Guatemala Vice President Roxana Baldetti has resigned as the fallout from a scandal involving the country's customs agency and Baldetti's former personal secretary continues to roil the country.
At a press conference on May 8, President Otto Perez Molina announced the resignation of Vice President Baldetti, stating that she "did not resign because of pressures from anyone, it's a personal, well thought out and brave decision."
The announcement comes as Perez faces the most serious political crisis of his administration, with government leadership coming under intense scrutiny following the April 16 arrest of 20 suspects who allegedly formed part of a customs fraud ring known as "La Linea." Those arrested included the head of Guatemala's Superintendency of Tax Administration (SAT), Alvaro Omar Franco Chacon, and his predecessor, Carlos Enrique Muñoz Roldan.
However, it was Juan Carlos Monzon Rojas, Baldetti's former private secretary, who the United Nation's International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) and Guatemala's Attorney General's Office identified as the principal leader of La Linea after a ten-month investigation. The whereabouts of Monzon -- who had traveled with Baldetti to South Korea on April 13 -- are still unknown.
In recent weeks there have been growing calls for Baldetti to step down, with thousands of demonstrators taking to the streets in Guatemala City to demand the resignation of both Perez and Baldetti following revelations of the La Linea scandal. On May 6, a prominent Guatemalan business association -- the Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial, and Financial Associations (CACIF) -- also called for Baldetti to step aside, and for investigations by the CICIG and Attorney General's Office to continue.
Also on May 6, Guatemala's Supreme Court unanimously ruled Congress could revoke Baldetti's immunity from prosecution, saying there was enough evidence to warrant an investigation into her possible involvement in the La Linea scandal. In response, Guatemala's Congress has formed a commission to evaluate the evidence and recommend whether or not to formally strip Baldetti of her immunity, clearing the way for criminal charges.
Baldetti's party, the Patriotic Party, does not have a majority in Congress, and the Renewed Democratic Liberty Party (LIDER) -- whose members make up three of the five seats on the commission -- has expressed its willingness to remove Baldetti's immunity.
While congressional commissions normally have 60 days to make a recommendation, Congress has reportedly called for the commission's report on Baldetti to be delivered by May 14.
However, during the press conference Perez stated that now that Baldetti has resigned, she has also renounced her immunity from prosecution.
InSight Crime Analysis
Despite Guatemala's long struggles with political corruption and crime, the widespread public anger directed towards the government -- and vehement calls for Baldetti's resignation -- incited by the La Linea scandal are an unprecedented occurrence in the country's recent history. Yet societal outrage appears to have helped spur the investigations, and has prompted former political allies to distance themselves from Baldetti (Patriotic Party presidential candidate Alejandro Sinibaldi abandoned the party three days after the La Linea arrests).
However, it may have been that Baldetti's downfall was inevitable, as murmurings and accusations of corrupt dealings have persisted since she took office. Most notably, Baldetti was linked to the case of Marllory Chacon Rossell, a Guatemalan drug trafficker known as the "Queen of the South," who the US Treasury Department has identified as Guatemala's "most active money launderer".
SEE ALSO: Guatemala News and Profiles
Chacon -- recently sentenced in a US court where she had pleaded guilty to drug trafficking charges -- was taken into US custody in 2014; yet she had reportedly been cooperating with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the US Attorney's Office in Florida since 2012, likely providing information on politicians and businesses with criminal links.
While it remains unclear who Chacon has implicated, she was known to mingle with Guatemala's political and economic elites. In a May 2014 interview, Chacon said she had met Baldetti, and there have been rumors she and an associate donated $2 million to Baldetti's Patriotic Party in 2011 for campaigns. Baldetti, however, has always denied such ties.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Elites and Organized Crime
Furthermore, the CICIG's role in investigating the La Linea customs fraud ring, which has now led to the resignation of a sitting Vice President, can be seen as one of the most significant accomplishments yet in the commission's fight against impunity in Guatemala.
With its mandate recently extended, the CICIG will hopefully continue to tackle political corruption and crime, ultimately reaching the day when Guatemalan prosecutors are able to take down such high-profile criminal networks on their own.