Guatemala is at a historic juncture. President Otto Pérez Molina submitted his resignation on September 2 after months of protests that culminated in a nationwide strike on August 27. Hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated in the streets throughout the country.

Pérez Molina is now behind bars. He faces charges of fraud, accepting bribes, and illegal association.

The protests began in April, when CICIG—a United Nations commission formed to help Guatemala prosecute high-impact crimes—found that the vice president and others in Pérez Molina’s administration had been eliminating customs tariffs in exchange for bribes. This maneuver cheated the Guatemalan public out of millions of dollars of revenue—no small matter in a country with a 75 percent poverty rate, and where 18 people a day die of malnutrition. In late August, CACIF—Guatemala’s powerful chamber of commerce, industry, agriculture, and finance—joined the broad-based calls for the president’s resignation.

With their victory still fresh, the Guatemalans who pushed all summer for justice have hope, enthusiasm, and determination. In their view, the struggle has just begun.

“The movement won’t stop,” explained Claudia Samayoa, director of the Human Rights Defenders Unit, in an e-mail exchange. “The movement has organized around various general objectives: jail for the corrupt, clean elections, and political reform. The first objective has had important results—the main one is the fact that the president resigned and now is detained, pending the investigations and possible trial for acts of fraud and organized crime. But there is still a long list of politicians that need to get their immunity taken away so that investigations can proceed.”

If courage is all that’s needed to effect the sweeping changes the broad reform movement envisions, Guatemala will soon be a different place.

The protesters have willingly faced risks. Samayoa, whose organization tracks human rights violations, notes that the movement in Guatemala has given birth to hundreds, if not thousands, of new human rights defenders, most of them young. “We have observed a pattern of aggression against the new leadership, coming mostly from politicians that have lost the most with the movement. We have seen how 15 days before the elections, the attacks grew in intensity and frequency. After the elections, the targeting has already started, both against the new leadership but also against human rights defenders who have important leadership in the struggle for the right to land and a healthy environment.”

But two potential obstacles loom large: the current government’s conservative bent, and the impending presidential run-off.

The Impact of the Elections

Conservative party candidates made a strong showing in the latest congressional elections, held in tandem with the local and presidential elections on September 6.

Electoral fraud has been alleged at various sites in the countryside, and demonstrations are ongoing. But if the results stand, as they are likely to, the sweeping changes many progressives and human rights activists favor—including election law reform, the formation of a constituent assembly that will eventually write a new constitution, the passage of laws regulating government contracts, and reforms to the justice and security sectors—will be a difficult sell.

Guatemala’s current president, Alejandro Maldonado Aguirre, will be little help. Appointed in May to replace vice president Roxana Baldetti, he was for many decades a member of the right-wing National Liberation Movement, known for pioneering the use of death squads against political opponents and dissidents. He represented the regime of Fernando Lucas García before the United Nations, defending the government’s gross human rights violations. In more recent days, as a constitutional judge, he twice blocked genocide proceedings against former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt.

If the implacability of the current government doesn’t quell the vibrant movement for reform that has solidified over the past five months, the impending high-stakes presidential run-off, set for October 25, could divert its focus.

Jimmy Morales, a former comedian backed by the army, emerged from the latest elections in the lead. Sandra Torres, first lady during the presidency of Alvaro Colom, was second. Neither has won the confidence of those who’ve been in the streets pushing for change.

In fact, many activists, including a coalition of human rights organizations—La Convergencia por Los Derechos Humanos—had called for the elections to be suspended altogether, until electoral laws could be reformed and all candidates were certified as being legally able to run. (At least one candidate, Zury Ríos, ran for president illegally. As the relative of someone who instigated a coup d’état—her father, Efraín Ríos Montt—she should have been barred as a candidate.) Whoever wins the run-off, according to long-time human rights leader Helen Mack, will come into office “very delegitimized.”

Although Sandra Torres, who has faced accusations of corruption herself, is far from a darling of the growing movement for change, she may be the lesser of two evils. A Jimmy Morales presidency could mean that the army’s interests would be paramount—including impunity for crimes carried out during the country’s 36-year internal armed conflict, which ended in 1996, leaving 200,000 dead and 45,000 disappeared.

Morales, a conservative evangelical, represents the National Convergence Front (FCN), a party formed in 2008 by retired military officers. Many of these officers were hardliners who favored the 1992 coup carried out by president Jorge Serrano Elías. Many were also implicated in the atrocities committed by the US-backed army during Guatemala’s armed conflict.

Morales’ right-hand man, who has run his campaign with military precision, is Edgar Justino Ovalle Maldonado, a retired colonel linked to disappearances and war crimes himself. In 1987, he led a paramilitary command reported to have attacked internally displaced refugees who were hiding in the mountains to avoid being forced into “model villages” run by the army. In earlier years—in fact, during the bloodiest years of the war—he reportedly led a task force in the Ixil region that worked under the direction of another task force led by Otto Pérez Molina.

