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Why Guatemalans rose up against government corruption

On Thursday, Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina was forced to resign. By the afternoon, he was in court, accused of taking part in a multi-million dollar bribery operation, and then he spent the night in jail. Judy Woodruff takes a closer look at the dramatic turn of events with Adriana Beltrán from the Washington Office on Latin America.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    We turn now to a major shakeup in the Central American nation of Guatemala.

    On Thursday morning, President Otto Perez Molina was forced to resign. By Thursday afternoon, he was in court to face charges, and he spent the night in jail. He's accused of taking part in a multimillion-dollar bribery operation. As the allegations were revealed over the summer, tens of thousands of Guatemalans took to the streets, demanding accountability.

    For more on these allegations and what it means for that country, I'm joined now by Adriana Beltran. She's a Guatemala expert at the Washington Office on Latin America. It's a research group that advocates for human rights.

    Welcome to the NewsHour.

    ADRIANA BELTRAN, Washington Office on Latin America: Thank you, Judy, for inviting me.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, tell us, what are all these corruption charges about? What do they actually involve?

  • ADRIANA BELTRAN:

    Well, back in April, the Guatemalan public prosecutor's office and the U.N.-led International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG, unearthed a massive corruption scandal within the tax authority office.

    It implicated a number of high-level officials that had essentially set up a scheme where they were accepting massive bribes for importers to be able to pay lower taxes, thereby defrauding the state of millions and millions of revenue.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And this has been unfolding over the year. Earlier this year, the vice president had to step down.

  • ADRIANA BELTRAN:

    Right.

    So, due to these charges, the vice president was forced to resign in May. In August, following more investigations that were carried out by the prosecutor's office and by the CICIG, they announced they had sufficient evidence to allege that both former Vice President Baldetti and now former President Otto Perez Molina were involved in this case.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And so what led to his actually leaving office?

  • ADRIANA BELTRAN:

    Since the April scandal came out, thousands and thousands of Guatemalans had been protesting weekly on the streets, demanding an end to corruption, and end to impunity and a complete transformation of the political system.

    It has been unprecedented in Guatemala to just see the number of people that have taken to the streets in a very peaceful way, but also because it has brought together Guatemalans from different walks of life. You have had sectors that have historically just had many differences come together for one common cause.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And the government wasn't pushing back on these demonstrations?

  • ADRIANA BELTRAN:

    Not at all. And they have been very peaceful. They have been happening for 19 weeks, since April.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Guatemala has a history of corruption, of repression. What is different this time? What caused the people to rise up?

  • ADRIANA BELTRAN:

    I think there are three takeaways.

    One, I think the courageous efforts of the public prosecutors, of a number of prosecutors and judges that have shown that the justice system can be made to work in a country where, before, you know, they have always faced often repercussions and were at severe risk for taking a stand.

    The work of the International Commission Against Impunity, the CICIG, has always been instrumental in trying to build up the capabilities of the institutions. And that, you know, allowed or provoked the people to take to the streets in massive numbers.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, now the former president, he is in jail. Does this feel like a real turning point, like things are going to change after this?

  • ADRIANA BELTRAN:

    I do.

    To me, this is a historic moment for Guatemala, but also for anti-corruption efforts in the region. The Guatemala today is not the Guatemala that we saw and that we knew before April. Guatemalans now know that, together, they can make a difference and that they have started or created new openings for their country.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now, the vice president who's taken Perez Molina's place, is he different?

  • ADRIANA BELTRAN:

    Well, now you have an interim government. And these different sectors are continuing to work together. They're right now trying to define a common anti-corruption agenda that they can push forward in the next several months.

    Guatemalan politicians and policy-makers know that the population is watching and that they are — they will be holding them accountable.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, what's your sense about the future?

  • ADRIANA BELTRAN:

    I'm hopeful. I think this is a tremendous triumph for hope and a demonstration that change can happen, that justice and the rule of law can prevail through peaceful means.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And you said, quickly, just a minute ago a regional change. Do you see this having an effect anywhere else in Central America?

  • ADRIANA BELTRAN:

    I'm hoping that what we can learn and what we can take away from Guatemala and from these events is that we can combat corruption through peaceful demonstrations, through the leadership of courageous people and through the support of the international community.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Adriana Beltran with the Washington Office on Latin America, we thank you.

  • ADRIANA BELTRAN:

    Thank you.

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