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Guatemala's Ongoing Corruption Crisis Has Turned the Country Inside-Out

The country's last president is in jail, a crowded election is headed for a runoff, and despite massive protests observers aren't sure whether lasting reforms will be put in place.

It's been a wild week for Guatemala's political process, and there's no end in sight.

On Tuesday, former president Otto Pérez Molina was ordered to stand trial on corruption charges in a massive fraud and embezzlement case that's been racking up convictions since April. Word of Molina's pending trial came hot on the heels of his resignation on Thursday, September 3, capping capped a tumultuous stretch in which Molina saw many key allies desert him and the country's congress unanimously (and with the blessing of Molina's own political party) vote to strip him of political immunity. Judge Miguel Ángel Gálvez then ordered Molina's immediate detention. (In an interview on Wednesday from prison, he blamed the US for his situation; he is also appealing his jailing.)

All the chaos emerged just days before Guatemala's elections this past Sunday, which failed to result in a decisive winner and will now go to a runoff. Although Molina did not run because of term limits, the hubbub of his case has shrouded the unfolding electoral process, and Guatemala's future in tremendous uncertainty.

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Even after the resolution of a 36-year civil war in 1996, Guatemala has retained a reputation for chaos and corruption. Its rampant gang violence, unchecked by a corrupt and ineffective law enforcement apparatus, has left the nation of 15.5 million with one of the highest murder rates in the world. In addition, a record of political complicity in criminal activities had Amnesty International calling Guatemala a "Corporate Mafia State" by 2002; the country is in the lowest rungs of corruption rankings year after year.

Given that status quo, it's no wonder that even a few months ago many locals and international observers alike would have thought it impossible to see a sitting president resign and face trial over a corruption scandal. Molina is a 64-year-old general who played a key role in negotiating the end of the civil war before retiring from the military, founding the conservative Patriot Party in 2001, and working his way up to a presidential win in 2011. Although he's been more moderate in office than some human rights advocates feared, making seemingly serious moves to crack down on drug trafficking and violence, he's still been implicated in all manner of shady dealings.

The equation for Molina and the Guatemalan political class changed when a massive scandal known as "La Linea" (or "The Line") emerged this April, centered around customs officials taking bribes from importers. Molina is far from the only official implicated in all this, but he's certainly the great, white whale of the whole affair right now—and prosecutors hope to charge him with customs fraud, illicit association, and taking bribes. Attorney General Thelma Albania has said he's being investigated for money laundering as well, a charge that could lead to the freezing of his assets.

La Linea came to light thanks to investigations conducted by the United Nations–backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). Founded in 2007 in an agreement between the UN and Guatemalan political leaders, the CICIG exists to provide technical support and impartial outsider assistance in overcoming the entrenched political and social pressures holding up investigations into crime and corruption.

"What the scandal and the cases [that have followed it] have revealed is the positive effect of the [CICIG] on the Guatemalan judicial system," says Anita Isaacs, a professor at Haverford College who's spent the last several years researching the links between peace, justice, and democracy in Guatemala. "And the fact that we now have one of the four democratic institutions of Guatemala that, with the right leadership, can actually work."

The visibility and popular outrage around La Linea culminated in massive protests in Guatemala City in late April. The country is no stranger to protests, especially by indigenous farmers who often march to demand equal rights and political reforms. But these new protests, which are still drawing tens of thousands of people, are both some of the more enduring in the country's modern history, and the most unifying, bringing together disparate peasants, indigenous peoples, middle-class intellectuals, businesspeople, and even the often reticent and neutral Catholic clergy. Carlota McAllister, a professor at Canada's York University and an expert on violence in Guatemala who attended an anti-Molina protest in July, compares the uprising to the mass protests of 1944, which managed to overthrow the sitting dictator, Jorge Ubico, and install ten years of robust, democratic governance.

As protests and the investigations dragged on, pressure on Molina grew. In May, the president purged his cabinet to assuage criticisms. In August, his then-Vice President Roxana Baldetti was arrested and had her assets frozen for her alleged role in the conspiracy. And the Patriot Party's presidential candidate, Alejandro Sinibalid, defected, along with five congressmen, for fear of association with the increasingly toxic administration and especially with Molina himself.

The new president, 79-year-old Alejandro Maldonado, has asked for the resignation of all top government officials and promised to create a transitional government made up of young, fresh representatives promoted by all of the interest groups protesting in the streets. But for all the enthusiasm and hope surrounding Molina's resignation and the events that precipitated his arrest, there's plenty of reasons to be suspicious that this will lead to real change. First and foremost is the fact that this victory does not mean the judicial system is close to fixed.

"They have the technical capacity to conduct good, solid investigations," explains Professor Isaacs. "But the political will to do it depends on the leadership of these organizations. What has made this possible is a dogged chief [CICIG] commissioner... an attorney general who has decided to act in favor of the pursuit of justice, and, really, one courageous judge."

This reliance on strong-willed individuals means that future bids at rooting out the country's many remaining corrupt systems may not go so well. It's tempting to say that the massive grassroots activism of the past few months and political acquiescence to it will help promote judicial integrity. But this social movement is tenuous at best, some believe.

"I have serious reservations as to whether that coalition can hold together much longer," Isaacs says. "[All the parties involved] have very contrasting agendas when it comes to the substances of political, social, and economic reforms.

"And I don't see the congress's vote to strip Molina of his immunity as evidence of any newfound commitment to democracy. I see it almost as the opposite: With elections four days away and the massive political protests, and with the majority [of Congress] up for reelection, they were trying to save their own political skins and to salvage the status quo."

Ideally, according to Isaacs, if President Maldonado acts quickly, he can help hammer through much needed political and electoral reforms. But observers have their doubts that he has the time to make such moves, and his questionable rulings while he was a judge are leading some to suspect that he doesn't have the will to do more than make a show of solidarity with the populace.

"[Moldanado]'s a terrible figure to have in this position at this moment," McAllister says. "He's a historically right-wing, violent person."

While the roughly 70 percent of Guatemalans who went to the polls on Sunday favored an anti-establishment candidate—the politically inexperienced comedian Jimmy Morales—there are doubts that any new government will bring about sustained reforms. Morales could lose to a mainstream opponents, or could win and prove himself a woefully inefficient operator.

So long as the CICIG is intact, it will do its best to support continued moves to reform Guatemalan politics. But this dependency on international intervention is not a permanent solution. In the long term the outcome of the recent shakeups in Guatemala hinge upon whether strong, ethical forces continue to exercise power in the judiciary, what happens when a new government comes to power in January, and how long the current protest coalition can stay together and whether they can devise any concerned and constructive push for common reforms.

It's impossible to say whether we'll see true, lasting change in Guatemala on the heels of Molina's ouster, or a slow deflation back towards the status quo. But with Molina having gone from the most powerful man in the country to a prisoner in a matter of days, corrupt politicians across the region are almost certainly taking notice.

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