GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala — Thousands of Guatemalans gathered in the country’s capital on Saturday to demand the resignation of President Otto Pérez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti following revelation of a tax corruption scandal involving top government officials — including Baldetti’s private secretary.
Protesters yelled “Resign now,” blew whistles and banged pots and pans while demanding that the country’s top two officials leave their posts and turn themselves over to the courts.
“We don’t want the thieves to govern anymore,” said 70-year-old María Letona, who went to the protest with neighbors from an exclusive enclave of Guatemala City. “They see us as toys. It’s shameful what they’re doing to the people of Guatemala.”
Last week Guatemalan and international prosecutors announced they had issued arrest warrants for 22 people allegedly involved in a criminal network that took bribes in exchange for reduced customs duties, making millions off the foregone government revenue.
Among those arrested were the current and former heads of Guatemala’s tax administration, the president of national newspaper SigloXXI and Baldetti’s private secretary, Juan Carlos Monzón.
Prosecutors say Monzón, who’s currently a fugitive, was the ringleader. It’s believed he could be hiding in Honduras.
Baldetti and Monzón were in Korea for a ceremony where Baldetti was awarded an honorary degree when prosecutors announced the arrest warrants. In a news conference upon her return, Baldetti said she had informed Monzón of the charges when she found out and told him to turn himself in. After that, she said, he disappeared.
Protesters on Saturday said Baldetti and President Pérez must have known about the criminal dealings, and many have accused Baldetti of tipping her private secretary off so he could flee.
“Clearly we could see that Baldetti covered up Monzón’s escape,” Alejandro Rodríguez, a student leader at the public University of San Carlos, told AFP.
Armando González, a Catholic priest, was at the protest with a group of Franciscan nuns and friars holding white flags.
“We want all politicians to see that when the people of Guatemala stand up it’s because we don’t want more corruption,” he said.
The protest was organized by a group of citizens via Facebook. More protests are expected in the coming days.
President Pérez, who was on an official trip in eastern Guatemala on Saturday, told journalists that he would not resign. He said his government initiated the investigation that brought the tax fraud ring to light.
“I ask all Guatemalans to act sensibly,” Pérez said. “All have the right to express themselves but we must respect the institutions” that are carrying out the investigations.
Local news outlets reported that protesters remained in Guatemala City’s central plaza into the evening. Protests also took place in several other cities around the country on Saturday.