Demonstrators at a protest against Guatemala's President Otto Perez Molina.
Demonstrators hold up candles with a picture of Guatemala's President Otto Perez Molina, during a protest demanding his resignation in Guatemala City, July 4, 2015.
Josue Decavele / Reuters

On September 3, Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina stepped down following weeks of protests and the resignations of Vice President Roxana Baldetti and all of his cabinet. Pérez Molina and Baldetti now sit in jail, accused of running a massive customs fraud ring known as La Línea. According to investigations by the United Nations–backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, these officials were offering extremely low tariffs to importers in exchange for kickbacks.

The president’s ouster was a victory for the tens of thousands of Guatemalans who had been protesting for 20 consecutive weeks at the plaza in front of the National Palace. In spite of the peaceful and broad sampling of society that the protest brought together, however, observers should be wary of confusing the immediate victory—the resignation of the government—with unanimity on how to move the country forward. When it comes to ideology and politics, Guatemalans remain deeply divided.

Some reformers, from a broad spectrum of political leanings, saw Pérez Molina and his ilk as bad apples that had to be thrown out in order to save the political system. For these protesters, particularly those with business interests, pushing Pérez Molina out of office was a way to bring stability to a spiraling economy. They advocated swift prosecution of the officials associated with La Línea and quick national elections. The first round took place on September 6, and the second, which will determine the country’s next president, will take place on October 25. Guatemala’s influential business consortium, the Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial, and Financial Associations (more commonly known as CACIF), and even Pérez Molina’s own political party, the Partido Patriota, disassociated themselves from the president. They hope, it seems, that his fall from grace will leave the larger political system intact while satisfying the country’s thirst for justice—not just for La Línea but also for the atrocities committed by the government during the civil war, in which Pérez Molina is heavily implicated and which have not been adequately addressed.

Guatemala's former President Otto Perez Molina at the Supreme Court of Justice
Guatemala's former President Otto Perez Molina gestures while being escorted by police officers after a hearing at the Supreme Court of Justice in Guatemala City, September 3, 2015.
Jorge Dan Lopez / Reuters

Other protestors proposed more radical solutions—they want to see the entire system overhauled. They believe that the state is a façade, a democratic veneer on a shadowy system of military and oligarchic rule that has been largely unchanged since the days of the country’s 36-year civil war. These demonstrators saw the elections as legitimizing a broken system that forces Guatemalans to choose among deeply compromised candidates with ties to organized crime, and they urged fellow citizens to abstain or spoil their ballots before the vote. “Under these conditions,” they petitioned, “we don’t want elections.”

They are right that La Línea was no aberration. It was the predictable result of a state apparatus historically designed to protect only the tiny minority in power. The state systematically discriminates against the indigenous Maya (who make up roughly half of Guatemalans); in those populations, malnutrition afflicts 65.9 percent of children and literacy rates are the lowest in the Western Hemisphere after Haiti. More than 90 percent of indigenous Guatemalans live below the poverty line.

Even though the kleptocratic nature of Guatemala’s ruling elites can be traced all the way back to the nineteenth century, the 1954 CIA-sponsored coup d’état that toppled the social democratic regime of President Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán greatly exacerbated the situation. It permitted the capture of state institutions by a U.S.-backed military that soon turned to illicit self-enrichment. Between 1954 and 1996, the Guatemalan armed forces fought a rebellion of leftist groups that were seeking a major redistribution of wealth and a return to civilian rule. A United Nations truth commission later determined that over the course of the conflict, in which some 200,000 mostly indigenous Guatemalans were killed, state and paramilitary forces committed 93 percent of the human rights violations and carried out acts of genocide against the Maya. The 1996 Peace Accords that ended the civil war were well-intentioned but failed to address the root socioeconomic causes of the conflict or to dismantle the structures that caused it. This, in turn, allowed new criminal syndicates (led, in some cases, by current or former members of the army and police) to flourish. Today, prosecutors find themselves battling a hydra: arrest one corrupt official and two more spring forth in his or her place.

Today, prosecutors find themselves battling a hydra: arrest one corrupt official and two more spring forth in his or her place.

That is why limited reforms and new elections will not be sufficient. In July 2015, the Working Group on the Reform of the Law on Elections and Political Parties, composed of representatives from universities, the private and professional sectors, the Catholic Church, and election monitors, introduced to the Guatemalan Congress a package of 85 reforms. The package proposes new term limits, party finance reform, quotas for female and minority candidates, and more authority for the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (the body overseeing the country’s elections) to ban candidates and parties that break the rules. These efforts, backed by the United States Agency for International Development via the U.S.-based nonprofit National Democratic Institute, represent an important first step, but they do not go far enough. Pressure is now mounting for Congress to pass these reforms, but it has dragged its heels because passing them might hurt policymakers’ own ability to stay in power.

More fundamental changes are also on the table. The Social and Popular Assembly, a progressive coalition uniting 70-plus student, peasant, women’s, and indigenous groups, has advocated convening a national constituent assembly to rewrite the 1985 constitution. Latin America offers precedents for this type of move. Bolivia, another country with a majority indigenous population long excluded from full political membership, passed a new plurinational constitution in 2009. The document accorded more power to the indigenous majority, setting aside seats for them in Congress, broadening definitions of land tenure to include collective ownership, and affirming state control over natural resource development, an issue deeply relevant to rural populations in Guatemala as well. Although Bolivia has had its challenges and disappointments, the impact has been generally transformative—it has led to systemic changes in resource distribution and political representation. Most important, the rewriting of the constitution was the fruit of tremendous citizen initiative, although, as in Guatemala, Bolivians’ opinions about changing the constitution tended to split along class and ethnic lines.

Claudia Mendez, former Chief of Customs of the Tax Administration Superintendence, enters a jail cell
Claudia Mendez (center), former Chief of Customs of the Tax Administration Superintendence, enters a jail cell at the Supreme Court of Justice after a hearing in Guatemala City, September 14, 2015.
Jorge Dan Lopez / Reuters

The first round of elections that took place earlier this month reflects those divisions. Around ten percent of voters cast blank or spoiled ballots. And the first round produced two candidates on opposite ends of the political spectrum: Jimmy Morales, a political neophyte backed by hard-right military interests; and Sandra Torres, the ex-wife of former center-left President Álvaro Colom. A Morales victory would signal a return to business as usual; a Torres victory would open the possibility of deeper reform, but her party, the National Unity of Hope, has faced serious corruption allegations of its own. Indeed, with the legitimacy of the entire electoral process called into question, neither candidate is likely to appease critics, leaving the future uncertain.

In the meantime, while Pérez Molina faces investigation for customs fraud, his loss of presidential immunity means that he may also be charged in connection with war crimes dating to his military service during the civil war. Importantly, the struggle against corruption is not separate from Guatemala’s efforts to reckon with its history of state-sponsored violence. They are two sides of the same coin, and the resolution of both is crucial to the country’s future.

For now, what is certain is that the public, by bringing down a president through protests, sent a warning to other would-be officials and criminal syndicates. “Nobody,” as Guatemalan Attorney General Thelma Aldana has said, “is above the law.” If Guatemalans continue to mobilize, using this moment not just to purge corrupt officials but to push for a new social contract, they may finally have acquired the tools needed to defeat the hydra.

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  • KIRSTEN WELD is Assistant Professor of Latin American history at Harvard University and the author of Paper Cadavers: The Archives of Dictatorship in Guatemala.
  • More By Kirsten Weld