Guatemala's former vice president was ordered to stand trial Tuesday, while the Supreme Court took the first step in allowing impeachment proceedings against President Otto Perez Molina in a fraud scandal that is pushing the country into political crisis.
Protesters demanding Perez Molina's resignation blocked roads on the outskirts of Guatemala City as a judge ordered former Vice President Roxana Baldetti to stand trial on charges of conspiracy, customs fraud and bribery, based on allegations that she accepted $3.7 million in bribes as part of the customs scandal that forced her from office. The judge has yet to rule whether Baldetti will be jailed during the trial.
Also on Tuesday, a Guatemalan court decided to try but not punish the country’s 89-year-old former dictator for crimes against humanity and genocide.
With the unanimous Supreme Court ruling on Perez Molina Tuesday, the Congress now will vote whether to take away the immunity he enjoys as a sitting president so he can be prosecuted and possibly removed from office. An attempt several weeks ago to start impeachment proceedings based on a request by Legislator Amilcar Pop was voted down.
Prosecutors and the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala requested the removal of the president's immunity based on allegations that he, too, is linked to the network of officials and individuals who received bribes from businessmen to evade import duties.
"We have hit a really serious political crisis," said former Vice President Eduardo Stein. "Never before have prosecutors publicly requested lifting the immunity of the president."
Perez Molina rejected the possibility of resigning in a televised speech on Sunday, and he has denied involvement in the scandal, which is pushing him into a corner as it grows.
Guatemalan Finance Minister Dorval Carias resigned on Monday amid the deepening corruption scandal, and a statement released by Carias' office did not give a reason for his decision, but the move comes as the ministry is forming next year's budget.
Communications Minister Victor Corado also tendered his resignation on Monday and three other ministers stepped down over the weekend after the country's attorney general asked the Supreme Court for permission to prosecute the president over a suspected customs racket.
According to the impunity commission, there are strong indications that the president was tied to the criminal ring known as "La Linea," or "The Line," a fraud operation allegedly led by Baldetti's aide, Juan Carlos Monzon Rojas, who is currently a fugitive.
Prosecutors argued Tuesday that Baldetti was one of the main benefactors of the ring, in part based on some 88,000 wiretaps and documents allegedly revealing how the money was divided.
Her defense attorney, Mario Cano, called the charges political and said none of the wiretaps carried her voice.
And as tensions mounted ahead of the Sept. 6 elections, which are to elect Perez Molina's successor, some protesters some set off fireworks to celebrate the two rulings on Tuesday and pledged more demonstrations in coming days. Farm leader Carlos Barrientos said road blockades may be erected in about two dozen points around the country. Some protesters are demanding the elections be postponed until the corruption scandal is resolved and Perez Molina resigns.
Amid the turmoil over potential criminal proceedings for Guatemalan officials, a court decided on Tuesday that former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt, 89, can stand trial on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity — but cannot be sentenced because he suffers from dementia.
The court ruling said the law allows for a special trial where all evidence and witnesses will be presented behind closed doors with a representative of Rios Montt. He can be found innocent or guilty, but will not receive a sentence because of his health.
Rios Montt's lawyers have the option to appeal the ruling. The court set the trial date for Jan. 11, 2016.
Rios Montt was convicted in 2013 and sentenced to 80 years for genocide and crimes against humanity during his dictatorship in 1982 and 1983 at the height of Guatemala's brutal civil war. The sentence was later thrown out.