Guatemala’s former president gets 16 years for fraud, conspiracy

Former President Otto Perez Molina, who is the subject of two additional investigations, denies any wrongdoing.

Former Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina
Former Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina attends his pre-trial hearing for alleged corruption in Guatemala City in 2016 [File: Moises Castillo/AP Photo]

A court in Guatemala has convicted former President Otto Perez Molina and his Vice President, Roxana Baldetti, on fraud and conspiracy counts, sentencing them each to 16 years in prison.

Perez Molina was found guilty of racketeering and fraud targeting the customs system, Judge Irma Jeannette Valdes said as she read out the sentence on Wednesday.

He was sentenced to eight years on each count, and Baldetti received the same sentence.

Perez Molina and Baldetti resigned in 2015 and have been in custody on charges of permitting and benefitting from a customs corruption scheme known as La Linea, or “The Line”.

The scheme involved a conspiracy to defraud the state by letting businesses evade import duties in exchange for bribes.

About 30 others including customs officials and business people were implicated in the case, which involved about $1m in bribes and $2m in lost income for the government. Some of those accused were acquitted on Wednesday.

Perez Molina, who governed from 2012 to 2015, continues to deny the charges. He remains under investigation in two other cases.

“It is a lie,” the former president, aged 72, said during a break in the court proceedings on Wednesday. “Nobody has ever said I gave an illegal order, and I never gave any. They never said I was given money. I feel disappointed and frustrated.”

He said he will appeal the ruling.

Perez Molina’s prosecution was a high point in Guatemala’s effort to combat systemic corruption, aided by the United Nations-backed anti-corruption mission, known by its Spanish initials CICIG.

Over 12 years, the mission supported the Special Prosecutors Office Against Impunity in dismantling dozens of criminal networks while at the same time building their capacity to handle complex corruption cases.

Then-President Jimmy Morales ended the CICIG’s mission in 2019 while he was under investigation. Anti-corruption efforts have faltered since then and those who worked closely with the international mission have seen the justice system turned against them.

The United States has sharply criticised the weakening of anti-corruption efforts in Guatemala and last year cancelled the US visa of current Guatemalan Attorney General Consuelo Porras, who had been pursuing former prosecutors who conducted corruption investigations.

Approximately 30 former anti-corruption officials have fled the country.

Source: AFP, The Associated Press