Guatemala’s Congress on Tuesday stripped President Otto Perez of immunity, paving the way for prosecutors to charge him in a graft scandal that has engulfed his government.
The 132-0 vote was the culmination of a tumultuous five months since prosecutors revealed the existence of a customs fraud ring in April, describing how officials received bribes in exchange for discounted tariffs, a scheme that effectively stole millions from the treasury.
Perez, a conservative ex-military man, earned the dubious distinction of becoming the first president to have his immunity revoked in the Central American country’s history.
The case ignited a flood of protest from ordinary Guatemalans, who began staging weekly protests in Guatemala City’s central plaza, demanding the president’s resignation, although he had yet to be linked directly to the scheme.
But it was not until Aug. 21, when prosecutors announced that their evidence pointed to Mr. Pérez Molina as one of the scheme’s ringleaders, that Guatemala’s elite joined the calls for Mr. Pérez Molina to step down.
Perez, a 64-year-old retired general, denies any wrongdoing and has repeatedly said he will not resign over a scandal that has sent thousands of protesters onto the streets and gutted his cabinet in the run-up to Sunday’s presidential election.
The case against Mr. Pérez, which forced the resignation of his vice president, Roxana Baldetti, in May, was brought by a United Nations-backed commission of independent prosecutors that has been working alongside the Guatemalan attorney general’s office for almost a decade. The commission has brought down a series of corrupt officials, developing complex cases using wiretaps and other evidence.
He had survived a similar vote last month but that was before prosecutors and investigators from a special UN anti-graft commission had accused him of personally pulling the strings of the bribery ring.
Perez, who has been in power since 2012, is constitutionally barred from running for reelection. His term ends on January 14.
The leading candidate to replace him, Manuel Baldizon, had called for Congress to strip his immunity. Baldizon leads right-wing party Renewed Democratic Liberty which is the largest party in the Congress.
Some protesters are calling for Sunday’s elections to be postponed until sweeping political reforms can be implemented in Guatemala, a country of 15.8 million people that is troubled by poverty, drug trafficking and violent crime.