August 22, 2015 / 2:05 AM / in 2 years

Guatemala prosecutors seek to impeach president after ex-VP's arrest

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - Guatemala’s attorney general sought to impeach President Otto Perez on Friday over a customs fraud that led to the arrest of his former vice president, deepening a government crisis ahead of presidential elections next month.

Demonstrators surround the vehicle transporting former Guatemalan Vice President Roxana Baldetti, as it arrives at a military hospital in Guatemala City, August 21, 2015. REUTERS/Josue Decavele

Prosecutors and a powerful U.N.-backed anti-corruption body known as the CICIG moved against Perez following months of investigations, and findings taken from some 89,000 telephone taps, almost 6,000 emails and 17 raids.

Perez’s conservative administration has spent much of this year mired in public protests and scandals over corruption allegations against senior officials, several of whom the retired general fired during a cabinet purge in May.

Attorney General Thelma Aldana told a news conference it was “highly probable” that taped telephone conversations of people involved in the customs racket referred to Perez and ex-Vice President Roxana Baldetti, who stood down in May.

Baldetti, who was arrested on Friday while she was receiving treatment at a hospital, is suspected of illicit association, bribery and fraud linked to the customs racket known as La Linea, said another senior prosecutor, Francisco Sandoval.

Perez, whose Patriot Party is way behind in polls before a first round of voting on Sept. 6, said little on Friday.

“But we are going to confront this situation. And at the given moment, we will have to make a statement,” the 64-year-old told reporters after an event.

According to the investigations, code names for Perez and Baldetti in the conversations identified each of them as the “head honcho” and the “farm owner,” or as “number 1” and “number 2”, said Ivan Velasquez, commissioner of the CICIG.

“There’s no doubt from the mentions made these names ... refer to the president and the then-vice president,” he said.

Aldana and Velasquez said they believed Perez and Baldetti kept half the money earned from the customs scam, with the remaining 50 percent destined for other participants.

More than 20 other people have been arrested over the scam, though how much money was involved is still unclear.

The scandal has fanned speculation the president could quit, though his spokesman Jorge Ortega said it was unlikely.

“I don’t think he’s going to resign,” Ortega said. “There’s a group of political advisors who will provide the executive with a series of options following these latest developments.”

Last week, Perez narrowly avoided losing his presidential immunity from prosecution when not enough Congress members voted to revoke it so he could be investigated over the scandals.

If the Supreme Court approves prosecutors’ impeachment request, Congress would still have to give its consent.

Baldetti has denied wrongdoing but quit after reports that she was involved in illegal payment of fees to avoid customs duties. Her chief aide, who is also implicated in the scandal, disappeared after joining her on a trip to South Korea in April.

The anti-corruption investigations led by the CICIG have also hit the center-right opposition Lider party, whose election candidate Manuel Baldizon is leading opinion polls.

No candidates are expected to win more than 50 percent of the vote on Sept. 6, so the presidential election is likely to move to a second round run-off on Oct. 25. Guatemalan law bars the president from seeking re-election.

Additional reporting by Enrique Pretel; Editing by Bernadette Baum, Grant McCool and Bernard Orr

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