Corruption in Guatemala: A Story of Rats, Wiretaps, and Arrogance

SHARETweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on LinkedInShare on Google+

How is it possible that a corruption scandal could force out a president in a matter of months? This is what any foreign observer would ask who is following what is happening in Guatemala.

It’s not necessary to review the literature on comparative politics to realize that in very few cases have corruption scandals ended a presidency in such a short time frame. In the span of just four months, Otto Perez Molina’s presidency in Guatemala was shattered.

In reality, what is important is not that the former president lost immunity or resigned. What is important are the implications of the corruption scandal revealed by the United Nations-back International Commission Against Impunity (CICIG). A case that implicated former President Perez Molina as the head of a parallel criminal structure that included former military officers, businessmen and customs agents. How was it possible that in just weeks this entire criminal structure was shattered into smithereens?

What is due to the quality of the investigations by the CICIG?

Yes; the investigators are not making the type of errors that could allow the case to be thrown out on technicalities. What’s more, the investigations are not based exclusively on witness testimonies (as was the case while Carlos Castresana was the head of the CICIG). The cases are supported by wiretaps and well as documentation.

SEE ALSO: Guatemala News and Profiles

It is important not to forget that on the day the scandal was made public, private offices of the businessman Luis Mendizabal were raided, which enabled the CICIG to confiscate documents and computers. This would not be important save for the fact that Mendizabal, a civilian without a government position but with a history of conducting private intelligence, allegedly had direct access to information on Guatemala’s customs offices thanks to a complex system of computer screens installed in his office.

But what is most striking is not the massive fraud network the investigation has revealed, but rather how easily the criminal structure was dismantled. This network known as “La Linea” was a parallel structure that defrauded the merchandise that passed through Guatemala’s customs offices. The money that should have gone towards paying import taxes was sent to La Linea operators, which was then shared throughout the criminal structure, including Perez Molina and ex-Vice President Roxana Baldetti, according to prosecutors.

More than just a traditional criminal structure worried about operating in the shadows, this was a parallel business structure that could be utilized by a diverse array of businessman. The lack of prudence shown by its members is noteworthy considering that intercepting phone calls is a common practice used by the CICIG. In fact, it was the wiretaps which revealed that those involved in the scandal used little discretion.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Elites and Organized Crime

Why so little precaution? If the network was allegedly run by the president of the country, who gave orders directly or through the vice president’s private secretary, there was no reason to fear that the investigations would penetrate the network. The lack of suspicion was fueled by the apparent protective cloak that came from the presidency, since it is believed that the country’s highest office administered the corruption.

Now, how was it possible to know which telephones to tap? There are several ways, but the most common is always “rats” who talk to authorities after having been left without their fair share of the earnings. It should be kept in mind that “criminal operators” who are not very careful with their phone conversations are also not very attentive to paying everyone involved in the chain of corruption. This is not only the most common, but also the most efficient means of generating information. Since its inception, the CICIG has not been against using this system.

It is also possible that members of Guatemala’s class of economic elites — who are traditionally associated with not paying taxes — wanted to save themselves from the tsunami this case had unleashed. The alleged negotiations between former head of the CICIG Carlos Castresana and members of the private sector are also well-known.

Whatever may be the case, it is certainly an interesting story: reckless criminals, rats aboard the ship, and a president who apparently wanted to play mafioso.

*Sessional lecturer, Guelph University, Overseas Semester – 2015.

SHARETweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on LinkedInShare on Google+