Guatemalan prosecutors wasted no time in pressing their corruption investigation of President Otto Perez Molina, persuading a judge to bar him from leaving the country just hours after a historic congressional vote to strip his immunity from prosecution.
Prosecutor Thelma Aldana called the travel ban a “precautionary” measure and said the president is suspected of illicit association, bribery and customs fraud in a corruption scandal that has already toppled his vice president and various Cabinet ministers. The next steps could include summoning Perez Molina to appear before a court or seeking a warrant for his detention.
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Earlier Tuesday, all 132 lawmakers present in the 158-seat parliament voted to lift Perez Molina’s constitutional immunity, easily clearing a two-thirds majority requirement in what is widely seen as an unprecedented blow against entrenched corruption and impunity in this Central American nation.
“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,” Aldana told a news conference Tuesday night.
Perez Molina, 64, has maintained his innocence and vows to face the legal process.
The president is aware of the new scenario, which was not the most desirable but was very probable,” his spokesman, Jorge Ortega, told The Associated Press. “He has said he will be very respectful and submit himself to the rule of law.”
The congressional vote did not remove Perez Molina from office, though constitutional law expert Alejandro Balsells said it would be within a judge’s power to suspend the president if he is ordered to jail as the case moves forward. No charges have yet been filed.
Uncovered by prosecutors and a U.N. commission probing criminal networks in Guatemala, the corruption scandal involved a scheme 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 former Vice President Roxana Baldetti, whose ex-personal secretary was named as the alleged ringleader. Baldetti resigned May 8 and is currently in jail awaiting trial on accusations she took millions of dollars in bribes.
An earlier move to strip Perez Molina’s immunity that was brought by an opposition lawmaker died in Congress. This latest motion was presented by prosecutors and the U.N. commission.
About 200 people outside the capitol hugged each other, cheered, waved Guatemalan flags and set off firecrackers as news of the vote emerged, echoing the weeks of massive protests calling for the president’s resignation. Drivers honked horns, and people recorded the moment with selfies.
“His insistence on not resigning frustrated me. I thought they would never take away his immunity,” said Marcela Fernandez, a first-grade teacher. “This is just one step and hopefully we will continue to protest when there are other injustices.”
Adriana Beltran, a Guatemala analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, said the investigations and congressional vote send a “remarkable” message to Guatemalans about political reform and the rule of law: “That you can make it work following due process and respecting human rights, and that those that at one point were considered untouchable can be brought to justice.”
Protesters have demanded not only that Perez Molina step down but that next Sunday’s presidential elections be postponed. He says delaying the vote would be against the law.
Perez Molina is constitutionally barred from seeking re-election, and whoever becomes his successor would take office in January.
Those voting against Perez Molina in Congress included members of his own ruling party.
“The party gave us permission to vote and withdraw the president’s immunity,” lawmaker Luis Fernandez Chenal said. “He who owes nothing, fears nothing.”
Business leaders, Guatemala’s National Council of Bishops and even the government comptrollers’ office have all urged Perez Molina to step down.
“This is just the beginning,” said activist Byron Garon. “Now we want him and his vice president to be tried and convicted, and for them to give back to Guatemala all that they stole.”