Guatemala: One President Resigns; Another Elected, to
Be Inaugurated January 14
January 11, 2016 (IN10354)
Maureen Taft-Morales, Specialist in Latin American Affairs (email@example.com, 7-7659)
In what many observers see as a remarkable step forward for its democratic development, Guatemala's judicial system
investigated government corruption, leading to the resignation and arrest of its president and vice-president. Guatemala
then proceeded lawfully and peacefully to form an interim government and hold elections, and is about to transfer
power to a newly elected president.
Corruption Scandals. A national election process was already underway when, beginning in April 2015, Guatemalan
Attorney General (AG) Thelma Aldana and the United Nations-backed International Commission against Impunity in
Guatemala (CICIG) uncovered a corruption ring at the national tax agency (SAT), leading to the arrest of dozens of
people, including the previous and then-directors of the SAT. Public officials allegedly took bribes from business
people in exchange for paying lower customs duties, defrauding the government of millions of dollars of revenue.
Prosecutors found possible links to Vice President Roxana Baldetti, who resigned on May 8 and was arrested on
August 21 on charges of accepting bribes and criminal conspiracy in what has become known as "La Linea" case. Her
resignation was followed by the arrest of other government officials, the resignation or firing of multiple members of
the president's cabinet, impeachment proceedings against President Otto Pérez Molina, and mass protests calling for his
resignation and an end to corruption and impunity. In May, prosecutors charged that in exchange for a bribe
Guatemala's Social Security Institute (ISSS) awarded a $15 million medical contract to a company with no experience;
at least five people died as a result. Authorities arrested 17 people, including ISSS's president, who had been Pérez
Molina's private secretary.
Impeachment of President Pérez Molina. After further investigation, Attorney General Aldana said that it was "highly
probable that the president of the republic may have participated" in these corruption operations. In an unprecedented
action, the congress lifted the president's immunity from prosecution on September 1 so that he could be investigated
for corruption, as requested by the AG and CICIG. President Pérez resigned under pressure on September 2, 2015. The
next day Congress accepted his resignation and swore in Vice President Alejandro Maldonado, a former judge, as
president. With Pérez's resignation and his immunity removed, judicial procedures against him may proceed. Pérez
denies the charges. The court issued orders preventing Pérez from leaving the country, and for him to remain in prison
until the expected conclusion of a preliminary investigation in January 2016.
2015 Elections. National elections were held September 6, 2015. Some civil society groups and others had called for a
delay in part because of ongoing investigations into several candidates' possibly illegal activities. Pérez's resignation
seemed to bolster confidence in the judicial system, and voter turnout was a record 70%. During those five months of
scandals and arrests of officials, an outsider candidate went from under 1% in polls to winning the presidential elections
by a landslide. Former comedian Jimmy Morales framed his lack of political experience as an asset. He emerged ahead
of traditional politicians, some of whom were also being investigated, in the September 6 presidential elections, to face
former First Lady Sandra Torres of the National Unity for Hope (UNE) party in a runoff October 25. (Presidents are
constitutionally prohibited from running for reelection, so Pérez had not been a candidate.) Torres ran popular social
programs while her then-husband, Alvaro Colom, was president, but in the elections was widely associated with the
discredited political elite. Morales won 67.4% of the vote to Torres's 32.6%.
President-Elect Morales. Morales grew up in a poor family, earned a degree in business administration, and co-starred
in a comedy show for 14 years. An evangelical Protestant, he opposes abortion, same-sex marriage, and legalizing
drugs. He is due to be sworn in on January 14, 2016, along with a new legislature. Morales's party, the conservative
National Convergence Front (FCN), won only 11 of 158 seats. Human rights and other observers express concern that
Morales' party's ties to former military officers may limit his government's investigation of military corruption and
human rights violations. Before the legislature was sworn in, the AG requested legal action against retired army colonel
Edgar Ovalle, a legislator-elect with the FCN, for alleged civil war-era human rights violations. Ovalle helped found a
military veterans' association (Avemilgua), whose members created the FCN in 2004, and testified in court in defense
of former dictator Efrain Rios Montt in 2013. Some observers are also concerned that Morales lacks a true governing
plan. He says his priorities are security, health, quality education, and promoting small and medium businesses. He was
criticized for proposals such as tagging teachers with a GPS device to ensure they attend classes and giving every
Guatemalan child a smartphone.
Stability. For decades, intimidation of judicial officials, widespread corruption, and the involvement of organized crime
in violence and extortion have been widely seen as contributing to high levels of impunity and public mistrust in
Guatemalan institutions. The state's failure to provide basic public services to large parts of the population, limited
advances in reducing Guatemala's high poverty levels and inequitable distribution of wealth, and the fallout from the
corruption scandals all contribute to the risk of social unrest. So far the judicial process and protests have been
relatively peaceful. Nonetheless, continued impunity could heighten protests; continued prosecution of corruption could
provoke violent responses from those whose wealth or power are threatened. While many see the corruption charges as
a crisis, others—including many within the Guatemalan government—also see them as an opportunity to make the
government more honest and accountable.
Congressional Concerns. The U.S. Congress has approved aid to strengthen Guatemalan institutions, as well as placed
conditions on aid based on human rights and other concerns for years, and has supported CICIG. The 2016
Consolidated Appropriations Act (P.L. 114-113) provided up to $750 million to Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras
to address root causes of migration to the United States of unaccompanied, undocumented minors by improving
prosperity, security, and governance in Central America. Congress conditioned the release of part of the Central
American aid package on those governments taking effective steps to combat corruption, prosecute security forces for
human rights violations, and other actions, and so will watch to see if Morales, whose party was founded by former
military officers, is willing to pursue such prosecutions. On January 6, 2016, the AG arrested 17 former military
officers in relation to wartime crimes against humanity. Congress is also likely to continue to watch the trial of former
dictator Rios Montt. Rios Montt was convicted in 2013 of genocide and crimes against humanity committed during the
civil war; the ruling was overturned days later. His retrial was due to commence January 11, but was suspended
because of pending defense challenges.
For background information, see CRS Report R42580, Guatemala: Political, Security, and Socio-Economic Conditions
and U.S. Relations, and CRS Insight IN10237, President Obama's $1 Billion Foreign Aid Request for Central America.