As former Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina is held in jail on corruption charges, investigative journalist Allan Nairn looks at how Pérez Molina could also be charged for his role in the mass killings of indigenous Guatemalans in the 1980s. In 1982, Nairn interviewed a Guatemalan general named “Tito” on camera during the height of the indigenous massacres. It turns out the man was actually Pérez Molina.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: We continue to look at the situation in Guatemala. On Thursday, President Otto Pérez Molina was jailed on charges of corruption, only hours after he resigned, bowing to massive popular protest.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We go to Guatemala City, where we’re joined by Allan Nairn, a Polk Award-winning journalist who has been covering Guatemala since the 1980s.
Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Allan.
ALLAN NAIRN: Thanks.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Allan, I wanted to ask you not only your reaction to this stunning development in Guatemala, but also if you could talk to us about the guy who has replaced Pérez Molina temporarily, Alejandro Maldonado, and – because, while this is an enormous change, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the balance of forces or the political situation in Guatemala has changed that drastically.
ALLAN NAIRN: Yeah, it’s a very important point. The balance of forces, in one sense, is the same. You have the same powers in place – the oligarchs, the army, the foreign investors, the US government. But the difference is that in these past months and weeks, those most powerful, dominant people, who have been able for decades to kill at will, to take the minerals, to make people work from dawn to sundown for a wage that is not enough to feed their children, to keep their children’s brains from being stunted, who have been able to do all that, these past few months and weeks, those people have been on the run. They have been the ones who have been scared. Rigoberta Menchú was just talking about the fear that the people have been living with for decades. Well, the rulers have been living with a certain degree of fear these past few weeks. It was extraordinary on Tuesday at the Congress. On Tuesday morning, nobody who follows politics expected the Congress to yank the immunity from prosecution of Pérez Molina. It looked to be rigged. But by the afternoon, they had done so, and done so unanimously. And it became clear that they did it because they were afraid of what the mass reaction would be if they didn’t do it.
However, this is a temporary situation. This is one of those recurring rare moments of history, a revolutionary type of moment, when the normal rules of politics are suspended, when the normal constraints don’t apply. On the streets, people say that the people are on their feet, and everything is shaking. But this is not going to last. And Guatemalans now face a tremendous series of difficulties. You just mentioned Maldonado Aguirre, the new president. On Sunday, there’s going to be a presidential election, where all of the leading candidates are funded by gangsters, narcos and the oligarchs and the most murderous of the old military. That structure is still in place. If this movement continues, and especially if it deepens and brings in even more of the indigenous population, it may be possible to shake and change and alter and, some hope, abolish that structure, but it’s going to be very difficult. Nobody exactly sees a precise path forward. But there may be – there may be a way to do it.
Guatemala has a history of producing very brave and brilliant and creative people. And that’s one reason why the army had to be so active during the time of crisis in the ’80s in killing so many. There were so many great minds to murder, and they did so. Specifically, the new president, Maldonado, he rose within the MLN, the self-described “party of organized violence,” the party that worked with the CIA in the 1954 invasion of Guatemala that overthrew the democratic government. It was actually an operation quite parallel to that in Iran in ’53, and like that of Iran, where a democratic government was also overthrown, the horrible consequences are still reverberating today. Maldonado, he basically has spent his career as the smooth, presentable, intellectual face of the men of the death squads. That’s what he’s done. His most recent accomplishment was, while on the High Court, he denied an effort by the Spanish courts to extradite the Guatemalan generals to Spain to stand trial for their role in atrocities, like the Spanish Embassy slaughter that killed Rigoberta’s father. And most importantly, he led –
AMY GOODMAN: Allan is – his voice is breaking up. Allan, if you could continue saying – we lost you at “he led.” Allan is speaking to us by Democracy Now! video stream from Guatemala City.
ALLAN NAIRN: Maldonado Aguirre led the campaign at the High Court to annul the Ríos Montt genocide verdict. And now he is the president of Guatemala.
AMY GOODMAN: Allan, we only have a few minutes, but I was wondering if you could describe for us the dramatic moments yesterday, what it was like in Guatemala City when the president resigned, when he was brought before the court and the charges were read against him, and then if you could tell us, since we only have a few minutes, what has been the role of the United States to the end here in Otto Pérez Molina’s reign.
