Guatemalan lawmakers lift president’s immunity in corruption scandal

Demonstrators celebrate outside the Congress building in Guatemala City on hearing that President Otto Perez Molina's immunity had been stripped.

Demonstrators celebrate outside the Congress building in Guatemala City on hearing that President Otto Perez Molina’s immunity had been stripped.

(Moises Castillo / Associated Press)

Guatemala’s Congress lifted President Otto Perez Molina’s immunity Tuesday, opening the possibility of prosecution in connection with a widening customs corruption scandal that has rocked his administration and the country’s political system.

With all 132 lawmakers present in the 158-seat assembly voting to approve the historic measure, prosecutors are now free to file criminal charges against Perez Molina like any other citizen, and a judge would be able to order his detention.

The congressional vote does not remove the president from office, but a judge later granted an order barring him from traveling outside the country.


“Guatemala is showing that nobody is above the law, and as a result this is a message for all current and future public servants that our behavior must be subject to the constitution,” prosecutor Thelma Aldana said at a news conference.

About 200 people outside the capitol hugged, cheered, waved Guatemalan flags and set off firecrackers as news of the congressional vote reached them, an echo of earlier massive street protests calling for his removal from office. Drivers honked horns, and people recorded the moment with selfies.

“Excellent! It is a step forward for Guatemala,” said Gerardo Corzo, a 71-year-old retiree.

Perez Molina, 64, has said he is innocent of corruption and has vowed to face the legal process against him.

“The president is aware of the new scenario, which was not the most desirable but was very probable,” said his spokesman, Jorge Ortega. “He has said he will be very respectful and submit himself to the rule of law.”

There was no immediate word on when any charges might be filed against the president, but prosecutors say they have reason to believe he was involved in the customs scheme.


Uncovered by prosecutors and a United Nations commission investigating criminal networks in Guatemala, it involved a ring known as La Linea, or The Line, in which businesspeople paid bribes to avoid import duties through the customs agency. The ring is believed to have defrauded the state of millions of dollars.

The scandal has already claimed the job of Perez Molina’s vice president, Roxana Baldetti, whose former personal secretary has been accused of being the ringleader. Baldetti resigned May 8 and is in jail awaiting trial on charges that she took millions of dollars in bribes. A number of Cabinet officials have also left office.

An earlier move to strip Perez Molina’s immunity, brought by an opposition lawmaker, died in Congress. This latest motion was presented by prosecutors and the U.N. commission.

Protesters have demanded not only that Perez Molina step down but that Sunday’s presidential elections be postponed. He says delaying the vote would be against the law.

Perez Molina cannot run for re-election and is set to remain in office until a transfer of office in January.

Under the Guatemalan Constitution, the president is immune from prosecution and it requires a two-thirds majority vote in Congress to strip it.