GUATEMALA CITY (AP) – Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina resigned in the face of a corruption scandal that has brought his government to the brink, and arrived at court Thursday morning to hear the charges against him.
Spokesman Jorge Ortega said Perez Molina submitted his resignation at midnight Wednesday local time after a judge issued an order to detain him in the customs fraud case, which already has led to the jailing of his vice president, and the resignation of several cabinet ministers who withdrew their support for the president.
The aim of the order was not to formally arrest Perez Molina, but rather to compel him to appear before Judge Miguel Angel Galvea, who granted the request from Attorney General Thelma Aldana.
The president will have to appear on accusations of illicit association, fraud and receiving bribe money, and a preliminary investigation is under way. Aldana told reporters she will ask that he be jailed during the court proceedings. He already is prohibited from leaving the country and was stripped of his immunity from prosecution by Congress earlier this week.
Perez Molina, 64, has maintained his innocence.
His resignation, the first by a Guatemalan president, is not effective until members of Congress accept it and name a new president. They were convening sometime Thursday to do so.
Security was tight around a courthouse, with scores of police and members of the presidential guard stationed around the building.
Only a few protesters with drums and whistles had arrived by the time the president entered the building.
Earlier in the day, Perez Molina gave an interview to a local radio station, saying that he doesn’t “trust Guatemalan justice” and criticizing the nation’s prosecutors and the United Nations commission that have mounted a huge investigation in the fiscal fraud case he was implicated in.
He said the case was built by them to “seek prominence” and “to fill their egos.”
Rights advocates and other Guatemalans were pleased with the detention order against the president and his subsequent resignation.
“This strengthens the rule of law,” Jorge de Leon, Guatemala’s human rights prosecutor, said of the detention order against Molina Perez and his subsequent resignation. “No one in the country is above the law.”
The corruption scandal, uncovered by prosecutors and the U.N. commission against impunity, involved a scheme known as “La Linea,” or “The Line,” in which businesspeople paid bribes to avoid import duties through the customs agency. The ring is believed to have defrauded the state of millions of dollars.
Former Vice President Roxana Baldetti’s former personal secretary was named as the alleged ringleader and is a fugitive. She resigned May 8 because of the same scandal and is now jailed and facing charges. She also maintains her innocence.
A growing protest movement brought together Guatemalans from all walks of life demanding that Perez Molina step down. Business leaders and even Catholic church officials had called for him to resign in recent weeks as the investigation of the customs fraud ring has grown wider and hit more officials.
Perez Molina was steadfast in his plan to stay until the judge’s unprecedented order, dealing the most serious blow yet to entrenched political corruption in the Central American country.
Ortega told reporters that in the end, Perez Molina submitted his resignation “to maintain the institution of the presidency and resolve on his own the legal proceedings leveled against him.”
Vice President Alejandro Maldonado is constitutionally in line to assume the presidency. Maldonado, a conservative lawyer and former Constitutional Court judge, was chosen to replace Baldetti.
Maldonado would likely remain in office until the winner of upcoming elections is inaugurated Jan. 14, 2016. The first round is on Sunday, pitting a wealthy businessman and politician against 13 other candidates, including a comedian with no political experience, a former first lady and the daughter of an ex-dictator accused of genocide. If none of the candidates reaches 50 percent, a runoff will be held Oct. 25.
Protesters filling the streets have also demanded that Sunday’s presidential elections be postponed. Perez Molina has said delaying the vote would be against the law.
The U.N.’s commission against impunity said in a report released in mid-July that the country’s elections are rife with illegal money, and corruption is the glue holding the system together. Political parties consistently spend far more money than they report taking in and several regularly exceed spending limits without consequence.