ALLAN NAIRN: Well, the news came out about 1:00 a.m. that Pérez Molina had quit. He quit, knowing that he was facing arrest at dawn. And starting at 1:00 a.m., people went out onto the streets, and you could hear the horns sounding throughout the city.
Yesterday, as he sat in court, on the TV screen of one of the stations, they had the text at the bottom that said, “Entered as president, will leave as prisoner.” And you could see him sitting behind the table as the judge was asking him for his personal details. He was undergoing the humiliation that every prisoner has to undergo. He was being asked, “Who is your wife? What is your occupation? What is your address?” And I saw a look on his face that I’ve never seen before. I met him in the highlands in ’82 as he was carrying out the Ríos Montt program of slaughter, spent some time with him then, I’ve seen him on TV many times since. I’ve never seen that kind of look of fear on the face of Pérez Molina. It’s probably the same look that he saw on the faces of some of his captives, who ended up dead. In fact, in the film we did back then, you can see us talking, standing over the corpses of some people who he had just finished interrogating.
I think we should see Americans sitting behind that defense table, as well, because there were American advisers working with the Guatemalan army as they did those mass killings. And the US and also Israel provided the weaponry. Most recently, the US has been urging Pérez Molina – had been urging Pérez Molina not to resign, but they couldn’t sustain that. They were swept away by the popular wave.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Allan, the impact of what’s going on in Guatemala in terms of what’s happened across Latin America, as social movements and popular movements have enforced more accountability by their leaders?
ALLAN NAIRN: Yeah, this is a real example of that. And I think, in a certain sense, it’s a step even beyond that, because, as you say, we’ve seen these kind of mass uprisings before in recent years, especially in South America, which has been leading the world in popular movements for democratization, but Guatemala has now added an extra dimension. And that is, you have movements of the people, movements of the survivors, of the poorest, of the most oppressed, who have been – essentially, come together with professionals, with honorable lawyers, people who managed to find their way into the system as prosecutors or judges and then do their jobs – attempt to enforce the murder laws, with the backing of the people. And that’s what produced the prosecution of Ríos Montt, the first time in the world that any country has been able to bring its own president, or its own former head of state – he was a dictator – to trial for crimes against humanity and genocide, and now bringing down a sitting president, a military man, a man of the mano dura, a tremendous power, with the backing of the richest in society, bringing him down on criminal charges. He now faces a corruption charge, but waiting in the wings are charges for mass murder.
Guatemala is now setting an example for the world with the de facto alliance between popular movements and honest professionals who are willing to enforce the murder laws, first with the Ríos Montt case, now with the toppling of Pérez Molina. I’d like to see the US follow that example. Let’s make it conceivable that an American president could be brought down or an American president could be brought into a courtroom and asked to list his personal details, have a judge ask George W. Bush, “What is your address? What is the name of your spouse? When were you born? What is your occupation, Mr. Bush? Write down all the personal details,” and then have him account, for example, for the invasion of Iraq and the hundreds of thousands of civilians who were killed as a result. That’s exactly what has just been done in Guatemala by the people of Guatemala. Why can’t Americans advance to that level, as well?
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Allan, he is not being charged with genocide. Otto Pérez Molina is not being charged with murder. He’s being charged with corruption. What makes you think that these charges will broaden out from there?
ALLAN NAIRN: Well, one possibility is that Guatemala law allows ordinary citizens to come forward and file criminal charges. For example, that’s how the Ríos Montt case started. Rigoberta was one of the leaders in bringing forward charges against generals like Ríos Montt for the massacres, and that eventually culminated in his genocide conviction. A charge could be brought by ordinary citizens against Pérez Molina. And if it is accepted by the Attorney General’s Office, by the Justice Department of Guatemala, the Ministerio Público, it would be able to go forward. And now, since Pérez Molina’s immunity from prosecution has been eliminated and he’s out of the presidency, he would in fact not be able to legally shield himself from such a charge. And he also is no longer surrounded by men with guns who would be able to shoot down those who try to bring him to justice.
AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you very much for being with us, Allan Nairn, a George Polk Award-winning journalist and activist, reporting from Guatemala City. He has covered Guatemala since the 1980s. You can follow him at @AllanNairn14 on Twitter for the latest news on the resignation and the imprisonment of Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina, as well as the developments of the elections that will be taking place on Sunday. Also special thanks to our translator, Charlie Roberts.
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we go to Chicago. Why are grandmothers on hunger strike? Stay with us.