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Guatemala president faces mounting pressure in scandal

GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala — Guatemala’s Congress launched an investigative committee Thursday to consider revoking President Otto Pérez Molina’s immunity, as thousands of protesters called on him to resign over a swirling corruption scandal.

Pérez Molina has been left increasingly isolated since U.N. investigators accused him of running a massive fraud scheme at the national customs service, a scandal that has already felled his former vice president and caused nearly half his Cabinet to resign in protest.

Shouting “Resign now!” thousands of Guatemalans took to the streets in the capital in a show of outrage at the conservative president, 10 days from elections to choose his successor.

The 64-year-old retired general, in office since 2012, cannot run for re-election under the Guatemalan Constitution.

He has apologized for the fact the graft happened on his watch, but denies involvement and has rejected calls to resign before his term ends in January.

Carrying signs with messages like “Otto the Thief” and “Corruption is sucking our lifeblood,” protesters vented their anger against the entire political establishment, after weeks of increasingly disturbing allegations of high-level graft.

Read all The Tico Times’ coverage of the recent turmoil in Guatemala

The five-member Congressional committee considering lifting Perez’s presidential immunity, which was chosen by lots, comprises three opposition lawmakers and two from Pérez Molina’s coalition.

It was formed after the Supreme Court gave the green light to prosecutors’ request for impeachment proceedings.

The committee has 60 days to make a recommendation to the full chamber on revoking his immunity, which would require the backing of at least 105 of the 148 lawmakers.

A similar vote failed earlier this month — but that was before Pérez Molina had been formally accused of involvement in the corruption.

Even McDonald’s joins in

The protest march was led by university students, but drew a broad cross-section of Guatemalan society.

Even fast-food restaurants joined in — McDonald’s and Domino’s Pizza shut so their employees could march.

“All our restaurants will remain closed. We are joining in the change reshaping our country,” said a message posted to the Twitter account of McDonald’s Guatemala.

“This is a historic march. The president is a coward who no longer represents national unity,” said student Iván Castillo.

The Guatemalan Comptroller General’s office said it would allow employees to leave work for the march.

It urged Pérez Molina to step down, saying he must go “to preserve the peace in Guatemala in the face of demands from diverse sectors of the population.”

That came hours after the Public Prosecutor’s Office called on him to resign “to stave off the inability to govern that national instability could cause.”

Elsewhere in Guatemala, protesters blocked highways with picket lines, shutting down at least 10 major roads in the north and west of the country.

Graft hotline

The scandal was first uncovered by a United Nations commission set up to investigate high-level corruption in the Central American country.

U.N. investigators say Pérez Molina, ex-vice president Roxana Baldetti and a raft of other top officials operated a scheme in which businesses paid bribes to clear their imports through customs at a fraction of the actual tax rate.

The scandal has been dubbed “La Línea,” for the hotline investigators say importers would call to access corrupt officials.

Baldetti, who resigned in May, has been arrested and charged with siphoning off some $3.8 million between May 2014 and April 2015.

A judge ruled Wednesday that she must remain in jail pending trial.

The probe has also netted the head of Guatemala’s Tax Administration, his predecessor and several dozen other agency officials.

The heads of the central bank and Social Security Administration were also arrested in May over a separate corruption case uncovered by the U.N. commission.

The scandal has prompted an exodus from Pérez Molina’s Cabinet as ministers seek to distance themselves from the president.

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

Pérez Molina has not been seen in public for five days.

With many Guatemalans exasperated with their political leaders, some have called to postpone the elections until sweeping reforms are implemented in the country of 15 million people, 53.7 percent of whom live in poverty.

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