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Guatemala's crisis, explained: why the president just resigned

Protesters in Guatemala City wave flags in celebration after the Guatemalan Congress's unanimous vote to strip immunity from President Perez Molina.
Protesters in Guatemala City wave flags in celebration after the Guatemalan Congress's unanimous vote to strip immunity from President Perez Molina.

For the past five months, protesters have filled Guatemala City’s central square again and again to demand that their president resign. Faces painted in patriotic blue and white, they have waved their banners, chanted their slogans, and bellowed their demands: The government must be held accountable to the people. Corruption must end. The president must go.

They have now achieved their goal. President Otto Perez Molina resigned Wednesday after the attorney general issued a warrant for his arrest. The day before, Guatemala's Congress had voted unanimously to strip him of his immunity so that he could be prosecuted on charges of corruption.

Following Tuesday's vote, Guatemala's attorney general, Thelma Aldana, told reporters that it was "very painful" that a sitting president could be subjected to a criminal trial, but that the day had proven that "justice can reach anyone."

And that, more than anything, was the point of all the protests and the public outrage: the corruption so severe, that has so rotted Guatemala’s government and institutions, that it has left the country mired in poverty, violence, and fear. It is the same corruption that has brought such lawlessness to the country's streets that Guatemala had, as of 2012, the fifth highest homicide rate in the world. It is rooted in a problem that has plagued the country since its four-decade civil war ended in 1996: military and intelligence services that kept the power they'd gained during the war and have used it to enrich themselves, at the cost of the country's ability to govern itself.

That's much bigger than the current scandal, or even former President Perez Molina's downfall. The protesters' demand, at heart, was always that Guatemalan justice reach everyone.

The "La Linea" scandal: corruption on the line

Otto Perez Molina

Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina. (JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

The scandal that has provoked Guatemala’s political crisis is known as "La Linea," ("the line") after the telephone number that customs officials allegedly called in order to conduct their corrupt dealings.

The basics of the scam are fairly simple. Corrupt customs officials in Guatemala would create fake documents to give corrupt importers a steep discount on the import duties for their goods. The corrupt importer got to keep part of the discount in exchange for paying the rest as a bribe to the corrupt officials who ran the scheme. Over time, this allegedly diverted millions of dollars in customs revenue away from the state and into the private bank accounts of corrupt officials.

The customs scheme allegedly goes back many years, predating Perez Molina's administration. But according to Insight Crime, once Perez Molina took office, he and his cronies took over control of the scheme and expanded it, demanding bigger and bigger bribes. At that point, the importers began to cooperate with anti-corruption investigators.

Normally, the Guatemalan government could just shut down any investigation that posed such a serious political threat. But this investigation was run by a special UN agency known as International Commission Against Corruption in Guatemala, usually known by its Spanish acronym CICIG, which is tasked with prosecuting corruption in Guatemala (you know things are bad when you have a special UN agency for dealing with corruption in your country). CICIG is largely staffed by foreigners, but it works with Guatemalan prosecutors and courts to prosecute cases, rather than sending them to an international tribunal.

Guatemalans know their government is corrupt, but the things that CICIG's investigation have found provoked an unprecedented public outcry. The protests began immediately in April and continued to grow as new evidence emerged and new arrests were made.

The vice president, Roxana Baldetti, resigned in May and was arrested in August. More than a dozen others have now also been arrested. In August, the country’s powerful chamber of commerce, which has traditionally been an ally of Perez Molina and others within Guatemala’s conservative political establishment, publicly called for Perez Molina to resign after CICIG revealed new evidence that the president had been a ringleader of La Linea, rather than simply a beneficiary of it. And on August 28, businesses across the country shut down for a general strike to demand Perez Molina’s resignation.

To an outsider, then, it might look like the investigation is working, rooting out the bad apples. But Guatemalans know the corruption problem is even bigger than the president: It is a rot so deep that it makes the very streets unsafe.

Guatemala's corruption goes back to violent "clandestine groups," which exploit and undermine the state from within

Guatemala protesters

Protesters in Guatemala City demand Perez Molina's resignation. (OHAN ORDONEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Corruption in Guatemala isn't a few bad apples exploiting the system; it is the system. It’s a network of highly organized, durable organizations. And while it may be corruption in tax revenue that could bring down the government, there are far more destructive kinds of corruption rampaging through this country.

Those corrupt institutions — often referred to as "clandestine groups" in Guatemala — also use their connections to Guatemala’s government and security services in order to engage in international drug smuggling and other forms of organized crime. They've long been parasites on the state, leaving Guatemala's institutions weak, its economy sluggish, and its cities and towns beset by catastrophic violence. CICIG has a particular mandate to target clandestine groups in its investigations, and the La Linea scandal is just one result of its efforts.

This problem goes back to the country’s civil war, a brutal 36-year conflict between government forces and mainly leftist rebels. Although the 1996 peace accords officially ended the war and set Guatemala on the path to democracy, in practice the country’s military and intelligence officials, who had grown extremely powerful in the course of fighting the war, remained that way.

They created informal networks inside and outside the government to engage in illicit activities, and used their connections to the state to protect themselves from prosecution and to facilitate their illegal operations. In other words, the people who had fought Guatemala’s genocidal dirty war didn’t go to jail — they went straight to the bank.

