General Otto Perez Molina ceased being president of Guatemala inside a courtroom. Not before. All of his power dissipated before television cameras, before dozens of journalists. He went from being president of a country to a retired general. An ex. Someone vulnerable. Just another Guatemalan. The accused.
Perez Molina is accused of leading customs fraud network “La Linea.” There’s a high chance he could lose all his rights as a citizen — his liberty, his agency. Otto Perez Molina ceased to hold the highest political office in the country before Judge Miguel Angel Galvez, around midday on September 3, when Congress — 118 votes in favor, none against, and 40 abstentions — accepted his resignation.
The president arrived at the courthouse in the morning: security guards, sirens, human shields, pushing through… In the afternoon, the retired general — tired, sunken eyes, powerless, alone — was sent to a holding cell in Matamoros, to be held in custody.
“He’s not guilty of anything,” the judge explained. “We’re not at that part of the process.” Still, he added that the risk of escape was there, and that the ex-president should be detained.
When the retired general was sent to Matamoros, he hadn’t yet finished hearing the Attorney General’s accusations against him. The Attorney General’s Office (known as the Public Ministry) had only made it through half of the allegations. Prosecutor Jose Antonio Morales was on the verge of naming Perez Molina as the chief of La Linea. But he was not able to link the ex-president to charges of passive bribery, illicit association, and customs fraud. Despite the interruption, Perez Molina promised to deliver a tough blow the following day in court. “Nothing that they’re accusing me of has any basis,” the general emphasized to journalists while leaving the room.
A day before, President Otto Perez Molina was no longer able to enjoy the “benefit of the doubt” that he’d asked from Guatemalans during a televised address on August 30. Nor could he rely on the forgiveness that he’d requested two weeks ago, due to the amount of corruption within his three years, nine months of government. The Public Ministry had requested his arrest. They were after him.
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It was because of an investigation based on phone wiretaps, which identified Perez Molina — alongside his former vice president, Roxana Baldetti — as the leaders of a crime ring that stole 24 million quetzales (just over $3 million) in state funds within a year. Both United Nations anti-impunity commission the CICIG and the Attorney General’s special office against impunity (FECI) requested that the president be stripped of his immunity from proseuction. The Supreme Court approved, after asking that Congress intervene. And in September, Congress also left the president abandoned and out of luck.
Thus, on September 3 Guatemala awoke to the news that Otto Perez Molina had resigned. He had furtively presented a letter to Congress. According to the official version of events, it was signed at around 7 p.m. Other sources, who accompanied Perez Molina, until the end, say it was at 11.30 p.m. In any case, he waited until most newspapers had closed their morning editions until finally making it public, at 1 a.m. As a result, few publications had run anything on his resignation, besides news that an arrest warrant had been issued against him. Until Congress formally accepted the resignation, Perez Molina would remain president of Guatemala.
“Nothing that they’re accusing me of has any basis,” the general emphasized to journalists while leaving the room.
Under these conditons — while still acting as the head of government — he appeared voluntarily before Judge Galvez. He looked serious, with few gestures betraying his mood, just the rapid movement of a pencil between his fingers. Otto Perez Molina sat on the bench of the accused around 9 a.m. The prosecutors — Juan Francisco Sandoval, Jose Antonio Morales, Julio Roberto Barrios Prade — arrived a little bit later, with hundreds of papers, hundreds of wiretaps. They were ready to litigate.
Over the next seven hours, Otto Perez Molina listened inattentively, only making a note here and there. He listened to the court describe how La Linea operated between May 8, 2014 and April 16, 2015, the period during which it was investigated. It’s a story that the Public Ministry has told many times within courtrooms since April 19, after the first upper, middle, and lower-ranking members of La Linea were arrested. It’s also a story that led to formal accusations being filed against ex-vice president Roxana Baldetti, just over a week ago. She is now being held in custody in women’s prison Santa Teresa. All in all, more than 35 suspects are awaiting for the public trial to begin, once the Public Ministry finishes its investigation and begins looking for convictions for millions of dollars worth of customs fraud.
Everything began in La Linea with a phone call. The Public Ministry’s investigation started out that way, monitoring a few cell phone numbers. Julio Aldana, the former head of customs at Puerto Quetzal, chats with local businessman Miao Miao, alias “Erick.” Aldana explains that now, there’s a new way Erick’s products can enter Guatemala — via La Linea. They talk of prices, products, times… numbers that should be called in order to receive benefits. These benefits include not paying taxes on imports — instead, paying bribes.
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During the morning, while he is still president (until Congress accepts his resignation), Otto Perez Molina is alert in court, but bored. After midday, once he is a retired general again, he pays more attention. In the afternoon, the court began playing the wiretaps, and the ex-president’s voice was heard, echoing off the walls of courtroom B. A phone recording that linked Perez Molina to La Linea. His expression never changed.
Before playing the phone recording of the president, the Public Ministry presented a chronology of who was appointed as head of Guatemala’s Superintendency of Tax Administration, known as the SAT. This is the state official responsible for collecting taxes; filing the state coffers with funds needed for health, education… This was the key position that allowed La Linea to operate.
During the morning, while he is still president (until Congress accepts his resignation), Otto Perez Molina is alert in court, but bored. After midday, once he is a retired general again, he pays more attention.
In court, Otto Perez Molina heard the prosecutors tell of the hiring of two SAT chiefs. First there was Carlos Muñoz, who helped run La Linea from within the SAT. Then came a point when Muñoz could not carry on: he faltered, but still wanted to stay in his position. La Linea wanted his head. And so, a new head of the SAT would be appointed, January 28, 2015. He would be named by the president of Guatemala — Otto Perez Molina.
In a phone call recorded on November 3, 2014, Molina said the following to Carlos Muñoz:
“The human resources guy, that we talked about changing. The unions are already threatening. Why won’t you change the human resources guy for me? We need that to keep up with the changes…”
“I’ll make the change today, Mr. President,” Muñoz said in response.
The Public Ministry then attempted to oultine the participation, the leading role, the knowledge, the leadership, the benefits of Otto Perez Molina within La Linea.
Before the recess, Judge Galvez decided to suspend the hearing, after hearing nearly eight hours of accusations against Otto Perez Molina. He had decided to hold the retired general in custdoy at the Matamoros military base, the judge said. “Preventative prison is a right. We’re not sending him to jail. The accusations aren’t over,” Galvez said. The Public Ministry would resume its case against the accused after September 4.
A few moments before he was escorted to Matamoros, Otto Perez issued a warning before the press. “Remember, remember that the Comissioner [Ivan Velasquez, the head of the CICIG] had said that this investigation happened at the request of the executive.” The ex-president then said that he would return before Judge Galvez, in order to question and confront the Public Ministry with his own arguments and evidence.
“They have no basis,” he said.