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Guatemalans Celebrate as President Faces Possible Corruption and War Crimes Charges

After a unanimous vote to strip President Otto Pérez Molina of his immunity from prosecution, Guatemalans are celebrating but wary of the country’s history of impunity.

by Jeff Abbott
Sep 3 2015, 12:55am

Imagen por Saul Martinez

Protesters in Guatemala City endured torrential rains yesterday as they waited outside the country's congressional building for the result of a vote to strip President Otto Pérez Molina of his immunity from prosecution. When lawmakers voted 132-0 in favor of removing the embattled leader's legal protections, clearing the way for him to be prosecuted in connection with a corruption scandal, some of those present wept at the news.

"It made me tearful to see so many people unified," Maryam Chavez told VICE News.

Others celebrated the decision, but were cautious given the Central American country's history of impunity.

"Finally, they have all the pieces to prosecute this war criminal," Sal Figueroa, a Guatemalan citizen who has participated in the protests since April, told VICE News. "However, the justice system in this country is weak. If they do manage to judge him, it will be a whole new chapter in our history."

The unanimous vote — with 24 abstentions — means Pérez Molina could now face prosecution for his alleged participation in the criminal ring known as "La Linea," or "The Line." According to a joint investigation by the UN-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), and the Guatemalan Public Ministry (MP), the customs fraud network stole an estimated $120 million dollars from Guatemalan taxpayers.

Related: Massive Protests Call for President to Resign as Corruption Scandal Hits Guatemala

Perez Molina's former vice president, Roxana Baldetti, and more than three dozen high-ranking public officials have already been arrested or forced to resign because of the scandal, including the minister of the interior and the minister of defense, who recently fled to the Dominican Republic. The country has been gripped by 20 weeks of protests, with thousands of demonstrators using the rallying cry "Renuncia Ya" — "Resign Already" — to call for Perez Molina to leave office.

Throughout the crisis, Pérez Molina has maintained his innocence, and denied any connection to the scandal. He has stated on multiple occasions that he will not resign, and said during a press conference on Monday that he intends to vote in the upcoming presidential election, which is currently scheduled to be held on September 6.

The MP and CICIG have already solicited an arrest warrant for the president, with the MP arguing that Perez Molina must be arrested in compliance with the law. The CICIG and MP officially filed charges against the president on August 19. After the vote on Tuesday to strip the president of his immunity, protesters gathered once again in the capital's Constitution Plaza to celebrate, with revelers waving flags, signing, and blowing whistles.

The door is also now potentially open for Perez Molina to be prosecuted for his alleged involvement in war crimes during Guatemala's 36-year internal armed conflict. In the 1980s, Pérez Molina went by the name Tito Arias and was a commanding officer of a brutal commando unit known as the Kabilies.

In May 2013, former dictator Efrain Rios Montt was convicted on charges of genocide by a Guatemalan court. But the charges were overturned weeks later, and the Guatemalan Congress declared "there was never a genocide." In the trial against Rios Montt, a witness accused Perez Molina of participating in the genocide of indigenous Mayans during the war.

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

Support for the president has plummeted since the accusations of corruption first surfaced in mid-April 2015. The public outrage came to head on August 27, when more than 100,000 protesters participated in nationwide strike, demanding that Perez Molina resign and that the upcoming elections be delayed.

In June, the Organization of American States expressed concern over calls for the delay of the vote, and stated that they are committed to overseeing "free and fair elections."

Many voters have stated that they intend to vote "null" — if they cast a ballot at all. Gabriela Ixchíu, an 18-year-old who is eligible to vote for the first time in her life, told VICE News she plans abstain from election because "none of the candidates represent me."

Guatemala's Supreme Electoral Council has stated that no new reforms will be permitted prior to the elections, meaning the corrupt system that produced the current crisis will remain in place for the foreseeable future.

Follow Jeff Abbott on Twitter: @palabrasdeabajo