As the election results were tallied, Guatemalan human rights lawyer Renata Avila tweeted, “Jimmy is a puppet.” She went on to suggest that he had been financed by the same people who had brought Pérez Molina to power. Morales denies that retired military officers have funded his campaign, but he has not been forthcoming about what his funding sources are.

He is indisputably close to the military, however. Morales has already suggested that he would consider appointing Cesar Augusto Cabrera Mejía as minister of the interior. Cabrera Mejía, a founder of the retired military group that started the FCN and invited Morales on board, has been linked to massacres in Cobán. Those hoping to use this historic window to effect change were not comforted as the results rolled in, therefore, when Morales told reporters, “I won’t know what to do in every situation, but I will know who to ask.”

Trials and Tribulation

Who occupies the presidency will be particularly significant in light of the demand for justice that resulted in last year’s trial of Ríos Montt. It resulted in a conviction, which was then overturned on a technicality. The trial is scheduled to resume in January.

Paradigmatic cases of human rights violations committed during the armed conflict, which the Organization of American States was pushing the Guatemalan government to resolve, were put on the back burner during Pérez Molina’s presidency. If Morales becomes president, they will likely remain sidelined.

Who holds the office of president could also affect the fate of Pérez Molina, who was credibly accused of war crimes when he ran for president himself. Now that he’s lost his immunity—and now that a former soldier has already given eyewitness testimony under oath as to Pérez Molina’s involvement in atrocities during the war—perhaps the quest for justice, under a president favorably disposed, could extend to him.

A long-time opponent of Pérez Molina, Sandra Torres would be unlikely to cut him or his ilk any slack. Pérez Molina was the opposition leader in Congress when Torres’ ex-husband, Alvaro Colom, held the presidency. Considering a run for presidency herself, Torres divorced her husband to try to get around the law that no relatives of a current president could run at the end of the president’s term. US embassy cables, released through WikiLeaks, recount meetings that embassy staff had with Pérez Molina as he was gearing up to run in the 2010 election. He contended that Torres was fabricating witnesses who would claim he had been involved in atrocities in order to disqualify him.

It turns out those witnesses are real. In addition to the soldier who testified, journalist Allan Nairn interviewed Pérez Molina—who then went by the nom de guerre Tito Arias—in the early 1980s. He was standing over a pile of corpses of people he had just interrogated. Evidence also links Pérez Molina to the murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi, who was bludgeoned to death in his garage in 1998—two days after announcing that his church had found the army largely responsible for the human rights violations that occurred during the war. Pérez Molina is also credibly linked to the clandestine detention, torture, and execution of Efraín Bámaca Velásquez, an indigenous guerrilla leader disappeared in 1992.

Considered left of center, Torres’ husband’s administration won the support of some of the long-standing campesino and labor groups that had organized during the armed conflict. Sandra Torres herself undertook a number of programs aimed at eliminating poverty and hunger in the countryside.

Although the administration won support in the countryside, Colom’s relationship with CACIF was fraught with tension. Colom sought to raise taxes and CACIF resisted, claiming that the Colom government lacked transparency and complaining that solving the problem of poverty should not fall solely on the rich. When Colom decreed a raise in the minimum wage, the business class’s dissatisfaction reached such a level that a soft coup was attempted.

A wealthy lawyer, Rodrigo Rosenberg, recorded a video saying that if he ended up being murdered, President Colom would be to blame for it. Then he arranged his own murder. Two men on a motorcycle gunned him down as he stood in his driveway. The months of protest that followed his death—and the release of the video—destabilized the government. Crowds filled the streets in a strange mirror image of this summer’s events, demanding the resignation of the president.

CICIG played a key role, too, but this time, in reverse. Investigating the Rosenberg murder, CICIG learned that it was a killing the lawyer had arranged himself. Colom was cleared, and he served out his term.

What Comes Next

What the coming months will hold will depend on Guatemalans themselves. But it will also depend on the role the international community plays.

The United Nations System in Guatemala—a coalition including the UN, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank—stated in a recent press release that the political crisis in Guatemala “should be seen as an opportunity for serious and profound changes.” The group recommended that the Guatemalan government “advance the political and legislative reform agendas that the citizenry is demanding.”

The US position has been less clear. Samayoa points out that “the U.S. embassy wanted to stop the mobilizations so that the crisis could be contained and no spillovers could happen.… Now the crisis is very deep and the will of the people strong to continue acting to produce change. We believe that U.S. embassy should respect that and allow the movement to continue. It is a nonviolent and reform-oriented movement. We have the right to craft, this time, our democracy. Last time, the democracy was crafted by the military and the United States.”

With verve and courage, the popular uprising continues.

If the United States, whose official interests often align with the interests of Guatemala’s business class, opts for stability over change and authoritarianism over true democratic participation, the movement may face insurmountable challenges.

But perhaps not. One thing the Guatemalan people have taught the world over the past five months is that an impossible feat—say, overthrowing a former general who had ruled with an iron fist; militarized the countryside; created a threatening climate for human rights workers, unionists, and journalists; and sowed fear—is not, after all, impossible.