Central America / Politics

Guatemala Tries to Repeat the 2015 Uprising against Corruption

Monday, August 2, 2021
Roman Gressier

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The national strike conducted throughout parts of Guatemala on Thursday, July 29, came amid a surge of coronavirus cases and marked the highest-magnitude political tremor since the massive protests that dethroned president Otto Pérez Molina in 2015. Protesters staged dozens of rallies and highway blockades across the country, with the epicenter in the department of Totonicapán, the seat of the influential local Indigenous authority known as the 48 Cantons of Totonicapán, which originally called for the strike two days earlier.

“We didn’t go into the city today to deliver a petition. We didn’t travel today to negotiate or submit a memo. Today we stayed here, with dignity,” declared Martín Toc, president of the 48 Cantons, on the morning of the strike.

On the heels of the 48 Cantons’ call came dozens of others from diverse sectors of the public, including Indigenous authorities, rural development collectives, university groups, and small opposition parties. This political alliance has one clear point of convergence: demanding the resignation of President Alejandro Giammattei and Attorney General Consuelo Porras.

On their way to the seat of the Public Prosecutor
On their way to the seat of the Public Prosecutor's Office, protestors stop alongside Casa Presidencial to demand the resignation of President Alejandro Giammattei. Photo: Carlos Barrera/El Faro

This alliance, which the strike consolidated and put in the public eye, found an open flank in the administration one week prior. On Friday, July 23, Porras removed Juan Francisco Sandoval, head of the Special Prosecutor’s Office against Impunity (FECI), the controversial wing of the Public Prosecutor’s Office which has most marked its independence from the Giammattei administration. Sandoval’s removal compounded two other main sources of discontent fueling the strike: the broader attacks against independent players in the justice system and the government’s embattled response to the pandemic. The removal was the breaking point, a resounding “enough” which on Thursday spanned from the capital to Petén.

On Calle Martí, a national thoroughfare cutting through the north end of the capital, cries of “enough” began early in the morning of the strike. July 29 is Oxlajuj Iq’, the day of ceremonies in Mayan traditions calling on the wind to carry away suffering and sicknesses. The wind, at least, carried away the smog of 18-wheelers which cross the capital’s northern Zona 2 every day, a short walk from the president’s residence, as they transport goods from around the country through the capital. By 8 in the morning, the heavily transited Martí had largely emptied out as transit workers redirected rush hour traffic through quiet side streets.

Julio César Vado, a driver in the public bus system, Transurbano, explained why. “I was out working, and three or four from the U arrived,” he said, referring to college students from the University Students’ Association (AEU) of San Carlos University. They asked him early in the day to lend his bus to block the traffic along Calle Martí. His bus is one of two which shut down traffic where Martí intersects with Sixth Avenue, starting at 6 in the morning. “They spoke to me very respectfully. They led me here, and that’s it.” He said that his bosses at Transurbano told him to do as the students asked, and added: “I’m here, until they (the students) tell me otherwise.” He also weighed in on the strike: “There’s nothing wrong with it. They’re looking out for the people’s rights and wellbeing.”

The cordoning-off of Martí, orchestrated by a handful of twenty-somethings from the AEU, was just as practical as it was symbolic. “We’re blocking Calle Martí because it’s a main roadway,” said Laura Aguilar, AEU secretary general. “Those are the trucks of businesses and elites which now can’t move around the city because we have it paralyzed.” The students’ association which she leads, from the country’s only public university, waited for the announcement from the 48 Cantons before officially joining the strike. “We learned from the Mayan peoples. They teach us dignity every day, and resilience.”

At the intersection of Calle Martí and Sixth Avenue, alongside the two Transurbano buses, was the gathering point for hundreds of demonstrators from diverse sectors of Guatemalan society. In the early hours of the morning, among others, appeared a delegation from the Winaq Political Movement, which has three seats in Congress; a diverse representation of feminists, and flag bearers displaying the faces of disappeared relatives during the armed conflict, from a group called Hijos Guatemala. Also in attendance were the Altiplano Campesino Committee, which is a rural development collective, and the NGO called Asamblea Social y Popular. While a team from the National Civil Police Inspector General’s Office arrived just after 7, there was no significant interaction between the police and protestors.

