Corruption in Guatemala. Bad apples everywhere – An ousted president is accused of masterminding kleptocracy
Jun 11th 2016 Economist
When Otto Pérez Molina resigned as Guatemala’s president last September and was promptly jailed on corruption charges, it was seen as the ultimate triumph for the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a UN-backed body of independent prosecutors and investigators, many of them foreign. Now it seems the scandal that led to Mr Pérez’s downfall—a kickback scheme at the customs agency—was just the tip of the iceberg. On June 2nd CICIG and local officials arrested 25 people and issued warrants for 27 more as they unveiled an accusation of jaw-dropping scope: Mr Pérez’s entire political party had been a mere front for a plan to capture and run the Guatemalan state for personal enrichment.
Political parties have long been weak in Guatemala. Every president since 1985, when regular elections resumed, has belonged to a different party, most of which are now defunct. So there was nothing unusual about Mr Pérez, a former general, founding the Patriotic Party (PP) in 2001 as a vehicle for his political ambitions.
But according to CICIG, by 2008 the PP was accepting illegal campaign contributions as down-payments for favours if it ever took power. The party courted donors, set up shell companies and appointed frontmen to run them, and covered its tracks with receipts for vague services like “use of machinery for 1,000 hours”.
After Mr Pérez won the presidential election of 2011, the commission charges, he delivered on his promises. His government signed at least 450 contracts from which officials skimmed off more than $65m as part of the scheme, while Mr Pérez and his vice-president, Roxana Baldetti, enjoyed vacation homes, yachts, helicopters and designer clothing. The 58 named conspirators (counting those already in jail) come from virtually every part of the Guatemalan elite, including the former bosses of two large banks and the wife of a media magnate. An ex-football star who served as Mr Pérez’s culture minister was also detained. In the words of Plaza Pública, a local news website: “The Patriotic Party wasn’t a political party. In reality, it was a criminal gang whose objective was to take power to rob the state.”
In the past, investigators confronting such entrenched power would have had little hope of making such spectacular claims stick. But CICIG, which was set up in 2007 to aid the country’s prosecutors, has a formidable record of obtaining hard evidence such as wiretaps and bank-transfer records. It has used these techniques not just to take down Mr Pérez, but also to solve murders and ferret out drug traffickers lurking among the police.
Moreover, Guatemala’s own prosecutors have begun to absorb the foreigners’ professionalism and fearlessness. Mr Pérez did not deny the allegations when asked by reporters, simply saying he would “listen to the charges”, while Ms Baldetti has not responded—though they both said they were innocent of the original customs-bribery allegations.
If CICIG, whose current mandate runs until late 2017, can secure convictions in the case, it would be a big step towards ending impunity in a country where the powerful have historically been above the law. At the same time, it would also confirm Guatemalans’ suspicions about the extent of the rot at the heart of their state. Foreigners have proven indispensable in bringing corrupt politicians to book. But only Guatemalans can find some honest ones to replace them.