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A Watershed Moment for Guatemala: Nobel Laureate Rigoberta Menchú Celebrates Jailing of Ex-President

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In Guatemala, Otto Pérez Molina has been jailed on charges of corruption only hours after he resigned as president, bowing to massive popular protest. We speak to Mayan activist Rigoberta Menchú, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992. Her lawsuits helped bring former U.S.-backed dictator Efraín Ríos Montt to trial for his role in the killings of more than 1,700 Ixil Mayan people. Menchú lost her father, mother and two brothers during the Guatemalan genocide, later winning the Nobel Peace Prize for her campaigning on behalf of Guatemala’s indigenous population. Now Menchú is calling for Pérez Molina to be tried for commanding troops in the El Quiché region in the 1980s, the site of some of the worst massacres committed by the military.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In Guatemala, former President Otto Pérez Molina has been jailed on charges of corruption only hours after he resigned, bowing to massive popular protest. In court Thursday, prosecutors played wiretapped conversations that they say show Pérez Molina was part of a customs fraud ring that pilfered tens of millions of dollars from the state treasury. Guatemalan Judge Miguel Angel Galvez ordered Pérez Molina to jail.

JUDGE MIGUEL ANGEL GALVEZ: [translated] This court considers it wise to order provisional prison for Mr. Otto Fernando Pérez Molina. This is effective of this judicial order and is not preventive detention but provisional custody ahead of trial.

AMY GOODMAN: The resignation and jailing of President Otto Pérez Molina sparked celebrations in the streets of Guatemala City.

JORGE DELGADO: [translated] We’ve been here since very early, celebrating after so many marches, in the rain, in the sun, so many shouts that we have made here in the plaza to see that the objective that we have been reaching for is done, to know that there is justice for the people, that the corrupt will be tried, that they are in the hands of justice for the coming years. We are very happy, and it’s hard to describe. The end of all this is that it benefits the people.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Vice President Alejandro Maldonado has been sworn in as interim president until January, when Pérez Molina’s term was set to end. Maldonado had been vice president since only May, after he assumed the post when the former vice president, Roxana Baldetti, resigned over allegations of corruption. Like Pérez Molina, Baldetti also is in jail awaiting trial. Guatemala’s new president, Alejandro Maldonado, spoke on Thursday.

PRESIDENT ALEJANDRO MALDONADO AGUIRRE: [translated] I believe I can take on this commitment to call on political sectors of the state, from the Congress, so that we bring in the reforms that the country needs, and that in the first and second rounds of voting we can have a focus on these issues, for these legislative reforms to come to a conclusion.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we go now to Guatemala City, where we’re joined by the Guatemalan indigenous activist Rigoberta Menchú, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992. She has published many books, including I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala. She’s been translated into over a dozen languages, awarded more than 30 honorary degrees, runs the Rigoberta Menchú Tum Foundation.

We welcome you back to Democracy Now!, Rigoberta Menchú. Can you respond to this latest development in your country, the president, Otto Pérez Molina, resigning and jailed?

RIGOBERTA MENCHÚ: [translated] That’s right. It is an extremely unique event in the history of Guatemala. For more than 50 years here, there’s been extraordinary fear of the military, the specialized members of the military forces, called the Kaibiles, those Kaibiles who were trained in order to control people, in order to crush civil society, in order to try to cover up all kinds of opinion against them. And we mustn’t forget today that Otto Pérez Molina, like many veteran members of the military, in the style of Ríos Montt, Quilo Ayuso and other members of the military, who are in the shadows today and who are alive, all of them were trained at the School of the Americas of the United States. And they are not willing to remove their boots. They will die with their military boots on, wearing them. That is why we are extremely happy that Otto Pérez Molina has resigned, because we reached the point of believing that perhaps he wasn’t going to step down and that the opinion of everyone wouldn’t matter to him.

