Otto Perez, Guatemala's fallen crime-fighter

Edgar CALDERON
Otto Perez speaks during a press conference in Guatemala City, on August 31, 2015 (AFP Photo/Johan Ordonez)

Guatemala City (AFP) - Guatemala's disgraced ex-president Otto Perez Molina came to power in 2012 promising to crack down on crime, but resigned Thursday after a judge issued a warrant for his arrest over allegations of massive corruption.

The conservative leader defiantly held on through months of unprecedented protests, but in the end had little choice but to stand down as prosecutors prepared to charge him with running a scheme that defrauded the state of millions of dollars.

A spreading firestorm had engulfed his administration since April, when investigators blew the lid off what they say was a highly organized system in which businesses could bribe corrupt officials to clear their imports through customs at a fraction of the actual tax rate.

The arrest warrant was the final straw for the 64-year-old retired general, who under Guatemalan law would have been automatically removed from office if remanded in custody pending trial.

Congress voted Tuesday to strip his presidential immunity, a first in Guatemalan history.

It is all a long way from Perez's winning campaign in 2011, when he vowed to wield an iron fist against the crime wracking the Central American country.

Guatemala, where the scars of a 36-year civil war are still fresh, has a murder rate of nearly 40 per day -- the fifth highest in the world, according to the United Nations.

Perez, a former counterinsurgency officer with a severe style, promised to fight the violent street gangs terrorizing the country while building upon social programs started by his center-left predecessor, Alvaro Colom.

That agenda got sideswiped by the ever-expanding corruption scandal uncovered by investigators from the Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a UN unit set up in 2006 to fight high-level graft.

Investigators say the scheme -- dubbed "La Linea," for the phone line businesses allegedly called to access the corrupt network -- was led by the president himself.

Their findings are based on some 89,000 wire-tapped phone calls -- including, they say, recordings that refer to Perez as the "Number One" official behind La Linea.

Perez had apologized for the fact the graft happened on his watch, but repeatedly denied involvement, insisting he would not quit before his term ended on January 14.

But he was left in an untenable position by the congressional vote and the arrest warrant, which came as the country prepares for elections Sunday to choose its next president.

The scandal had already felled former vice president Roxana Baldetti, who resigned in May and is currently in jail awaiting trial.

New Vice President Alejandro Maldonado is due to serve out the rest of Perez's term.


- Tainted peace hero -


Perez is the first military man to lead Guatemala since the return of democracy in 1985.

He developed his sharp, staccato speaking manner during 34 years in the barracks, which coincided with the 1960-1996 civil war, a conflict that claimed 200,000 lives.

His military career included a stint at the School of the Americas, the US-operated counter-insurgency institute that trained several Latin American dictators.

Rights groups have accused him of abuses during the war, allegations he vehemently denies.

Instead, he plays up his nickname, "General of the Peace," earned when he signed the 1996 peace accords in the name of the army.

Perez turned from the military to politics in 1993, as head of the presidential military staff, before retiring from the army in 2000.

He survived an attempt on his life in February 2001, when attackers fired on the vehicle he was traveling in with his wife and daughter, three days before he founded his Patriot Party.

He was elected to Congress in 2003 and made an unsuccessful run for the presidency in 2007.

Four years later, he was back to win, running a multi-million-dollar campaign and seeking to soften his image with an informal style, sporting jeans and polo shirts along with his neatly parted silver hair.

But that lighter side was set aside as the corruption scandal swirled.

Born in Guatemala City on December 1, 1950, Perez is married to Rosa Leal, with whom he has two children.