Besieged by growing civil turmoil and an angrily restive military, Guatemalan President Jorge Serrano suspended the constitution and dissolved Congress and the Supreme Court on Tuesday.
Serrano announced he was seizing absolute power in an early morning national broadcast on radio and television. He added that he will rule by decree until a new constitution is drafted within 60 days.
"I have made this decision . . . to purge the state of all its forms of corruption of which you and I are totally fed up," Serrano said.
Police surrounded key institutions, the telephone company and homes of congressional leaders and Guatemala's human rights ombudsman, a frequent critic of the government. The ombudsman, Ramiro De Leon Carpio, went into hiding but, through reporters, urged Guatemalan society to resist Serrano's power grab. The presidents of the Supreme Court, Jose Rodil Peralta, and the Congress, Jose Lobo Dubon, were placed under house arrest.
The army, widely regarded as the principal power behind the government here, said it supports Serrano's move.
Critics immediately blasted Serrano's actions as a pretext for clamping down on opposition. In recent weeks, the Guatemalan capital has been the scene of violent demonstrations protesting price increases and other economic policies.
"This measure is specifically directed at muzzling those voices which have called for justice," said union leader Luis Merida.
The criticism reached international proportions--from the White House, where President Clinton called for a reversal of Serrano's "illegitimate course of action," to Guatemala's Central American neighbors, themselves struggling to build nascent democracies.
"There is no justification for resorting to non-democratic means to resolve Guatemala's problems," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said in Washington. He said the United States will press for an emergency meeting of the Organization of American States to consider sanctions against the Guatemalan regime.
"This is a painful return to totalitarianism . . . which sets a bad example for the whole region," Honduran legislator Rafael Pineda Ponce said.
In a news conference, Serrano tried to soften the blow of his actions, promising to return Guatemala to normal "as soon as possible." He said democracy "in its transition period" is often weak and requires protection from the corruption and illegal drug trafficking.
"No one told me I was elected to allow the narcotics-trafficking mafia to come and corrode the core of the Guatemalan state," he said.
Serrano's actions were reminiscent of a move last year by Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, who similarly used rampant corruption as the justification for suspending state institutions.
Like Fujimori, Serrano was elected in 1990 in a surprise, come-from-behind victory, and he has governed with a political party that held a minority of seats in the Congress.
This has forced Serrano to placate and increasingly rely on a right-wing military that wields enormous behind-the-scenes power and possesses one of the worst human rights records in the hemisphere.
The president came under renewed pressure from the military last week after the capital was rocked by street riots. Demonstrators protesting an increase in electricity tariffs and other measures stormed government offices and demanded that Serrano resign. Government security forces killed one protester.
The army has also been angered by the failure of Serrano's government to conclude peace talks with leftist guerrillas who, for the last 32 years, have waged a civil war against the state.
Those talks broke down earlier this month, and the Roman Catholic Church accused both sides of intransigence.
Serrano has also come under sharp criticism from the United States and human rights groups. The U.S. Embassy in Guatemala City earlier this month criticized continued military impunity after an army officer convicted in the murder of an innkeeper from the United States escaped jail.
And last week, London-based Amnesty International issued a report condemning continued rights violations in Guatemala.
Serrano, a conservative born-again Christian and Stanford graduate, took office in 1991 in the first hand-over of power from one civilian president to another after more than three decades of almost-uninterrupted military rule.
Times staff writer Norman Kempster, in Washington, and special correspondent Edward Orlebar, in Guatemala City, contributed to this report.