Former Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina was sentenced this Wednesday (7) to 16 years in prison in the trial of a lawsuit that accused him of corruption. The allegations led to the resignation of the politician and his then deputy, Roxana Baldetti, in 2015 – she received the same sentence.
Pérez Molina had been imprisoned, awaiting the verdict, for seven years. He and Baldetti were found guilty of criminal association and fraud, and were acquitted of illicit enrichment.
The retired military man, now 72 years old, took over the Presidency in 2012 with the fight against crime as his main flag, supported by a conservative and populist platform. He was forced to resign four months before the end of his term, saying he would leave to “preserve the institutionality of the Presidency” while responding to the process – Congress had already withdrawn his immunity.
Pérez Molina and Baldetti were pointed out by the Justice as members of a network called “La Línea”, in which businessmen paid bribes to import products without paying taxes. The case came to light thanks to an investigation carried out by Cicig (International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala), a body created in partnership with the UN in 2007, which operates under the supervision of the Public Prosecutor’s Office.
The fraud, according to the prosecution, would have embezzled up to US$ 3.5 million, part of it directed at politicians – but more than 20 people would also be involved in the scheme.
“All that’s left is to appeal,” Pérez Molina said on Wednesday during a break in the trial, adding that he felt cheated because the conviction was handed down “without a shred of evidence.”
The director of the local branch of Transparency International, Edie Cux, in turn, classified the case as paradigmatic. “It’s a watershed in Guatemala, important so that somehow the population has justice, not impunity,” he told the AFP agency.
José Martínez, executive secretary of the NGO Alliance for Reforms, also celebrated the outcome, saying it was “a victory for those who took to the streets in repudiation of corruption in 2015 and in the following years”.
Over the past seven years, however, the case has been riddled with back-and-forth. The person responsible for initiating the investigation, who headed an arm of the Public Ministry, ended up having to go into exile in the US after being removed by the country’s attorney general, Consuelo Porras.
The leader of Cicig, Colombian Iván Velásquez, now Minister of Defense in Gustavo Petro’s government, was also expelled from the country in 2018 after trying to open investigations that would involve then-president Jimmy Morales and leading operations that arrested dozens of politicians and businessmen. The commission helped to dismantle 70 structures of corruption and made complaints that led to more than 400 arrests.
In 2019 Morales allowed the mandate that authorized the commission to operate to expire, and last year Guatemalan investigators began targeting judges, prosecutors and journalists who allegedly collaborated with the agency’s operations — many of them also left the country.
Since then, several of those involved in corruption cases investigated by Cicig have been released, with convictions based on the commission’s work being overturned.
Guatemala is led today by the conservative Alejandro Giammatei, under whom the advance against Justice has become even more forceful. In addition to completely expelling Cicig, the president began the process of dismissing several prosecutors and judges who were involved in corruption cases.
The increasingly authoritarian management, with advances on institutions, has drawn the attention of international organizations. In June, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights added Guatemala to the list of countries that commit serious human rights violations, alongside Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua.
In the most repercussion recent case, the journalist José Rúben Zamora was arrested, and the facilities of the newspaper of which he is founder, El Periódico, underwent a search and seizure process.
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