Guatemala: Popular Protests Challenge Corruption and the Political Establishment

Guatemala is currently facing one of the largest political crises in the nearly two decades since the end of the country’s 36-year-long internal armed conflict. A growing corruption scandal has brought hundreds of thousands across Guatemala to the streets to demand the resignation the corrupt political class, and has already led to the resignation of the Vice President.


On May 16, tens of thousands of Guatemalans took to the streets of the capital city to express their rage with their corrupt politicians, and to demand that they all resign.

“We are tired of the theft from our education, our health care, and the theft of our dignity,” said Vivian, who came to the protest with her two children. “We don’t want any more corruption, we want Guatemala to flourish.”

Guatemala is currently facing one of the largest political crises in the nearly two decades since the end of the country’s 36-year-long internal armed conflict. A growing corruption scandal has brought hundreds of thousands across Guatemala to the streets to demand the resignation the corrupt political class, and has already led to the resignation of the Vice President.

“We are here because we are angry because of the manner in which our politicians are acting,” said Michelle, a Guatemalan citizen, during the protest on May 9. “The vice president is just one part. We want to see the President, the corrupt congressional deputies, and corrupt ministers all go. We are tired of this corruption.”

The weekly protests have drawn tens of thousands to the streets in an organic, decentralized mobilization of indignant citizens demanding that all the corrupt politicians must go.

The demonstrations began shortly after a joint investigation by Guatemala’s Public Prosecutor’s Office and the United Nations sponsored International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) uncovered a massive tax fraud ring, which has become known as “The Line.” On April 16, 22 people, including current and former heads of the Guatemalan tax collection agency were arrested for defrauding the state of $120 million dollars.

The administration was initially able to avoid being linked to the fraud ring, but came under intense scrutiny after Juan Carlos Monzón, the personal secretary of Vice-President Roxana Baldetti, was identified as the leader of the crime ring. Soon after the charges were filed, Monzón disappeared in South Korea while on an official visit alongside the Vice-President.

The Vice President quickly took steps to distance herself from her former secretary. On April 19th she held a press conference to give her side of the story, but quickly cut off the event because of intense questioning by the Guatemalan press, further stoking mistrust in the administration. Shortly after Guatemalan society erupted in indignation and began demanding the resignation of the Vice President, President, and other members of the administration thought to have been involved in the scheme. The “Resign Already” movement was born.

On April 25, nearly 40,000 people from across Guatemalan society gathered in Central Park in the first of weekly protests against corruptions. The protesters were entirely non-violent, with many families coming out to participate in the day. But despite the non-violence, the Guatemalan National Police’s riot squad was prepared in case the protesters decided to march on the Presidential Palace.

The protests have represented a diverse section of Guatemalan society, and have quickly expanded to nearly all of Guatemala’s 22 departments.

These protests have exposed the deep-seated frustration in Guatemalan society with inequality in the country. Many protesters expressed indignation with the fact that government officials and the elites raked in millions while public institutions such as schools and hospitals went underfunded.

“The city was the last focus of resistance that began with the indigenous peoples of Guatemala at the beginning of this government (of Otto Pérez Molina),” said Paco of Hijos Guatemala. “There is synthesis happening to identify that there is a political class that is at service of a national elite, which is at the service of transnational capital that is interested in exploitation of natural resources.”

Taking Down the Queen

On May 6, the CICIG announced that they were opening an investigation into the participation of the Vice President in a criminal ring.

Early in the evening on May 8, nearly an hour late, the Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina went before reporters to announce that his Vice President, Roxana Baldetti, had resigned her position.

“The Vice President did not resign because pressure from anyone,” said President Pérez Molina. “It is a personal, well thought out and brave decision.”

Following the President’s announcement, thousands returned to Guatemala’s Central Park to celebrate the resignation. For those gathered in the park, the announcement was the result of weeks of popular protests against corruption in the administration, despite what the president said.

“The resignation of Baldetti was a historic moment,” said Tommy Morales, a student from the University of San Carlos. ”But despite what the president said in his announcement, the resignation of Baldetti was a result of the demands of the people. April and May of 2015 will go down in history.”

