Warrant issued for Guatemalan president

  • 03/09/2015
Guatemala's President Otto Perez (Reuters)
Guatemala's President Otto Perez (Reuters)

A judge has issued an arrest warrant for Guatemala's President Otto Perez, who faces prosecution for allegedly masterminding a huge customs fraud scheme.

The arrest warrant for the president was issued by Judge Miguel Angel Galvez, who is in charge of the investigation, a spokeswoman for the prosecutor's office says.

Under Guatemalan law, Perez will be automatically removed from office if remanded in custody by a criminal court.

The conservative leader is against the ropes after Congress voted unanimously on Tuesday (local time) to strip him of his immunity, clearing the way for prosecutors to go ahead with their case against him.

Investigators accuse Perez of running a scheme in which businesses paid bribes to dodge taxes on their imports, defrauding the country of millions of dollars.

"There's a criminal case and we will go to trial and then a verdict. In my opinion and based on what I know of the case, it will have to be a conviction," Attorney General Thelma Aldana said on Wednesday.

"At this time we have complete freedom to investigate whatever line of inquiry we deem pertinent in the president's case."

Perez meanwhile failed in his bid to block the prosecutors' investigation as the Constitutional Court ruled against two motions filed by his lawyers.

The five-judge court ruled unanimously not to grant the petitions – one challenging the Supreme Court of Justice's decision to allow prosecutors to open a criminal investigation, the other challenging the legality of the congressional investigative committee that subsequently recommended lifting his immunity.

Perez is the first president in the country's history to be stripped of his immunity, a decision that caused exasperated Guatemalans to burst into celebration after months of unprecedented protests.

A judge subsequently barred the 64-year-old retired general from leaving the country.

Investigators case is based on some 89,000 wire-tapped phone calls that uncovered a scheme called "La Linea" (the line) – named after the hotline businesses who would call to access corrupt officials and get illegal discounts on their customs duties.

Perez has repeatedly denied involvement and rejected calls from the increasingly virulent protest movement for his resignation.

The scandal, which has already felled his former vice president and a string of top officials, comes as Guatemala prepares for elections Sunday to choose Perez's successor.

Perez, in power since 2012, is constitutionally barred from running for re-election. His term ends on January 14.

The president has been left increasingly isolated by the scandal.

Six of his 14 ministers have resigned in recent days, along with several other top officials.