Thousands pack a Guatemala City square demanding President Otto Pérez Molina's resignation
A chamber of commerce urges businesses to shut down; universities suspend classes
President Pérez Molina has denied corruption allegations against him
There were college students and teachers. There were also union workers and peasants. They came from across Guatemala with one message: “Enough is enough.”
These protesters filled Guatemala City’s Constitution Square – a historic landmark that, according to Guatemalan authorities, holds 10,000 people – throughout the day Thursday and into the night demanding the resignation of President Otto Pérez Molina. More people demonstrated in adjacent streets, unable to get to the main square.
The young played drums and danced. Others waved the Guatemalan flag and chanted.
Vilma Hernandez brought her 6-month-old grandson, Diego Saso, who wore a T-shirt with a message that read #IHaveNoPresident.
“We never imagined the President and his aides were going to betray us so badly,” Hernandez said.
Protest thought to be largest of the year so far
The peaceful demonstration was part of the national strike demanding that Pérez Molina step down. It was the largest so far in 2015, a year that has been packed with protests, including one earlier this week in which some highways were blocked throughout the Central American nation.
The embattled President, a 64-year-old former military commander, is accused of being the leader of a customs fraud scheme, an allegation that he denies.
CACIF, the largest chamber of commerce in Guatemala, encouraged businesses Thursday to shut down for the day so that employees could participate in the protest.
In the capital, five private universities and San Carlos University, the largest public college in Guatemala, suspended classes so that students could take part. San Carlos University Dean Carlos Alvarado marched alongside hundreds of his students. A group of students kicked a piñata made in the image of Pérez Molina.
Josefina Gonzalez showed up holding a Guatemalan flag and a T-shirt with a message that read, “People, you should scream and chant that elected officials are our employees.”
Politicians ‘have left our country with nothing’
The Guatemala City resident said those in government have looted the nation’s coffers for a long time.
“Guatemala is such a beautiful country. It’s just delightful, but these corrupt politicians have left our nation with nothing, like a skeleton. “
Ana Ruth Monroy, a nutrition major at San Carlos University, said she wanted to protest because she has seen how corruption has taken resources away from social programs that help those in need.
“It’s infuriating to see how they steal. Our children die every day. Fifty percent of our children are malnourished, and authorities aren’t doing anything about it,” Monroy said.
As protesters were gathering at Constitution Square, the Guatemalan Congress was choosing a commission charged with investigating the President, the first step toward impeachment under Guatemalan law. The country’s highest court ruled Tuesday there was enough evidence to merit an investigation.
In a message broadcast Sunday on Guatemalan national TV and radio, the President denied the charges and suggested he’s the target of a plot by his political enemies aided by foreign interests.
“I categorically deny and reject the accusation that I was involved [in a corruption scheme] and having received any money from that customs fraud scheme,” he said.
‘La Linea’ scandal
Prosecutors say the group was known as “La Linea” or “The Line.” The scandal engulfed Pérez Molina’s administration in April, when investigators accused Roxana Baldetti, the vice president at the time, of involvement in the scheme.
Baldetti, who resigned in May, was detained by authorities on Friday.
The judge in charge of her case determined Tuesday that she will be tried for customs fraud, illicit association and passive bribery, the same charges the President is facing.
Baldetti denies the charges, and Mario Cano, her attorney, said in court Tuesday that prosecutors are targeting the wrong person.
More than a dozen ministers, vice ministers and commissioners in the Pérez Molina administration have already resigned and there could be more, but the President is vowing to stay in power.
Roxana Bekker, an elementary school teacher, came to the protest with a group of fellow teachers who said corruption has had the effect of dramatically reducing resources to serve their students.
“We need those corrupt politicians to leave. They’re thieves. They’ve taken away from our children and teenagers’ food and school desks. We’re teaching in classrooms that look like chicken coops,” Bekker said.
The intensifying corruption scandal comes at a delicate time in Guatemalan politics. The country is scheduled to hold presidential elections on September 6.