In Guatemala, a popular uprising may send a US-backed president to prison. It's about time.
Guatemala is a place where justice seldom reaches those who deserve it most. But today in Guatemala, something amazing has happened. And they're calling it “Guatemalan Spring.”
A popular movement led by indigenous and working class people brought justice to the office of the president himself, a man who belongs in prison for self-dealing, and for his part in the mass murders of entire villages full of innocents in the 1980s.
“Justice can reach anybody” who breaks the law, Guatemalan Attorney General Thelma Aldana said yesterday, speaking to reporters in her office after Congress voted to strip President Otto Pérez Molina of his immunity from prosecution over corruption charges.
“It is very painful, very worrying that a president in office should be submitted to a criminal trial,” she added.
From NYT reporter Elizabeth Malkin's account:
The 132-0 vote was the culmination of a tumultuous five months since prosecutors revealed the existence of a customs fraud ring in April, describing how officials received bribes in exchange for discounted tariffs, a scheme that effectively stole millions from the treasury.
As rain fell over Guatemala City, jubilant crowds outside Congress after the vote shouted, “Yes, we could!”
Late on Tuesday, a judge granted a request from prosecutors and ordered Mr. Pérez Molina not to leave the country.
Pérez Molina is prohibited from leaving Guatemala, and a warrant may be issued for his arrest. The former Army general and his administration have received millions in support from the US, much of which involved military and police support, which the Guatemalan government uses to this day to tear indigenous communities from land that foreign mining companies exploit for their profit, with kickbacks to the political and economic elite.
For about a month now, poor and marginalized Guatemalans have been gathering for protests in Guatemala City’s plaza central to demand that Perez Molina resign, even before documents were released linking him personally to the payback racket.
On Aug. 21, when prosecutors announced they had evidence implicating the sitting president as a ringleader in the scheme known as La Linea, the elites that control Guatemala’s economy joined in the calls of “#RenunciaYa!”--resign now--and #YoNoTengoPresidente, “I don't have a president,” hashtags that stated so clearly what so many have felt so long.
The Legislature's vote to strip OPM of immunity was unanimous, and echoes a decision by the country's Supreme Court last week. This paves the way for his arrest, and perhaps jail.
The unprecedented result of this popular uprising is unfolding in a country that practically invented uber-corrupt military dicators, a time-honored tradition of thievery and brutality that began with a CIA-led coup in the fifties to protect the interests of USA-based multinational fruit businesses.
Allan Nairn is a US-based journalist who has covered Guatemala since the 1980s--the brutal years of the government's assault on Mayan peasants, college students, unionistas, and anyone who fell afoul of the military.
Back then, Nairn famously interviewed Perez Molina when he was an Army general known as “Mayor Tito.” OPM back then was tasked with carrying out Rios Montt's program of genocide in the Ixil region to the north.
From Democracy Now's interview with Nairn today:
DEMOCRACY NOW: You were outside Congress last night when Congress stripped the Guatemalan president of immunity. Can you talk about the significance and the reaction?
ALLAN NAIRN: Well, people were cheering, they were crying, setting off fireworks. This is an example for the world. This is a general we’re talking about, one of the generals—one of the U.S.-backed generals who carried out the massacres that devastated the Mayan population of the northwest highland. I met him in the highlands as he was doing that, and his troops described how they strangled, executed civilians and threw them into mass graves. He then became president. Prior to that, he was placed on the CIA payroll. And now he’s going to be treated like a common citizen, and perhaps a common criminal. He could be taken at any moment by the authorities.
Last night after the verdict, I walked by the Casa Presidencial, the presidential house—it’s the White House of Guatemala—and spoke to a soldier outside who is a member—a corporal of the presidential guard. And I asked him how his unit would react if the Ministerio Público, the justice department, comes and tries to arrest the president, Pérez Molina. And he said they would not resist. They would take their orders from the Ministerio Público. This is remarkable, looking at Guatemalan history, because outside—that very building that we were standing outside of was for years the national torture chamber of Guatemala. People would be dragged there if they criticized the army, if they criticized the rich, if they were seen as being too close to the organized indigenous population, and they would be chopped up, they would be electroshocked. Their bodies would be thrown by the roadside with their hands cut off. This work done by the—what’s called the Archivo and by the G-2, the military intelligence service, that had actual American CIA agents placed inside it. And now, soldiers from the presidential guard, from that very place, are saying they’re not going to stop one of the generals who carried out those atrocities being arrested.
His arrest, though, would only be on corruption, but it opens the door to bringing him to trial for the mass murders that he helped preside over while carrying out the program of genocide of General Ríos Montt. But there’s still a long way to go. It was big surprise that Congress stripped his immunity. The unanimous vote was in some ways deceptive, because the big blocs in Congress which are controlled by the oligarchs, the drug traffickers and the army, did not want to strip him of immunity. They don’t want to open the Pandora’s box of looking into the crimes of the army and the oligarchy. But they felt such massive public pressure, that in the end they felt they had no choice.
AMY GOODMAN: You talk about Otto Pérez Molina being involved in murder of indigenous people in the northwest highlands, Allan Nairn, but what these protests are about are corruption, why his vice president has now been arrested, as well as other officials. So, do you see this possible indictment getting larger? And are people calling for that?
ALLAN NAIRN: Corruption has kicked open the door. Now, what could follow is mass murder, a prosecution for mass murder. Just about everyone I talk to on the street raises that issue. And under Guatemalan law, an ordinary citizen can go to a court and file a criminal case. And now that Pérez Molina has been stripped of immunity, anyone can step forward and file criminal charges against him for the slaughter in the Ixil zone in December of ’82, when slaughter that occurred, and I was there talking to Pérez Molina and talking to his—talking to his troops. So that now becomes a possibility.
And part of it—if that goes forward, and part of it is dependent on the action of state prosecutors—if the state prosecutors go forward, I would also urge them to look at charging not just Pérez Molina, but also his U.S. sponsors, the Americans who worked as military and intelligence liaisons with the Guatemalan army as they were murdering civilians, and also high American officials who set the policy in Washington. They can be charged as accomplices to murder. As President George W. Bush said, if you arm a terrorist, if you fund a terrorist, you are a terrorist. I think President Bush had a point, and that he should be subject to that same rule, that same principle, and that now that Guatemala has kicked open the door, set an example for the world, this trail of blood can be followed wherever it leads, including back to Washington.
Otto Perez Molina may have been stripped of his immunity, but he has not been stripped of his assets. What will become of the loot he stole from the people? And if he does voluntarily leave his post, or is swept aside by a coup, or legal wrangling--will he be replaced by another ladron, in a seemingly endless string of ladrones?
Related coverage worth reading in the Guardian, Nomad (in Spanish), Plaza publica (Spanish).
— AurorateleSUR (@teleSURaurora) September 2, 2015
— Prensa Libre (@prensa_libre) September 2, 2015
— Diario La Hora (@lahoragt) September 2, 2015
Hemos sido ejemplo de lucha pacífica para muchos otros países, hemos demostrado que uniendo al país se puede lograr mucho. #GuatemalaEsPaz
— Anonymous Guatemala (@An0nymousGT) September 2, 2015
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