GUATEMALA CITY — Riot police began efforts Tuesday to clear roadblocks by protesters that have paralyzed parts of Guatemala for more than a week, just hours after President Alejandro Giammattei vowed to clear the country’s roadways.
More than 120 roadblocks have snarled traffic and disrupted commerce as thousands of farmers and members of Indigenous communities demand the resignation of Attorney General Consuelo Porras and express their support for incoming progressive President-elect Bernardo Arévalo.
Porras’ office has multiple open investigations related to August’s presidential elections and has sucessfully sought the suspension of Arévalo’s party — moves that the protesters denounce as attempts to thwart the incoming leader before he takes office in January.
At one roadblock on a major roadway in the capital, a couple dozen riot police stood in formation. There was brief pushing with some protesters, and more people quickly arrived and surrounded the outnumbered police. The roadblock remained in place.
On Monday evening, Giammattei said in a taped message that he would arrest the protest leaders, who he claimed were funded and advised by foreigners.
Giammattei’s remarks were the strongest attack yet on the protests, which he accused of damaging the economy and causing “vandalism.” The comments suggested the president was firmly in support of his U.S.-sanctioned attorney general.
“We are requesting the appropriate arrest warrants, so that justice can be applied,” Giammattei said. He claimed protest leaders “have received support and advice from foreigners,” who he said “will also be arrested.”
“Foreign money has been transferred to Guatemalan NGOs, and these funds have been used to feed and pay for portable toilets, in short all the logistics, for the blockades,” the president said.
Protesters are demanding an end to what they see as political persecution by prosecutors of Arévalo, who has vowed to root out corruption and has described the cases against him as an attempted coup.
Also Tuesday, Luis Almagro, secretary general of the Organization of American States, told the regional body’s permanent council that Porras’ office’s actions were “biased and irrational.”
Actions of Porras’ office “undermine the independence and secrecy of the vote and threaten the democratic stability in Guatemala,” Almagro said.
While Guatemala’s Foreign Minister Mario Búcaro said the protests had led to vandalism and were impacting millions of Guatemalans, Almagro insisted they had been peaceful, but were vulnerable to criminal elements that wanted to hijack them.
Porras issued a call Monday for the government to act against the largely peaceful protesters, who have taken to the streets for weeks demanding her resignation for what they say are attempts to undermine their nation’s democracy.
The protests broke out in Guatemala two weeks ago following one of the most tumultuous elections in the country’s recent history.
In a message posted to his social media accounts, Arévalo said Giammattei was endangering Guatemala’s democracy by backing his controversial attorney general to the end.
“It is his responsibility as president to come out against the breaking of constitutional rule that she ( Porras) has been carrying out,” Arévalo said. “The way out of this crisis is to sit down and listen to the people, who have made their demands very clear.”
Arévalo emerged as a political contender earlier this year, after positioning himself as a progressive outsider challenging the elite who have long controlled the Central American nation. Since then he and his Seed Movement party have faced waves of legal attacks. Those only ramped up when he won the country’s elections in August.
The attacks have included raids on electoral facilities and the suspension of Arévalo’s political party, effectively handicapping his ability to govern.
Such moves against the incoming leader prompted Indigenous groups and rural-dwellers – long disenfranchised in Guatemalan society – to call for an indefinite strike, which began with 14 blockades. Now two weeks into protests, the blockades have since expanded to block more than 80 roads throughout the country.
In a video released Monday morning, Porras described the demonstrations against her as “illegal,” and asked for authorities to forcibly clear the blocked roads and allow for the free circulation of people once again.
Porras and other prosecutors have been sanctioned and had their entry visas withdrawn by the U.S. government, which accuses them of obstructing the anti-corruption fight and undermining democracy in Guatemala.