The political opposition present on Calle Martí says they have also carried their protests to the courts, by calling for an injunction against Sandoval’s destitution. “We believe that constitutional due process protections were violated in the illegal and arbitrary removal,” argued Sonia Gutiérrez, legislator in Congress with Winaq. Her legislative bloc joined with those of Semilla and Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity in presenting articles of impeachment against Porras for the removal of Sandoval.

But the arrival to the intersection which stood out most was that of a dozen elders from the Ancestral Authority of the Maya Poqomam People, a delegation from south and southwest Guatemala which also covers territory in parts of western El Salvador. Their arrival set the march in motion from Calle Martí to Casa Presidencial. Dozens of demonstrators followed the Poqomam all day, and echoed their main demand: “We call for the creation of a popular, plurinational constituent assembly,” said the spokesperson for the ancestral authorities.

The Maya Poqoman Ancestral Authorities traveled from Santa Cruz, Sololá to Guatemala City to join the national strike and call for the creation of a
The Maya Poqoman Ancestral Authorities traveled from Santa Cruz, Sololá to Guatemala City to join the national strike and call for the creation of a 'popular, plurinational constituent assembly.' Photo: Carlos Barrera/El Faro

Shortly after they arrived at 10:30am, it began to rain. “The ancestors are blessing and accompanying us,” said the spokesperson. In the span of minutes, disposable ponchos appeared throughout the city center, with each street vendor hawking the same offer: ten quetzales each. Others carried Guatemalan flags, hats, plastic trumpets, and Anonymous masks. The vendors attended the strike better prepared than many of the demonstrators.

One demonstrator, Bárbara Escobar, graduate of San Carlos University, was present in the months-long demonstrations in 2015 which resulted in the resignation of president Otto Pérez Molina and Roxana Baldetti. But even so, she echoes the Poqomam in arguing that the results of those protests didn’t go far enough, because they failed to culminate in the foundation of a new, plurinational and anti-patriarchal state. “You went out with the inexperience, the naiveté of thinking you could achieve deep change by going to protest every Saturday,” she said of 2015.

The throngs from Calle Martí accompanied a dozen Poqomam elders, who each walked with a staff and Covid-19 mask, to Constitution Plaza. By the time they arrived, the plaza was half-full with demonstrators, even in the rain. After spending a half-hour in the boisterous protests there, the group continued on its way two kilometers to the headquarters of the Public Prosecutor’s Office.

The office of former prosecutor Sandoval, whose removal sparked the strike, answers directly to the Public Prosecutor’s Office, led by attorney general Consuelo Porras. Protests assembled outside the office the day after Sandoval’s removal, and on the day of the strike the office had become a frequent pitstop for groups of protestors scattered throughout the city. The group led by the Poqomam stopped outside the building to yell at employees, some of whom looked perplexed, peering out second-floor windows. One of them gave a thumbs-up to those congregated below.

Student leader Jorge Búcaro addresses protestors in front of the Public Prosecutor
Student leader Jorge Búcaro addresses protestors in front of the Public Prosecutor's Office in Guatemala City. Students' associations heeded the calls of Indigenous authorities in joining the national strike. Photo: Carlos Barrera/El Faro

The name of Sandoval, who fled Central America the night of his removal to avoid retaliation for his work, was ubiquitous on demonstrators’ signs from the week between his removal and the day of the strike. Other independent judges, prosecutors, and justice system workers have also fled the country, one by one, since the expulsion of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) in 2019. In fact, the last mass strike, in 2015, resulted from the CICIG’s investigations into then-president Pérez Molina. Human rights experts say that Sandoval’s removal, as well as that of other independent justice system workers, represents a backlash against the judicial achievements of the CICIG in the fight against impunity.

