Guatemala is in upheaval: former vice president Roxana Baldetti is behind bars; President Otto Perez Molina is facing persistent calls to resign. Why is this all happening now? Here are five reasons.

1. The president and vice president were too greedy. By all indications, the multiple scams happening at Guatemala’s customs office — where this scandal erupted — have been going on for years. Indeed, as this Plaza Publica story details, some of the military personnel at the core of this current scandal are exactly the same as those who were involved in a similar scam nearly two decades ago.

However, the Perez Molina regime appeared to have upset the status quo. What started out as skimming funds from the customs agency became ever larger and onerous commissions. Importers may have initially been okay with paying these bribes, especially given that, in return, they received tax breaks by not having to declare as many goods at the borders. However, once these payments started cutting deep into their bottom lines, they turned to anti-impunity commission the CICIG.

2. The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) has more experience and better leadership. The CICIG — which is a United Nations-sanctioned body — gets a lot of credit for this upheaval. Many seem to think this is a healthy, if not definitive, purge of a corrupt regime.

Nevertheless, the United Nations anti-impunity commission has not always been so heroic. During its eight-year stint in the country, the CICIG has had its ups and downs, including the embarrassing departure of its first commissioner amidst rumors of infidelity and accusations of a pact with traditional economic elites to keep certain investigations from the courts; the ineptitude — or inaction — of the second commissioner.  

These days, the CICIG is better at its job, has a more forceful commissioner in the Colombian judge Ivan Velasquez, and has eight years of judicial probes under its belt. This massive buildup of experience and stronger leadership helped create the opportunity for this current investigation. Velasquez, in particular, has been a revelation, decoding Guatemala’s underworld and dragging it into the light, so we could see exactly how high it reaches. Now it’s up to Guatemala’s judicial system to take it the rest of the way — not a sure thing under any circumstances. 

3. The Attorney General’s Office has more forensic evidence, an analysis team and a strong attorney general. The long-maligned Attorney General’s Office is working in ways that were not possible when the CICIG first arrived in the country 2007. In part due to the CICIG’s work, the Attorney General’s Office now knows how to build a case using forensic evidence rather than relying on eyewitnesses. This includes telephone intercepts and tracking of cellular phone data. Combine this with new laws that allow witnesses to receive benefits for their collaboration, and suddenly you have judicial cases that are much more impervious to political and economic manipulation. 

The Attorney General’s Office also benefits from a large team of analysts who connect these types of corruption cases, as well as murder and extortion cases involving gangs and drug traffickers. And it has had three straight solid to exceptional attorney generals. The current one, Thelma Aldana, was thought to be in the pocket of the Perez Molina regime when she was selected last year but has proven to be a surprisingly strong prosecutor thus far. 

The result is stronger cases that make it to court. Whether the courts take action is the next question in this ongoing saga.

SEE ALSO:  Guatemala News and Profiles

4. The current United States Ambassador. The US has an outsized influence in all of Central America. It operates as a sort of supra-elite, condoning actions and actors deemed worthy, and vilifying those who defy its will. Through much of the last century, that will has been dominated by a realpolitik that has sometimes undermined democracy and justice.

Now, US policy in the region is governed by a fear that Central American governments are being undermined by criminal forces, and that the US should do everything in its power to reverse this trend. Ambassador Todd Robinson embodies this effort. With 20 years of experience, his first appointment as an ambassador was long overdue. And he is making his mark with overt and covert support of the CICIG and the Attorney General’s Office.

5. Desperation. Simply put, the CICIG was desperate. The commission first presented the La Linea case to the public just days before a presidential commission created by President Perez Molina was set to determine its future. In a way, La Linea was the CICIG’s last shot at staying alive, or, more specifically, another two-year extension (the commission’s two-year mandate had been extended three times already).

Guatemala’s population was also desperate. What few expected following the revelations of the case was the popular outcry. The broad and diverse range of actors that have taken to the street, sought to create new political movements, or pushed for institutional upheaval has been breathtaking. The last, and perhaps final straw for the Perez Molina regime, came on Friday, when, following the stunning CICIG revelation that the entire scam was directed from the president’s office, the most powerful business association, known by its acronym CACIF, called for Perez Molina to resign.

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Steven Dudley is the co-founder and co-director of InSight Crime and a senior research fellow at American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies in Washington, DC. In 2020, Dudley...