Guatemala’s President Otto Perez Molina’s late-night resignation could upend deeply entrenched military criminal networks or — as has been Guatemalan tradition — leave them exactly how they are.
Perez Molina handed his resignation letter to Congress just hours after the legislative body voted to take away his immunity and a judge ordered authorities to arrest him for his involvement in a massive customs scheme to falsify documents, bilk importers and siphon state resources. Former Constitutional Court Judge turned Vice President Alejandro Maldonado is now president.
Former President — and ex military general — Perez Molina was a perfect example of a bureaucratic elite in Guatemala — someone who had built his economic and political power using his positions in the state, mostly through his connections to the military.
The president was also long part of what was known as the Sindicato, a shadowy network of former and current military personnel that was equal parts criminal facilitator and criminal actor.
The network facilitated schemes like “La Linea,” the name given to the customs fraud network that allegedly included the former Vice President Roxana Baldetti, who is in jail already.
The president and the vice president were referred to on the wiretaps as “number one” and “number two,” among other names. The president had to face questions in court about this and other accusations shortly after he resigned.
For a long time, the Sindicato competed with what was known as the Cofradia, another shadowy network of current and former military personnel that was both criminal actor and criminal facilitator.
These networks were referred to as Illegal Clandestine Security Apparatuses (Cuerpos Ilegales y Aparatos Clandestinos de Seguridad – CIACS), and they were the reason why the United Nation’s backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) was formed in 2007 (the mandate makes direct reference to the CIACS).
To some extent, the CICIG has fulfilled its mandate of going after the CIACS. CICIG targeted networks such as the one connected to former President Alfonso Portillo, and other CIACS-related cases have led to the incarceration of members of these networks.
Perez Molina’s resignation is certainly the finest testament yet that these networks have at least been partially dismantled. And over time, the power of networks like the Cofradia and the Sindicato has dissipated.
Guatemala is currently in more of a post-CIACS world. To be sure, Perez Molina’s presidency was thought to be a fusion of the two networks in which members of the Cofradia and the Sindicato worked together.
Witness the case of Francisco Javier Ortiz, alias “Teniente Jerez,” who was arrested as part of La Linea scandal. Ortiz participated in a customs fraud scandal in the 1990s that was exactly like La Linea, except under the management of the Cofradia.
The head of the Cofradia was retired General Francisco Ortega Menaldo, and, to a certain extent, Ortega Menaldo represents what remains to be done in Guatemala.
Ortega Menaldo is a ghost of sorts. He stopped officially working with governments after trying to engineer an “auto-coup” in 1993, but he has remained a significant political and underworld actor.
The former general was unofficially connected, but not indicted, to the Portillo corruption scheme in the early 2000s. And as recently as 2012, he was believed to be controlling Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala’s largest port where he had his own mini-La Linea scheme set up.
Ortega Menaldo has also been the target of numerous investigations by the Guatemalan Attorney General’s Office and perhaps even the United States. His visa was revoked, at least for a time, by the US for suspected ties to drug traffickers.
Still, Ortega Menaldo has never been charged with a crime. And while it may be anachronistic to talk about the Cofradia, it is still relevant to talk about criminal networks who are ex military and have active roles in the government or could have active roles in the near future.
One of the leading candidates for president — Jimmy Morales — fits into this mold. More precisely, his political party — Frente de Convergencia Nacional (FCN) — was founded and is made up of ex-military personnel from the Asociacion de Veteranos Militares de Guatemala, AVEMILGUA, the public face of some of the dangerous military personnel that started this mess in the first place. While Morales has presented himself as an anti-corruption candidate, the one-time comedian represents the interests of AVEMILGUA.
The latest poll for the first round of September 6 elections has Morales on top. None of the candidates are expected to win enough votes to avoid a run-off between the top two vote-getters, which is scheduled for October 25.
What’s more, Perez Molina has not yet been convicted, and the record for prosecutions in Guatemala against ex-presidents is not good. Alfonso Portillo was eventually acquitted in a Guatemalan court for a technicality. And after a historic victory in the case against former military dictator Efrain Rios Montt for genocide, that decision was reversed by the Constitutional Court just a few days later. One of the judges who ruled in favor of Rios Montt is now President Alejandro Maldonado.