The La Linea scandal is an instructive example of how that corruption works. During the civil war, the military controlled the customs agency, arguing that it needed to be able to prevent weapons shipments from reaching rebel groups. But over the decades of conflict, military officials began to exploit their control over customs operations for profit and influence. After the war ended, those same officials retained control over customs, using it for personal enrichment and to funnel support to their political allies — including, eventually, military officer turned President Perez Molina.

What it means to live in one of the world's most corrupt countries: lawlessness and a homicide epidemic

Guatemalans celebrate Congress's decision to strip Perez Molina of immunity

Guatemalan protesters celebrate the decision to strip Perez Molina of his presidential immunity. (Johan Ordonez/AFP/Getty Images)

Guatemala’s systemic corruption is not just a matter of stealing government revenue: It has left the country plagued by brutal violence. Organized criminal groups with ties to the state use violence to protect their criminal operations. And because state institutions like the police and judiciary have been undermined and even captured by these criminal networks, they have been unable to preserve law and order, which in turn has allowed street gangs and other types of violent crime to flourish.

The result has been catastrophic. In 2013, Guatemala’s murder rate was 40 per 100,000 people, the fifth highest in the world. Perez Molina’s government claims that murders fell to 31 per 100,000 in 2014, still among the world's highest, but the country’s forensic investigative unit recorded a far smaller decline.

Guatemala's murder epidemic is largely due to the criminal street gangs, known as maras, that have proliferated since the civil war ended. The maras engage in large-scale extortion rackets in poor neighborhoods, as well as street-level drug trafficking operations, sometimes in conjunction with more sophisticated organized criminal groups. They are extraordinarily violent, and operate freely enough that regular Guatemalans have to live in fear.

According to political science researcher Miguel Cruz, the maras were able to flourish in postwar Guatemala because the police and security services never shifted to a peacetime law and order function, and instead continued to protect the power and private interests of the ex-military officials who continued to control them. It is also hard to miss that both the maras and the "clandestine groups" operate in some of the same illicit enterprises, giving them reason to tolerate one another.

Those gangs and the terror they wreak were largely responsible for the violence that drove last summer’s child migrant crisis, as tens of thousands of children fled Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador to escape forced recruitment, death threats, extortion, and other dangers.

How clandestine groups use violence to protect and expand their own influence

Byron Lima in court in 2014

Byron Lima during a 2014 court hearing in Guatemala City. (JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

The country's highest-profile political murder, from 1998, shows both the impunity that allows Guatemala's corruption and violence to flourish — as well as how, with CICIG, that might be changing.

In 1998, when Catholic Bishop Juan Gerardi published a human rights report that detailed the military’s involvement in atrocities during the civil war, three military officers murdered him in retaliation. The investigation and trial were repeatedly derailed by political pressure and violent attacks, including a grenade attack on the backyard of one of the judges hearing the case, but the three were eventually tried and convicted.

One of the three officers, Captain Byron Lima, used his connections to go "from captain to capo," becoming a prison kingpin who ran a nationwide bribery ring in cooperation with the country’s national director of prison services until both men were arrested last year, following a different CICIG investigation. Lima reportedly was able to leave the prison whenever he wished to: In early 2013 he was discovered in an SUV traveling back to the prison where he was supposedly incarcerated.

Lima’s story illustrates the robust power of Guatemala’s clandestine groups: Their operations are so pervasive and effective that being convicted of an internationally known political murder constituted a career opportunity for the young captain, rather than a punishment.

But it also illustrates the power of CICIG, which comes from its independence, to disrupt these patterns of corruption. Because its investigators are outsiders, they are protected from the influence and control of Guatemala’s corrupt officials and organized criminal groups. And their training and expertise means they can conduct highly professional criminal investigations, including via wiretaps and document analysis, whereas Guatemalan police and prosecutors tend to focus on less reliable forms of evidence like eyewitness testimony.

But now that CICIG's investigations are running in high gear, it's not clear where their accusations might end. That’s exciting, but also scary. If this were simply a matter of sending a few corrupt high-level officials to prison, that would be a relatively straightforward cause for celebration. But as la Linea and the other scandals uncovered by CICIG show, the corruption plaguing Guatemala is a deep-rooted parasitic system within the country's institutions, not simply the actions of a few dishonest people.

And so, though that parasitic system’s invasion of Guatemalan institutions has devastated the country, rooting it out suddenly could be its own source of uncertainty and chaos. Could the country's remaining elites, fearing they might be next, do something drastic, as has happened in other countries where entrenched elites feared the party was ending? If too many institutions are gutted too quickly, could it leave them even weaker than when they were run by kleptocrats? Could the uncertainty lead to political instability, which can bring its own terrors?

None of this is to say that investigating corruption or removing corrupt officials is bad — it is in fact long overdue, and could be the beginning of fixing a state that has been terribly broken for far too long, and finally letting Guatemalans rebuild that state into the functioning country they deserve. But it is just to say that these changes are drastic and systemic, as they must be, and that Guatemala's corruption has defined the country for so long that it is truly difficult to say what it will look like if that corruption is finally rooted out.