Sep. 4, 2015

Otto Pérez Molina of Guatemala Is Jailed Hours After Resigning Presidency

By Azam Ahmed & Elisabeth Malkin

GUATEMALA CITY — Just hours after tendering his resignation as president of Guatemala, Otto Pérez Molina was sent to jail to await the conclusion of a hearing examining his role in a multimillion-dollar customs fraud case that has shaken the nation and sent reverberations throughout the region.

The decision to jail Mr. Pérez Molina highlighted the seismic change sweeping through Guatemala after the corruption accusations in April, and offered a dramatic validation of a growing street demonstration movement demanding his ouster and prosecution.

For much of Guatemala’s violent history, marked by dictatorship and military repression, such a scene would have been unimaginable: a president forced to resign, then sit in open court to hear charges leveled against him and ultimately spend the night in a prison he once might have overseen as a top general.

All that in the course of a single day.

Until now, Mr. Pérez Molina had given no indication that he would go gently. Over months, street protests grew to include tens of thousands of citizens demanding that he step down over accusations that he played a major role in a multimillion-dollar fraud scheme. But still, the president — who was the military’s negotiator during talks to end the nation’s bloody 36-year civil war — denied wrongdoing and refused to leave office. But just before midnight on Wednesday, Mr. Pérez Molina filed his resignation, saying he would “face justice and resolve my personal situation.”

In the courtroom on Thursday, he listened calmly while prosecutors played wiretap recordings that they said implicated him as the leader of a vast fraud ring. His face arranged in a look of alert composure, the now former president took notes as more than six hours of recordings played before judges, lawyers and the news media.

Afterward, he paused to speak with reporters, proclaiming his innocence and pledging to face the allegations.

“It’s one thing to listen but another thing to investigate,” he said, referring to the long day of taped conversations. “All Guatemalans have to respect the law, and I assure you I will respect the law and this process.”

When Mr. Pérez Molina left the courtroom, he passed a series of cells filled with those accused of being gang members and others facing their own hearings. Some of them began catcalling, whistling, throwing up gang signs and shouting threats. He maintained the composure he had held during the hearing.

Outside, a modest but jubilant crowd filled the city’s central plaza, the nerve center of the protest movement that began five months ago. A throng of vendors sold protest paraphernalia, hawking whistles, masks and Guatemalan flags for about $5. As a sporadic rain fell, the crowd passed the time the same way it had for months, with drums, chants and blaring whistles.

The difference on Thursday was that the noise was characterized by celebration, not the outrage that had fueled it for months. The protesters’ goal of bringing down the president accomplished, the tenor was easygoing, even among the police. Where before hundreds of officers lined the perimeter of the plaza, on high alert, the contingent there on Thursday appeared relaxed, even relieved, at the events transpiring before them.

“The powerful of this country never bothered to lift people from the street,” said Cifuentes Arreaga Sergio, a 20-year veteran of the national civil police, who was stationed along the steps of the hulking Palacio Nacional.

Ignoring the occasional explosion of confetti and the cacophony nearby, he betrayed a smile. “This was the only thing that the power of the state was going to respond to,” he said.

Mr. Pérez Molina was sent to Matamoros prison, which is on a military base in central Guatemala City.

His vice president, Alejandro Maldonado, was sworn in as president on Thursday afternoon, after Congress voted to accept the resignation. Mr. Maldonado demanded the resignations of top government officials, though many had already stepped down. His term will end in January, with the inauguration of the winner of elections that were scheduled to begin on Sunday.

Mr. Pérez Molina, 64, is the first president in Guatemalan history to resign over a corruption scandal, experts said, a striking rarity in a country long known for the impunity of its political establishment. And though the economy in Guatemala has lagged compared with those of other countries in Latin America, Mr. Pérez Molina’s sudden reversal of fortune put it firmly within a wave of efforts elsewhere in the region to make political systems more accountable.

His reaction to the protests might itself be a signal of how much Guatemala has entered a new era. Though Mr. Pérez Molina, who once ran the military’s feared intelligence operation, steadfastly ruled out resignation until the very end, his government never resorted to the sort of harsh measures that characteristically met public dissent.

Yet major questions loom. Before the monumental challenge of transitioning from a system of impunity to one more responsive to its people lies a more immediate one: Sunday’s election.

Mr. Pérez Molina’s sudden departure leaves almost no time to enact serious reforms before the transfer of power. And the candidates for president were fielded in a world fundamentally different from the one that Guatemalans awoke to on Thursday.

“At their finest moment, Guatemalans are faced with this really difficult choice between candidates who may not lead to the kinds of changes that people have been fighting for,” said Eric L. Olson, a scholar at the Mexico Institute of the Wilson Center. Not all Guatemalans worried about the next steps. Indeed, the protesters seemed to possess a sort of euphoria marked by the belief that though they did not know their precise location, they were on the road to lasting change.

“We have people with capacity who can lead in these elections,” said Juan Gabon Villanueva, 56. “And if they’re corrupt, they will have to change their behavior.”

The political convulsions in Guatemala are part of a broader movement across Latin America, with discontent expressed through widespread protests in Brazil, Chile, Peru, Ecuador and elsewhere.

Yet given Guatemala’s tragic history, the shifts here were already being seen as a dramatic example of a transformation made against long odds. In neighboring Honduras, for instance, large demonstrations have also ignited a debate about whether to adopt a model similar to Guatemala’s, in which an international team of investigators was deployed to bolster the nation’s law enforcement capacity.

Protesters reacted initially to the fraud scandal, in which millions of dollars were said to have been siphoned from customs revenue and contracts, but they also expressed deep frustrations over longstanding grievances: hospitals that ran out of medicine, rising crime, and police forces that sometimes did not even have enough fuel to report to crime scenes.

The series of inquiries that ignited the public’s rage were the work of an uncommon alliance of local prosecutors and investigators backed by the United Nations, known as the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala or by its Spanish-language acronym, Cicig.

Established in 2007 to help expose the ties between criminal networks and politicians, the commission eventually emboldened the nation’s own prosecutors to hold the elite to account, and become a source of inspiration for many Guatemalans. For much of its history, Guatemalan society has been divided, its different constituencies fighting their battles alone. The nation’s indigenous population, which suffered the most under the civil war, which killed about 200,000 people, has long struggled for equal rights with little success.

Yet the movement that began in April forged an unprecedented alliance of different groups. Guatemala City’s middle class, long reluctant to speak out, began joining forces with peasant and indigenous groups. Eventually, the nation’s church and business leaders also took the side of the protesters to demand change.

None of the candidates in the election had been expected to win 50 percent or more of the vote, making it likely that a runoff, tentatively scheduled for Oct. 25, would be necessary.

Protesters, however, have not been happy about their choices. The leading candidate, Manuel Baldizón, a businessman, is widely seen as part of the discredited political system. His vice-presidential candidate faces charges in a separate corruption case, and Mr. Baldizón’s party had maintained a close alliance with Mr. Pérez Molina and his party.

The other leading candidates are Jimmy Morales, a comedian, and Sandra Torres, a former first lady.

The disdain for the political options was palpable among protesters who gathered in the rain on Thursday. Some held signs bearing the name of the leading party upside down with a slash through it.

“We don’t want to follow the path created by the institutions that are controlled by the people we are trying to get rid of,” said Javier Gramajo Lopez, an early organizer of the protests. “If Maldonado doesn’t hear the things we are saying, we will push him out too.”