Guatemala heads for elections amid political tumult

GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala - Guatemalan demonstrators outraged by corruption will gather in protest Saturday, September 5, on the eve of elections that have been upended by the resignation and jailing of disgraced ex-president Otto Perez.

Some protesters planned to dress in black and carry cardboard coffins, calling the day's rally an "electoral burial."

"We mourn because we believe that the elections are a dead process, with no reform and with a number of candidates involved in corruption and court issues," Isabel Juarez, 45, told Agence France-Presse (AFP).

The rally follows on the heels of protests Friday, when hundreds of demonstrators - mostly indigenous Guatemalans - railed against Perez outside his hearing at the Supreme Court, where prosecutors continued detailing their case against him.

Many of the demonstrators are calling for Sunday's elections to be postponed until sweeping reforms can be implemented.

Perez, who submitted his resignation to Congress late Wednesday, will spend the weekend in jail, after the hearing was adjourned until Tuesday.

Perez said he was "saddened" as he left the court Friday.

As a criminal suspect in custody pending prosecution, he will not be allowed to vote Sunday.

Earlier, he took the stand to deny involvement in the multimillion-dollar fraud scheme he is accused of masterminding.

Prosecutors say the 64-year-old retired general ran a network of corrupt officials that took bribes from businesses to clear their imports through customs at a fraction of the official tax rate.

The bribes amounted to $3.8 million between May 2014 and April 2015, including $800,000 received by Perez, prosecutors allege.

"Your honor, I would not put my sacrifice and dignity at risk for $800,000 nor for any amount," said Perez, wearing a dark suit and tie.

Defending his integrity, Perez told the court that fugitive Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman had once offered him a bribe "10 times that amount or more" when Perez led the operation that first captured the kingpin in 1993.

Guzman managed to escape eight years later by bribing his guards at a maximum-security prison in Mexico - a feat he repeated this July after being recaptured in 2014.

Perez vowed to continue defending his innocence, then refused to answer questions from the judge or prosecutors.

Comedian front-runner 

With Guatemalans increasingly exasperated with politics-as-usual, the long-time frontrunner in the presidential race, right-wing lawyer Manuel Baldizon, has been overtaken by comedian and political outsider Jimmy Morales.

Morales, who rose to fame playing the role of a naive cowboy who accidentally ends up becoming president, has 25% support to 22.9% for Baldizon and 18.4% for former first lady Sandra Torres, according to a poll released Thursday.

If no candidate gets more than 50% of the vote Sunday, the top two will face each other in a run-off on October 25. The winner will be sworn in on January 14.

Until then, the country is in the hands of newly inaugurated President Alejandro Maldonado, who donned the presidential sash Thursday in a hastily organized ceremony.

Maldonado, a 79-year-old former Constitutional Court judge, only became vice president in May, after his predecessor in the post, Roxana Baldetti, resigned over the same scandal that felled Perez.

Rash of scandals 

Perez, who had been in power since 2012, was ineligible to stand in Sunday's election.

He had long defied the mounting calls for his resignation, but was left with little choice after Congress stripped him of his presidential immunity and a judge issued a warrant for his arrest.

The accusations have stoked outrage in the Central American country of 15 million people, 53.7% of whom live in poverty, and where the scars from a 36-year civil war that ended in 1996 are still fresh.

The scandal was uncovered by investigators from a United Nations commission tasked with fighting high-level graft in Guatemala.

They say they found massive evidence that Perez and Baldetti orchestrated a scheme dubbed "La Linea" (The Line), named for a hotline that importers allegedly called to access a network of corrupt officials.

The UN commission has also blown the lid off separate scandals that led to the arrests of the heads of the central bank and social security administration, and another implicating presidential hopeful Baldizon's running mate in money laundering. -