HomeNewsAnalysisThe Man who Could Be Guatemala's Next President Talks Crime

The Man who Could Be Guatemala's Next President Talks Crime


Plaza Publica interviews Otto Perez Molina, the front-runner in the upcoming presidential elections in Guatemala, would be the country's first military president since the return of democracy in 1986.

The following is InSight Crime's translation of extracts from Plaza Publica's interview with Perez:

Otto Perez Molina, soldier in the hard times of the war, former intelligence chief, signatory to the peace accords, last head of the army, is a long distance competitor. He feels safe because he is closer than ever to a goal that he probably set 30 years ago: head of state. [...]

He is very clear about where he wants to go, and has a firm strategy to get there. He outlines a government that would be conservative, but not radical -- despite being inspired by Uribismo -- and says that he will keep Attorney General Claudia Paz in her post, will maintain independence from business interests, and will seek to make profound fiscal reforms as quickly as possible. He is critical of some positions that the army has taken, but emphasizes its strengths, and argues that it is the only institution that has mechanisms to purge itself of infiltration by organized crime. [...]

The Future of the Public Ministry and the Iron Fist

Plaza Publica: Attorney General Claudia Paz is the head of the Public Ministry [MP] elected with the most transparent process of the last 20 years, and in six months has got more results than her predecessors in cases of capturing capos, hitmen, assassins, and violators of human rights. The [United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comision Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala - CICIG)] and the U.S. are very comfortable working with her. If you come to government, would you respect her mandate, or change it?

Otto Perez: We are going to be respectful of mandates. We want to manage in order to get results. If she is doing her job and getting results, there is simply no reason to remove her, that’s how it will be with other ministers and public officials, and how it will be with the attorney general.

Plaza Publica: Ex-President Berger and [current President] Colom said the same thing about the then-attorney generals. But on their arrival in government, they judged that [the officials] weren’t getting adequate results, and removed them. For you, Claudia Paz has been getting results in these six months, and the balance is that she will stay at the ministry?

Otto Perez: I would say … well, there are always some little things, for example the complaint that Roxana Baldetti made over the Cohesion Social issue, which didn't go anywhere, and which [the MP] made sure would not advance. I’d like to see a Public Ministry in which things are done without it mattering who the accused is.

[Cohesion Social is a program of President Colom's to develop poor, rural areas. Baldetti, a member of Congress from Perez's Partido Patriota, filed a request in April 2010 for Colom's wife, Sandra Torres, who had been running the program, to give evidence before Congress on the use of funds. The Public Ministry later ruled that the first lady had not committed a crime by failing to attend.]

But if we look at the other things that have been happening, and the agility shown by the Public Ministry, if are going to look for management for results, her management has been positive; she has had positive results so far.

Plaza Publica: You mentioned that the Partido Patriota was among those which initiated the questioning of ex-Minister [Carlos] Veilmann over the murders of the representatives and the prisoners. [Veilmann is accused of ordering the murder of three El Salvadoran legislators and their driver, and ordering the extrajudicial execution of 10 prison inmates, between 2005 and 2007, while serving as interior minister to President Berger.] However, the Berger administration is accused (by the CICIG and MP) of prosecuting and killing those suspected of being gang members -- this is similar in the popular imagination to the mano dura [iron fist -- hardline policies towards crime]. What does it mean for public policy, if the mano dura ended in legal proceedings against those who apply it?

Otto Perez: It depends on how you interpret it. [The mano dura policy] does not set out to kill the criminal. It is adherence to the law, zero tolerance for violation of the law. To respect and enforce the law. And our concept is that you need a president who governs, and is not indecisive, not taking decisions… we are tired of this. Here one must take decisions, risks that the president has to evaluate. The worst that could happen to us is a president who arrives and lets things happen, instead of making them happen in the right direction.

The concept of mano dura that we have is far from the concept that one might have, of capturing gang members and not putting them before a judge, but giving them the coup de grace somewhere… It’s totally different to that which they, without saying that it was mano dura, they believed was the way to defend the population.

We’re going to create inter-agency task forces, that are supported by the attorney general and the PDH [Human Rights Ombudsman], in order to verify that we are following the law.

Plaza Publica: In a question that requires a one-word answer, would your hypothetical government be more inspired, or more reflect, a government like that of Alvaro Uribe, or that of Juan Manuel Santos [Colombia's former and current presidents, respectively].

Otto Perez: I would say a government like that of Alvaro Uribe.

The Army, Organized Crime, and Drug Trafficking

Plaza Publica: Given this about the mano dura... the PNC [National Police] have been purged, [so has] the MP, it is debated whether to purge the judges, and only the CICIG has said that the army should be purged of the infiltration of organized crime. You would be the first ex-military president since the return of democracy. Would you purge the army of the infiltration of organized crime?

