Scan­dalous isth­mus sim­mers

Protests break out as Gu­atemala, Hon­duras strug­gle with cor­rup­tion

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Tracy Wilkin­son wilkin­son@la­times.com

MEX­ICO CITY — Two Cen­tral Amer­i­can pres­i­dents, both fa­vored al­lies of the U.S., are fac­ing cor­rup­tion scan­dals threat­en­ing to un­der­mine their gov­ern­ments and fur­ther erode sta­bil­ity in the volatile re­gion that is a prin­ci­pal source for il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion to the United States.

Large protest marches over the week­end have il­lus­trated the pre­car­i­ous sta­tus of Pres­i­dents Juan Or­lando Her­nan­dez of Hon­duras and Otto Perez Molina of Gu­atemala. In Gu­atemala City, that coun­try’s cap­i­tal, all types of demon­stra­tors, from dis­si­dents to elite busi­ness­men, filled the main square in anger. In the Hon­duran cap­i­tal, Tegu­ci­galpa, the mostly left­ist op­po­si­tion staged a dra­matic torch­light pro­ces­sion.

The com­mon de­mand: res­ig­na­tion of the pres­i­dent.

The great­est pres­sure is on Perez Molina, who has been strug­gling to get ahead of twin scan­dals that have forced the ouster of his vice pres­i­dent, sev­eral Cabi­net min­is­ters, the head of the in­tel­li­gence agency and a for­mer cen­tral bank pres­i­dent, among oth­ers.

“Klep­toc­racy, crim­i­nal mafias, drug car­tels and the rot­ten lead­er­ship of our mil­i­tary and civil­ian se­cu­rity forces have trans­formed Gu­atemala into a re­pug­nant, squalid la­trine,” Jose Ruben Zamora, edi­tor of the Gu­atemalan news­pa­per el-Pe­ri­od­ico, said in an open let­ter to the public, urg­ing pro­test­ers to take the streets. “We are obliged, to­gether, with courage and un­flag­ging en­ergy, to ex­pel the dense, fe­cal wa­ters that in­un­date us.”

The sus­pected crim­i­nal wrong­do­ing that brought down Vice Pres­i­dent Rox­ana Baldetti in­volved ac­cu­sa­tions of cus­toms fraud at the Gu­atemalan trade author­ity that over­sees ex­ports and im­ports. Ac­cord­ing to in­ves­ti­ga­tions by a United Na­tions com­mis­sion on trans­parency, work­ing with the Gu­atemala at­tor­ney gen­eral’s of­fice, top of­fi­cials at the trade author­ity low­ered cus­toms fees for nu­mer­ous busi­nesses in ex­change for mil­lions of dol­lars in bribes.

About 20 of­fi­cials have been ar­rested, and in­ves­ti­ga­tors al­leged that Baldetti’s per­sonal sec­re­tary, Juan Car­los Mon­zon, was the mas­ter­mind be­hind the scheme. He re­mains at large. Baldetti has de­nied in­volve­ment but stepped down last month as Congress weighed whether to re­voke her im­mu­nity from pros­e­cu­tion.

Perez Molina may have hoped her re­moval would turn down the heat. But ad­di­tional in­ves­ti­ga­tions turned up an­other scan­dal that may have caused deaths. Top of­fi­cials of the So­cial Se­cu­rity In­sti­tute were sus­pected of pay­ing in- f lated prices to a Mex­i­can phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal firm in ex­change for siz­able kick­backs. Among the equip­ment was kid­ney dial­y­sis ma­chin­ery that in­ves­ti­ga­tors said was de­fec­tive and may have led to the deaths of 15 peo­ple.

The Supreme Court is re­view­ing whether to lift Perez Molina’s im­mu­nity from pros­e­cu­tion.

Mean­while, in Hon­duras, Her­nan­dez is fight­ing ac­cu­sa­tions by op­po­si­tion politi­cians that his po­lit­i­cal party used $90 mil­lion be­long­ing to the na­tional So­cial Se­cu­rity In­sti­tute to fi­nance its last elec­tion cam­paign. Her­nan­dez, who won that elec­tion, has an­grily de­nied the ac­cu­sa­tions, and the party is threat­en­ing to sue those mak­ing them.

State pros­e­cu­tors, how­ever, have said they are in­ves­ti­gat­ing the mis­use of So­cial Se­cu­rity funds that might be tied to Her­nan­dez’s Na­tional Party or other po­lit­i­cal or­ga­ni­za­tions. An es­ti­mated $300 mil­lion may have been si­phoned off, in­ves­ti­ga­tors say.

On Mon­day, Her­nan­dez an­nounced what he de­scribed as a ma­jor crack­down on “the crim­i­nal and the cor­rupt,” in­clud­ing of­fi­cials. But he did not give de­tails. The day be­fore, the pros­e­cu­tor who had led the in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the So­cial Se­cu­rity malfea­sance, Roberto Ramirez, left Hon­duras to take a diplo­matic post­ing. He said he had asked to be re­lieved of his role in the case be­cause of “highly” cred­i­ble threats to his life, the news­pa­per El Her­aldo re­ported.

The So­cial Se­cu­rity case “lifted the veil that had been hid­ing how dis­fig­ured the face of jus­tice is” in Hondu- ras, scholar Edmundo Orel­lano wrote in Mon­day’s edi­tion of La Tri­buna. But, he pre­dicted, Hon­duran in­sti­tu­tions are too weak to make much head­way in root­ing out cor­rup­tion.

In Gu­atemala, in­ves­ti­ga­tions are hav­ing more suc­cess thanks largely to the U.N. group, known as the Com­mis­sion Against Im­punity; the U.N. pres­ence in Gu­atemala is a holdover from the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s crit­i­cal role in help­ing to end that coun­try’s civil war.

Gu­atemala and, es­pe­cially, Hon­duras are im­pov­er­ished na­tions with ex­tremely high rates of crime and vi­o­lence, and with weak demo­cratic sys­tems. Hon­duran elites ousted the coun­try’s pres­i­dent in a 2009 coup, the first such ac­tion in Latin Amer­ica in decades.

With El Sal­vador, the two coun­tries ac­count for the bulk of Latin Amer­i­can mi­grants at­tempt­ing to reach the United States — even out­pac­ing Mex­ico — and for nearly all the un­ac­com­pa­nied mi­nors whose num­bers swelled last year.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has re­quested $1 bil­lion for Cen­tral Amer­ica as aid for se­cu­rity and poverty pro­grams. And a U.S. Marine rapid-re­sponse squad num­ber­ing about 250 is sched­uled to be de­ployed to Cen­tral Amer­ica this month and based pri­mar­ily in Hon­duras.

Moises Castillo As­so­ci­ated Press

IN GU­ATEMALA CITY, pro­test­ers call for the res­ig­na­tion of Pres­i­dent Otto Perez Molina, who has been strug­gling to get ahead of twin scan­dals that have forced the ouster of his vice pres­i­dent and other of­fi­cials.

Or­lando Sierra AFP/Getty Images

PRO­TEST­ERS want Hon­duras’ pres­i­dent to quit af­ter ac­cu­sa­tions that his party used So­cial Se­cu­rity In­sti­tute money to fi­nance its last cam­paign.

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