But there’s also a very important record that we must bear in mind. His government is a government that has just been around for a few years; nonetheless, he re-established certain aspects of the regime of the 1980s, in the late 1980s. And one of these aspects is criminalizing the peasant and small farmer leaders, criminalizing civil society, imposing censorship. Now, if we look through the Guatemalan media, how many of the Mayan peoples have spoken in these three years? We’ve not been a part of the voice of the people of Guatemala that has been heard, and there is a lot of complicity. So it’s not just that a general has fallen, but a general who is a dictator has fallen. And not only has a repressive general fallen, but also a general who was implicated in a bloody past in Guatemala. Commander Tito, as he is known by the human rights communities here in Guatemala, Otto Pérez Molina, he carried out the genocide in the past. He was a young commander who directed the army in the Ixil areas and the areas where there was the heaviest armed struggle and where a sad mark was left, as reflected in the exhumations that have been done, the mass graves, the cases of forced disappearance. This is what we have done over these years, reveal all of this, so there is a past that he carries around with him. But there’s also the present, which is to say the last three years, in which he also sent many peasant leaders to prison, defending the interests of many military officers who were all involved in the mining businesses, in the businesses involving exploiting natural resources in Guatemala.

And then the last part, which is really cruel, shameful, which is to say Otto Pérez, as president, headed up a criminal band. That criminal band is a new matter in his record. Well, you know, throughout my life, throughout these last 35 years of my life, I always said that there were corporatist mafias, that there were dark powers encrusted in the state. And it seems that everyone ignored our concern. They were always there in the customs service. They always created empty areas in the border in order for trafficking—all kinds of business, not just drug trafficking. You know that in Guatemala there’s also been human trafficking, there’s been disappearance of children, disappearance of other persons, and we’ve never been paid attention when we’ve denounced all of this.

So I can say now more than how joyful we are, because the youth of Guatemala—I am Maya. I cannot speak of a single youth or just one youth; there are youths in the different peoples, the different youths of—sectors of the youth of Guatemala have made possible this great civic celebration, leading us Guatemalans to feel triumphant, because we have shown that it is possible to defeat fear. Many adults, many people who are my age, we have suffered from a syndrome which is called fear. We don’t want to talk, we don’t want to expose ourselves much, because we’re then isolated by silence, or they end up inventing lawsuits to bring against us.

I would like to say that this is also the fall of a symbol of what in Guatemala was called anti-communism. Every time I raise my voice, they say, “Oh, you’re a communist, you don’t have to speak.” Anytime I address a national problem seriously, I’m accused of being a subversive, a communist, a guerrilla, as though the guerrilla movement continued to exist in this country, when we know that more than 23 years ago the Guatemalan guerrilla movement was disbanded. But here, there are people who still think that there are guerrillas. So they have justified their businesses by getting people to—by threatening people and getting people to be fearful. So, I celebrate this civic celebration.

I would hope that such arrangements of state terrorism never return, that such arrangements of censorship not return, that we no longer be hushed up and threatened so that they can prevail. That cannot happen again. This is a true watershed for Guatemala. It does honor to our struggles and honor to everything that we have done to denounce genocide. We have gone to the courts. We have gone to the National Court of Spain. I have filed a lawsuit for state terrorism and genocide, crimes against humanity, forced disappearance, torture. And we also have filed lawsuits here in Guatemala, more than a dozen, for genocide, that are before the courts. And we hope that this ushers in a new era. I am just happy to be alive to see this moment.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Rigoberta Menchú, I wanted to ask you—you mentioned that the president, Pérez Molina, had only been in office a short time, but there were so many members, not only his vice president, but other members of his Cabinet, who have been jailed for corruption. Could you talk about the role of the popular movement, of the protests that have occurred over the last few months, in finally forcing the president out of office?