Otto Perez: Absolutely. I believe that the army is the only institution that has its own internal procedures to carry out this purge. The army has, within the civil intelligence department, a sub-department that is called counter-intelligence, that protects the institution precisely from the infiltration of organized crime.

The army has its own intelligence that goes towards for this purification, so the concept of an army that covers over its own deceptions is wrong. The army has always been struggling against drug trafficking and has been very determined to carry out this self-cleansing. We will improve that system, and if someone is mixed up in those things they will not only be discharged and face administrative punishment, but will face the appropriate judicial proceedings.

Plaza Publica: If we look at two particular cases, the use of the army’s weapons on drug traffickers, and the use of landing stripes in military bases by drug traffickers, the self-purification is a failure. Would you push an external purge, as happened with the PNC, or what would you do in order for this purification to succeed?

Otto Perez: I want to say that the landing of drug traffickers’ planes on army landing strips... They speak of a case that has not been proved.

Plaza Publica: In Zacapa.

Otto Perez: They speculated that the military zone of Zacapa wanted to set itself up for drug trafficking. And I have landed there now that I’m campaigning. They don’t let anyone enter except for the car that is going to pick me up; they ask for a complete list of the people who are coming, and they check the aircraft in which one comes. There are staff to check each thing. Here one must get to the base of it. This is news that came out, it is not hidden.

As with the issue of weapons, one must determine responsibility. Where and who were the ones responsible. And it is a case in which the CICIG is mixed up. And they are pointing, according to what they told me last time, to a… to the highest levels of the army. They are pointing at the ex-minister of defense. We hope that it is concluded, and that the responsibilities of the people who were there are determined.

Plaza Publica: By the way, what is your opinion on the columns on the subject that have been published recently by Jose Ruben Zamora in elPeriodico about the infiltration of organized crime in the army?

Otto Perez: I think that he will have his own information. That is to say, I would believe that he [should] give it to the Public Ministry which would automatically proceed to make the necessary investigations so that the information he obtained can be investigated and, God willing, they can obtain evidence to proceed against those people he has named.

I think it's healthy that it can be aired publicly, but it would seem more healthy, if there is evidence, for it to be presented to the Public Ministry. They could open investigations, then I could tell you that this person is involved in drug trafficking, and you would have it for a fact. I think that here…. we should follow the proceedures. And those that are mixed up in this, they would be found responsible.

A great myth has been created around this, that comes from the 1970s and 1980s, of networks and participation of officials in criminal acts, which has never been demonstrated. And I can give you a very clear example -- Francisco Ortega Menaldo. They bring him out in all the writings, and on many sides, but ultimately he has never faced trial, and it stays only in hearsay and publications. And notice that I’m talking about someone with whom I don't necessarily have a good relationship. I demanded the resignation of Serrano, and he was the head of the Estado Mayor [a military unit set up originally to protect the president, later involved in repression]. I tell you because he’s a typical case, they publish about him, and I have seen it freely, but nobody has ever presented evidence.

What one must do is make the accusations before the justice system.

Plaza Publica: [This is] the last question about the subject of drug trafficking. In order to close, taking into account the recent captures of capos related to the Sinaloa Cartel. Seven years ago, former political allies of yours in the then-Grand National Alliance, in which were the PP [Partido Patriota], the MR of Jorge Briz [Movimiento Reformador], the PSN of Castillo Sinibaldi [Partido Solidaridad Nacional], the M-17 of the Bergeistas.... they had a meeting in which two of those present told various journalists that the PP had proposed one of the Mendozas as Congress candidate for Izabal. The rest of the alliance told him no. What happened with that meeting, and what is the relation of the PP with this family, accused of drug trafficking?

Otto Perez: Well, I want to tell you that that is a lie. I want to tell you that… the one responsible for us there when we began the party was Alejandro Sinibaldi. That department touched him. In no moment did we make any proposal for a congressional candidate to be any of the Mendozas... We knew what that would be. Furthermore, we asked the people from the party not to build relationships with them. That relation never existed. He... our secretary there is Luis Gomez, who continues to be associated with the party. He is a shipping agent. It was him that began to set up the organization, but we never took on any of them as a candidate. And... we never proposed a candidate of this type. Also, we already knew that the candidate there was going to be... this... that still the congressman, Byron, Byron Chacon. We fought for the second candidate, who preferred to stay in GANA [Partido Gran Alianza Nacional].

We believed that he could be the one to support the alliance, despite the fact that he wasn’t from the party. When the party left GANA he preferred to stay. If you go further you can follow our line, who are the candidates for the mayorships, the secretaries, and you aren’t going to find any relation with this.

Reprinted with permission from Plaza Publica. Read the original, complete interview here.

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