But if the resignation was meant to appease the protesters, it greatly failed. If anything it energized the protesters as they turned their gaze to the president and other politicians thought to be corrupt.

“The political class is scared and sacrificed Baldetti,” said Paco. “But we are here showing that we are not only against her, but that we are against all the corrupted political class that is at the service economic elite.”

And the resignations didn’t end with Baldetti. Less than a week after the official announcement about the Vice President, Erick Archila, the head of the ministry of Energy and Mining, announced that he would resign over charges of corruption.

The Return of the Phantoms of the Past

On May 14, the Guatemalan congress ratified Pérez Molina’s choice for Vice President Alejandro Maldonado Aguirre. The new Vice President is a former Supreme Court justice that played an important part in overturning the charges of Genocide brought against former General Efrain Rios Montt in 2013.

Protesters were quick to include the new Vice President in their targets of rage, accusing him of assisting the genocide of the 1980’s. But the new Vice President’s dark history runs deeper than attempting to erase the charges of genocide.

During the administration of Colonel Carlos Arana from 1970-1974, he served as Minister of Education. It was also during this that time he worked alongside the Movement de Liberation National, an anti-communist death squad that disappeared thousands of labor union activists and university students.

In 1985, Maldonado Aguirre made a failed presidential run during the 1985 presidential election under the National Renewal Party. In the end his party did poorly at the polls, and lost to Vinicio Cerezo and the Guatemalan Christian Democracy party in the first open presidential election since the election of Jacobo Arbenz in 1951.

A Greater Political Crisis

The administration of Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina has been in a perpetual state of crisis since his inauguration in 2012, but the frustration and indignation of protesters has also exposed a deep-seated disillusionment with the political system and wider political crisis. The Guatemalan daily newspaper Prensa Libre found that between 81-85 percent of those polled stated that they had “no intention of voting” in the country’s upcoming presidential elections in September.

“There has been a discrediting of the political class,” said Paco. “This is a political class that has historically been at the service of the economic elite, and that has carried out the policies of eviction against the indigenous populations.”

Many Guatemalans look upon the “democratic” political system as a farce. Elections are looked upon apathetically because of the common assumption in Guatemala that whoever lost the previous election will become the next president.

The presidential campaign has become the backdrop to the protests, with presidential, congressional deputies, and mayor candidates stating their shared anger with the corruption. Yet protesters aren’t buying the language of the candidates, and have turned their attention to the candidates as well.

When Dr. Manuel Baldizon, a wealthy businessman with known connections to narco-trafficking, and who is widely considered to be the next president, arrived in the peaceful tourist town of Antigua for a rally, protesters were waiting for him chanting “He will not take (the presidential sash),” a play on his ad campaign declaring “he will take (the sash)”. The presidential candidate refused to leave his car, and quickly left the rally.

“Elections are not going to solve this political crisis,” said Paco. “We need to have a national discussion about how we can utilize this crisis of the state. Elections can be one way in local power to continue to open doors for the politics of eviction and dispossession. There has been a manipulation at the community level by political parties.”

Building Power from Below

The political crisis has brought calls by many protesters for a new form of local politics that move beyond the traditional hierarchy of the political structure.

“We are seeing a rupture in respect to the state’s domination,” said Javier de Leon, a former member of the Resistance Bloc, which was active during the protests against the Central American Free Trade Agreement in 2005 and 2006. “The people are tired of the same … dynamic of the political parties. All the parties have their boss, and are hierarchical structures that take the money from the people. This is a good moment for planting the seeds for new social relations, to open new spaces for organizing, and for promoting direct democracy.”

Other protesters and organizations have echoed this call for the formation of a new political organization.

“It is important for us to advance with constructing actual local power,” said Paco. “Social power, politics from below, and to not to continue to reproduce politics from above. We need to continue to win space from right-wing politics. The politics of neoliberalism, and capitalism in general are causing many people to die from lacking medicine, and a dignified life.”

Jeff Abbott is an independent journalist currently based out of Guatemala. He has covered human rights, social moments, and issues related to education, immigration, and land in the United States, Mexico, and Guatemala. His work has appeared at Waging Nonviolence, Truthout, and North American Congress on Latin America. Follow him on twitter @palabrasdeabajo