Honest judges and popular protest combined to topple a president, setting a bold precedent in an age when news travels fast.
BOGOTÁ — Guatemala has joined the ranks of countries where ordinary people are saying enough is enough to politics and knavery as usual.
After months of street protests, the country's parliament voted last week to strip President Otto Pérez Molina of his immunity. The leader is suspected of embezzling public funds. Pérez Molina resigned and was immediately jailed, capping an exceptional turn of events, particularly in the context of Latin America, where corruption scandals recur in a setting of shameless impunity for the rich, the powerful and the violent.
There are perhaps some lessons here that Guatemala's fellow Latin American countries would do well to heed. One is that justice must be implacable in fighting corruption. The other lies in the visible strength of a civic movement promoting the culture of legality.
Such a movement becomes imperative when politics and public life lose both sense and essence, are rotted through by corruption, and when collaboration between legal and illegal powers becomes habitual.
Corruption is the cancer of democracy. It annuls the legal pact through which people consider themselves members of a community, and corrodes their sense of belonging. As ethical conduct melts away, corruption fans the worship of personal interests and turns the common good into an irksome obstacle.
The judiciary's role becomes crucial when the political sphere has become an ethical vacuum. In those cases it must act as a surgeon that extirpates and cuts where necessary to ensure the survival of the social body. And for that it needs its corps of competent, responsible officials.
In Guatemala, the judiciary proved decisive thanks to the intervention of an honest judge, Colombian Iván Velásquez of the UN-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala. As our columnist María Elvira Bonilla wrote once, since the time of the mobster Pablo Escobar, Velásquez has devoted his career to fighting the ties between politics and crime. When he began scrutinizing relations between Colombian paramilitaries and politicians, Colombia sent him packing. Today Guatemala enjoys what Colombia failed to appreciate.
Justice is essential. But it's not enough. That is something the Italian prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino understood. For them, the fight against the mafia had to be more than a cold, distant analysis. It had to be part of a cultural and ethical movement. Their work had to shake consciences so that social complicity with the mafia would no longer be perceived as normal and inevitable.
Judge Velásquez's efforts did just that. He managed to shake the minds of Guatemalans, helping foster the peaceful civilian protests that, in combination with judicial action, led to the president's resignation and arrest.
Guatemalans broke free of fear and its silent shackles, setting an important precedent in the process. Competent, honest leaders backed by independent civilian action can turn what seemed like the impossible into business as usual.