Thousands of Guatemalans Protest Government Corruption

In anger and impotence, thousands of Guatemalans came together for The National Strike (El Paro Nacional) on September 20. Marches were organized across the country in protest of a recent  move by Congress to soften the legal punishment for corruption. Though the reform was ultimately unsuccessful, the marches called for the resignation of President Jimmy Morales—whose immunity was recently upheld amid charges alleging corruption—and the 107 congressmen who voted to modify the country’s penal code. The legal reform sought to shift financial responsibility within political parties from the secretary-general to a lower-level accountant and allowed prison sentences of up to ten years to be interchangeable with payment of fines.

Opponents contend that such revisions essentially exempted political parties’ secretary-generals, who usually go on to be presidential candidates, from persecution if the party engages in illicit campaign financing. The reform is accused, therefore, of reducing sanctions for corruption. Both modifications were suspended by the Constitutional Court and then withdrawn by Congress after severe public pressure.

The reform proposal came at a tumultuous time for Guatemalan politics. Morales,  who served as secretary-general for the National Convergence Front before running for president in 2015, was accused earlier this year of exactly the same crime that the reform would have altered. The Public Ministry and the United Nations’ International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CIGIG) filed charges against Morales for supposedly financing his campaign with unregistered, anonymous funds.

The investigation was dropped when Congress voted to maintain the president’s immunity in early September 2017 but not before Morales spurred controversy by attempting to expel the CIGIG’s head, Ivan Velazquez, from the country.

Morales stood before the United Nations General Assembly on September 19 and assured them that the Guatemalan government was ‘‘fully committed to the fight against corruption and impunity.’’

In response, protesters flooded the streets of Guatemala City in a united front, demanding accountability from their president the following day.