These attacks are compounded by widespread discontent with the government’s Covid-19 vaccination plan. To date, fewer than one in ten Guatemalans has received at least one dose of the vaccine. To get to that point, the government has depended on Moderna vaccine donations from the United States. Minister of Health Amelia Flores announced in a Tuesday press conference before the strike that the 16 million doses of Russian vaccines purchased in April will finish arriving by the end of the year. In the meantime, one in two administered vaccines has been in the capital.

Any demonstration, but especially the big ones, contains a diversity of intentions and political agendas, as well as means of communicating discontent or rage. That’s why, after a few minutes standing outside the Public Prosecutor’s Office, yelling at the building wall and the police standing guard shoulder-to-shoulder was no longer enough for some.

Some demonstrators, dressed in black with their faces covered and sporting green and purple handkerchiefs, covered the outside insignia of the Public Prosecutor’s Office in a black tarp and the Guatemalan flag, doused them with gasoline they had brought in plastic water bottles, and set fire to it. Some of the police watched the flames, which lasted for a few minutes, with astonishment, but the line of officers didn’t move. Those closest to the flames stepped back.

A group of protestors briefly set fire to the insignia of the Public Prosecutor
A group of protestors briefly set fire to the insignia of the Public Prosecutor's Office in Guatemala City, which became a common pit stop for protestors in the capital during the strike. Foto de El Faro: Carlos Barrera

A spokesperson for the Poqomam, on the other hand, did react. He grabbed a microphone and addressed the demonstrators: “They need to resign, but let’s not provoke violence.” Minutes later, the Poqomam left. The group that stayed behind, the most radical of the demonstrators which had walked with the Poqomam, threw paint at the stoic line of police, chanted “the police don’t protect me, my amigas do,” and set a tire on fire, which suddenly exploded and began spewing black fumes on the steps of the Public Prosecutor’s Office. No riot gear in sight, as if the office was waiting out the storm rapping on its door.

Porras, on the other hand, reacted to the strike at 11 a.m. that day, publishing a letter on social media to Secretary of State Antony Blinken. “Various sectors are employing pressure tactics against the attorney general,” she complained, and repeated her assertion that she had fired Sandoval for disobeying orders and for “ideological blindspots.” She added that the demonstrations could culminate in “criminal conduct such as disrespectful, offensive, defamatory publications, as well as inciting a national strike.”

Two days prior, as calls for the strike rattled in from around the country, a State Department spokesperson announced that the department had cut off cooperation with Porras’s ministry. Even Secretary Blinken condemned the removal of Sandoval on Twitter. Sandoval was a darling prosecutor for the State Department; this February, Secretary Blinken named him as one of 12 “anti-corruption champions” around the world, citing his work at the head of the FECI. 

After Porras published her letter to Blinken, State Department special envoy Ricardo Zúñiga underscored the point: “The public protests today against the removal of the prosecutor against impunity reflect the deep importance of the role of citizens of Central America in good governance.”

Even President Giammattei has tried to take his distance from the attorney general following the removal of Sandoval and suspension of cooperation with the Public Prosecutor’s Office. “Today, a newsroom published a statement by the State Department in which they froze aid to the Public Prosecutor’s Office until the cases can be cleared up,” said Giammattei in a Tuesday press conference. “This newsroom says that “due to the lack of confidence in the government, support to the administration has been suspended,” which is far from the truth.”

Not even on Zoom has Porras, who teaches law at San Carlos University, escaped the protests. “Desconsuelo, you’re corrupt!” yelled various of the students during one of her virtual classes the day before the strike. ‘Desconsuelo’ means ‘discomfort,’ and is a play on Porras’s first name which has been commonplace at recent protests calling for her resignation. “If you disconnect us you won’t silence us,” one student added.

The next morning, Thursday, July 29, Transurbano bus driver Julio César Vado set off with his bus, carrying other students from the same public university where Porras teaches, to shut down the Martí highway.

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