GUATEMALA CITY — Guatemala's Congress on Thursday unanimously accepted the resignation of President Otto Perez Molina amid a fraud probe that has shaken the country's political establishment just days ahead of national elections. Vice President Alejandro Maldonado, who only recently took office after his predecessor resigned in the same kickback scandal, was sworn in the country's new leader.
The unprecedented political drama played out after a week in which Perez Molina was stripped of his immunity, deserted by key members of his cabinet, and saw his jailed former vice president ordered to stand trial.
As Maldonado took office, Perez Molina was in court Thursday hearing accusations that he was involved in a scheme in which businesspeople paid bribes to avoid import duties through Guatemala's customs agency. He is the first Guatemalan president to resign and it was not immediately clear whether he would be detained.
The retired military general insisted upon his innocence in an interview with the Associated Press during a break in the court proceedings.
He said he could have derailed the investigation, but didn't.
"I had things I could have done," Perez Molina said. "I could have replaced the prosecutor, I could have dug in."
Attorney General Thelma Aldana told reporters she will ask that Perez Molina, 64, be jailed during the court proceedings.
Analysts say the resignation was a key blow to entrenched corruption in the country and a boost for rule of law.
"In the midst of this political crisis there is interesting and good news," said Eric Olson, a Central America expert at the Washington-based Wilson Center. "The attorney general resisted strong pressures and even asked for the president to be incarcerated … that shows the institutions in Guatemala under the right circumstances can operate and be effective."
Earlier in the day, Perez Molina gave an interview to a local radio station, saying that he doesn't "trust Guatemalan justice" and criticizing the nation's prosecutors and the United Nations commission that have mounted a huge investigation in the fiscal fraud case he was implicated in.
He said the case was built by them to "seek prominence" and "to fill their egos."
The corruption scandal, uncovered by prosecutors and a U.N. commission against impunity, involved a scheme known as "La Linea," or "the Line," in which businesspeople paid bribes to avoid import duties through the customs agency. The ring is believed to have defrauded the state of millions of dollars.
Ex-Vice President Roxana Baldetti's former personal secretary was named as the alleged ringleader and is a fugitive. She resigned May 8 because of the same scandal and is now jailed and facing charges. She also maintains her innocence.