Follow Jeff Abbott on Twitter: @palabrasdeabajo