Guatemala’s ex-President Otto Pérez Molina has pleaded guilty in a bribery and money laundering case, but the move could be a play to avoid further jail time amid uncertainty about the future of the country’s anti-corruption efforts.
Pérez Molina, the president of Guatemala from 2012 to 2015, admitted to charges stemming from the "Cooptación del Estado" case, first announced by the now-defunct International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala - CICIG) in 2016.
Prosecutors asserted that Pérez Molina's political party used a massive asset laundering network to raise campaign funds, playing a crucial role in his victory in the 2011 elections. "I did not come here to present excuses, nor to defend myself. That's why I asked for the hearing to accept the charges," Pérez Molina said in court.
Pérez Molina has been in prison since 2015 due to charges from a different CICIG case called "La Línea," in which prosecutors uncovered a multimillion-dollar customs fraud ring headed by the former president and his Vice President Roxana Baldetti.
As part of the scheme, importers would pay bribes to government officials, receiving tax exemptions or reductions in return. After over seven years of legal proceedings during which Pérez Molina was incarcerated, he was sentenced in December 2022 to 16 years in prison for his role in the scheme.
His latest sentencing comes at a unique political moment in Guatemala. Political outsider Bernardo Arévalo and his Seed Movement (Movimiento Semilla) party shockingly won the presidency on August 20 over multiple candidates backed by the country’s corrupt political elite.
Arévalo has centered anti-corruption efforts in his campaign, promising to crack down on the impunity enjoyed by elements of Guatemala’s political elite for decades.
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Pérez Molina's decision to accept charges against him may be an attempt to avoid more forceful prosecution and potentially a harsher sentence in light of the incoming administration’s strong anti-corruption stance.
"It seems to me that [accepting the charges] is a strategy to avoid facing the case, which is one of the most important and largest that reflects the level of corruption in the Guatemalan state," Thelma Aldana, the exiled former attorney general who brought charges against Pérez Molina in 2016, told InSight Crime.
A former general in the Guatemalan military, Pérez Molina was responsible for overseeing Illegal Clandestine Security Apparatuses (Cuerpos Ilegales y Aparatos Clandestinos de Seguridad - CIACS) prior to and during his administration. These groups, consisting of former members of the military, used their experience in government to run criminal economies and bribery schemes, sending kickbacks to Pérez and Baldetti.
Since his resignation in 2015 in the wake of the revelation of the La Línea scheme, the former president’s political influence within the Guatemalan elite has fallen, according to Manfredo Marroquín, founder of Guatemalan anti-impunity organization Acción Ciudadana.
"He has practically no chance to come back. He no longer has any influence in the political sphere at all," Marroquín told InSight Crime.
With Arévalo’s inauguration looming, Guatemala’s corrupt political actors like Pérez may feel an urgency to use existing corruption networks in the judiciary to receive more favorable sentences than they expect going forward.
In another example, Guatemalan courts acquitted Roberto López Villatoro, alias "El Rey de Tenis," or the "Tennis Shoe King," on September 5. The businessman was a crucial figure behind the selection of judges to the country’s highest courts before his arrest in 2018. He was accused of lobbying for criminal interests in the selection process.
"They are afraid that a new government will come to stop this impunity, so they are taking advantage of these moments," Marroquín told InSight Crime.