Was the ‘Guatemalan Spring’ an illusion?
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In the autumn of 2015, it appeared that Guatemala, Central America’s most populous nation and largest economy, might be turning a corner. Two decades after a peace accord ended Latin America’s bloodiest civil war, the nation, mired in corruption and impunity, succeeded in striking some important blows against both.
Following weeks of massive street protests, both the then-sitting president, Otto Pérez Molina, and recently-departed vice-president, Roxana Baldetti, were divested of their duties and imprisoned on corruption charges, accused of running a criminal network known as La línea (The Line) while in office. The arrests were spearhead by the work of the Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG), a United Nations-mandated body that has operated since 2007, which works closely with Guatemala’s Ministerio Público and is charged with investigating criminal organisations and exposing their relation to the state.
At the time, many heralded the developments as a kind of “Guatemalan Spring”, one that would hopefully sweep much of the corrupt old order away and give the country a chance to capitalise on its vast natural resources and unique geographic position on the Central American isthmus.
A political outsider, former comedian Jimmy Morales, won the presidency that autumn, though the fact that he ran as the candidate of the Frente de Convergencia Nacional (FCN), a party founded by former military officers leaning to the extreme right of the country’s military spectrum, gave many pause.
A little over a year into his mandate – despite the fact that, last year, Guatemala attracted $1.18bn in foreign investment, with agriculture, electricity manufacturing and mining leading the way, according to figures from Santander – the suspicions some had about Mr Morales have done anything but dissipate.
This past March, thousands marched through the streets of the nation’s capital, Guatemala City, demanding his resignation after both his brother, Samuel Morales, and son, José Manuel Morales Marroquín, were arrested on charges they participated in a tax fraud scheme. The pair are currently awaiting trial.
At around the same time, in an event that seemed to highlight government indifference to Guatemala’s social ills, 41 teenage girls were burned to death at the Virgen de la Asunción shelter, which had been recommended closed due to repeated allegations of abuse of its charges. The case led to the indictment of three government officials and two police officers and prosecutors have openly talked about having Mr Morales’ immunity lifted in it, as well.
Two towns in the department of San Marcos, Ixchiguán and Tajumulco, entered a state of siege due to conflict between local and national authorities and bands of rival drug traffickers.
One small bright spot has been the renewal by the United Nations of the mandate of CICIG head Iván Velásquez this past June. Mr Velásquez, a Colombian jurist, has led the body since 2013, and has earned the enmity of many of Guatemala’s corrupt actors, even as CICIG has maintained a large degree of support among the population.
If Guatemala is to continue to move forward and solidify the modest gains against impunity it has made, the work of CICIG and the Guatemalan institutions it partners with – and the power of its newly-motivated citizenry – will be key.