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  • Writer's pictureJuan Jordan Flores-Calderon

How a Social Media Movement Demolished a Corrupt Government

It all started in mid-April 2015, when a UN anti-corruption agency CICIG issued a report that implicated several high-profile politicians including the vice president, Roxana Baldetti. The lawmakers were linked with organised crime, and the revelations generated an unprecedented level of public outrage. The CICIG, working with the Guatemalan attorney general, revealed the scam known as “La Línea” after a hotline that was used in the case. Officials received bribes from importers in exchange for reducing tariffs the importers were required to pay. This scam is rooted in a long tradition of customs corruption in the country, as successive military governments tried to raise funds for counterinsurgency operations during Guatemala’s 36-year-long civil war.

For one young woman frustrated with her leaders, enough was enough. She felt that she had to do something, and created an event on Facebook inviting all her friends to go to the Guatemala City centre to ask for Baldetti's resignation with the hashtag #RenunciaYa (Resign Now). Within days, over 10,000 people said they would attend. Quickly the organiser realised - together with her most committed friends, now known as "the group of seven" - that for the action to succeed, she had to guarantee that no one would be harmed. The group set a series of rules making clear that no political party or group was behind that event, instructing protesters to follow the law, and urging people to bring water, food and sunblock but not cover their faces or wear party political colours. Their demands? The resignations of Baldetti and Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina.

Tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Guatemala City, and Baldetti resigned a few days later (Molina remains in office).The charges are based on allegations that she accepted $3.7m in bribes. Baldetti, who resigned in May, was ordered to remain in jail awaiting trial on charges of conspiracy, customs fraud and bribery. She was denied bail because she was considered a flight risk as she holds an Italian passport. The investigation into Baldetti relied heavily on wiretaps in which alleged members of La Línea refer to “the Big Boss”, “the Lady” and “the owner of the ranch”, which prosecutors believe were code names for Baldetti and Pérez Molina.

In a matter of days, #RenunciaYa achieved something almost unheard of in Latin America, a peaceful movement organised online which achieved real results. Experts also noted the surprising social makeup of the #RenunciaYa protests, whereas most protests in Guatemala are mounted by poor indigenous groups, the Renuncia activists are mostly middle-class people from the capital.

After the success of its first action, #RenunciaYa organised a second protest to push again for Molina's resignation. This time other cities joined in, along with Guatemalan expat communities around the world. Since then, the UN anti-corruption committee has reported on other cases and more than 20 government officials have stepped down, some have been arrested. #RenunciaYa has expanded its mission by calling for election reforms, including caps on campaign spending.

After a thousands of protesters took to the streets to demand the increasingly isolated president’s resignation, Guatemala’s Congress named a commission of five legislators to consider whether to remove the president’s immunity from prosecution, a process somewhat like impeachment. The request was approved by the supreme court. A major day of action kicked off early on Thursday August 27th, with marches and roadblocks across the country. Urban groups, which have spearheaded regular protests since the scandal broke in April, on Thursday 27th sought to unite with rural and indigenous organizations who have orchestrated the road blocks.

This strike in Guatemala City was filled to bursting with a diverse and peaceful crowd ranging from the indigenous poor to the well-healed, and included many students from public and private universities. Hundreds of schools and businesses closed in support of the protests, including a number of fast food chains like Central American fried chicken outlet Pollo Campero. The organization grouping Guatemala’s most powerful business leaders issued a statement demanding that Pérez Molina step down, and urged Congress to withdraw his immunity from prosecution.

The attorney general’s office released its own statement calling on the president to resign, “to prevent ungovernability that could destabilize the nation.” As pressure mounted, the president’s former ministers of defence and the interior, who were named in the corruption investigation and resigned from cabinet recently, left the country, Guatemala’s immigration service confirmed to the Associated Press. Pérez Molina, meanwhile, has been losing support by the day. The powerful private sector called for his resignation. Since then, five of his cabinet ministers and eight deputy ministers have resigned. Guatemala’s ambassador to the UN also resigned , with others likely to follow suit.

Iduvina Hernández, an expert on state-sponsored criminality in Guatemala, cited widespread rumours that the president could seek to avoid prosecution by getting his supporters in the military to stage a short-term coup that could provide him with a route to political exile. The rumours were fuelled by the aggressive tone of Pérez Molina’s vigorous rejection of the calls on him to resign in a prerecorded address to the nation on Sunday, August 23rd. He has not been seen in public since Friday, August 21st and is said to have spent the weekend unsuccessfully trying to negotiate deals in Latin American embassies for political exile.

The Guatemalan radio station Emisoras Unidas reported having a text message exchange with Perez Molina, who when asked about whether he planned to resign, wrote: “I will face whatever is necessary to face, and what the law requires.” Some protesters have demanded the general election be postponed, both because of the crisis and because it is plagued with accusations of irregularities. Others warn that suspending the vote could lead to an institutional vacuum.

#RenunciaYa is keeping to its neutral political stance. They inform their supporters about other protests not organised by the group, and have committed to hold several open discussions on what their next steps should be. But they realise that their reformist agenda is gathering steam and with elections scheduled for September, they have an opportunity.

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