On the first day of September, Guatemala’s Congress voted to end President Otto Pérez Molina’s immunity from prosecution. Crowds gathered outside Congress, setting off fireworks and celebrating the decision. The vote followed months of mass mobilizations against corruption and popular calls for Pérez Molina’s resignation.
The following day, the ousted president was in jail.
Pérez Molina’s resignation is a watershed moment for Guatemala. It’s a striking blow to the wall of impunity that surrounds the country’s most powerful figures—and in this case, one of its most feared as well. Carrying out research in Guatemala several years ago on the human rights violations of the early 1980s, I got a sense of Pérez Molina’s pervasive power from the cloud of fear that materialized whenever his name was mentioned.
Indeed, Pérez Molina may be on trial for corruption now, but he’s been directly linked to far more serious crimes—including numerous human rights atrocities and political murders committed during and after Guatemala’s internal armed conflict.
In declassified documents, US military intelligence officials wrote that Pérez Molina and his cohort of military officers had “blood stains on their hands” dating back to their actions in the civil war. During the conflict, the country’s US-backed intelligence agencies and security forces were responsible for acts of torture, executions, enforced disappearances, and a military counterinsurgency campaign that involved genocidal massacres of the indigenous Maya population, according to a UN truth commission.
Rewarded by the oligarchy for their dirty war against the guerrilla insurgency and targeted destruction of the left, many members of the country’s powerful intelligence agents and military personnel capitalized on their near-total impunity to form criminal networks during and after the fighting. These enterprises have continued to operate parallel to state institutions, amassing political influence through their connections within and outside of government.
These shadowy “hidden powers,” as they came to be known—illegal, clandestine security structures that originated during the internal armed conflict—have operated parallel to every presidential administration since the military handed over the government to civilian control in 1986. Pérez Molina’s fall is an unprecedented blow against this culture of impunity, but doesn’t yet herald a definite end to the criminal networks.