RIGOBERTA MENCHÚ: [translated] Yes, clearly, several struggles were combined. One of these, in which there was genuine citizen participation, grew day after day. In the last three months, there are people who haven’t slept at home. They have come out to demonstrate Sunday after Sunday, Saturday after Saturday. These protests were carried out with great peace, tranquilly, maturity. It is not a violent Guatemala that has removed Otto Pérez, it is a peaceful Guatemala that has removed Otto Pérez. But it also was combined with several legal actions and investigative actions. I would pay tribute to the work of the prosecutorial authorities, because this is the first time that the prosecutorial authorities have had the valor to go forward to such an end. I would also like to pay tribute to the International Commission Against Impunity, the CICIG, which has quietly done its work, and particularly Iván Velásquez, who is the commissioner. He is brave. He has come here, decided to touch the fibers of criminal power.

And also Amílcar Pop and the political movement. I founded a party some nine years ago, we began to work. And Amílcar is our candidate for re-election right now. But ever since Amílcar came into the Congress, he began to take initiatives against impunity. At least 100 officials of Pérez Molina, including mayors, including legislators, are facing charges. We’re seeking that they be handed over to the justice authorities, because we have evidence of corruption in the localities. So, there is a pending dossier before the Congress, before the courts, under investigation. And all of this points in the same direction, and that direction is that we, Guatemalans, are sick and tired of having them make a mockery of our dignity and further impoverishing the country with each passing day. That is what I think. We have a lot of work to do from here, going forward.

AMY GOODMAN: Rigoberta Menchú, your father, Don Vicente Menchú, burned to death in the Spanish Embassy in Guatemala City in 1980 with more than—well, with about 36 other indigenous peasants. Can you explain how what’s happening today relates to what happened, well, what, almost 40 years ago, 35 years ago?

RIGOBERTA MENCHÚ: [translated] Yes, the burning of the Spanish Embassy was marked by the idea, “Kill all of them. Don’t leave anyone alive.” And that was the order that came from General Lucas García, and that is the order that converted the six police bodies that participated in that massacre, the [inaudible] of the six police bodies that [inaudible] to the massacre in the Spanish Embassy. For 16 years we have been involved in a trial to try to get a judgment. There is a judgment which is now a firm judgment, but there was influencing, influence peddling from the office of Mrs. Baldetti, the vice president, and from the office of the president, so as to make sure that the state not be implicated in that judgment. And that is why we have challenged that judgment. But for 16 years we brought together the witnesses, the testimony. There are some witnesses who have died, and there are other witnesses who did not want to appear in the record, because it mentions names of persons, and those names include, obviously, the name of Mr. Otto Pérez Molina. I think that is why he was very afraid of going to jail. And I don’t think he should be sleeping at home under house arrest, because at any given point in time a member of the military, such as him, is—well, there’s a danger. We need to take preventive measures to make sure that he continues to answer for that.

But, of course, it has everything to do with what is happening today. Civil society, the human rights community, we have worked tirelessly to take on a policy that is seeking to erase the past, to erase evidence, to erase testimony, to hush up witnesses. That is still there. So, it’s one thing to just look at the past, it’s fine to look at the past, but we also want to look at these three years during which Otto Pérez Molina has been in the presidency. There are any number of parameters that we can look at and compare. That is why he is dangerous. And I would conclude by saying that we’ve already seen that the members of the military in power pose a danger, and civil society cannot continue to put such persons in politics, because that’s what they do. They want to control, give orders and impose hierarchical structures. And using those hierarchical structures, they create parallel groups that take advantage of public office. And that cannot be.

AMY GOODMAN: Rigoberta Menchú, we want to thank you very much for much for being with us. Rigoberta Menchú is a Nobel Peace laureate. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992. She has published many books, including I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala. She has been awarded more than 30 honorary degrees around the world and runs the Rigoberta Menchú Tum Foundation, speaking to us from her home in Guatemala City. When we come back, we’ll be joined by journalist Allan Nairn in Guatemala City, as well, in these major historic developments with the president of Guatemala, Otto Pérez Molina, now in prison after resigning. Stay with us.

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Allan Nairn: U.S. Backers of Guatemalan Death Squads Should Be Jailed Alongside Ex-President

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