GUATEMALA CITY (AP) – Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina has resigned in the face of a corruption scandal that has brought his government to the brink, a spokesman said early Thursday.
Spokesman Jorge Ortega said Pérez Molina submitted his resignation at midnight Wednesday local time after a judge issued an order to detain him in the customs fraud case, which already has led to the jailing of his vice president, and the resignation of several cabinet ministers who withdrew their support for the president.
Thursday early afternoon the Guatemalan Congress voted to accept Pérez Molina's resignation. It's the first time a Guatemala president has resigned from office.
Protesters, business leaders and even Catholic church officials have called for Pérez Molina to resign in recent weeks as the investigation of the customs fraud ring has grown wider and hit more officials. Pérez Molina was steadfast in his plan to stay until the judge's unprecedented order, dealing the most serious blow yet to entrenched political corruption in the Central American country.
Ortega told reporters that in the end, Pérez Molina submitted his resignation "to maintain the institution of the presidency and resolve on his own the legal proceedings leveled against him."
Pérez Molina, 64, has maintained his innocence.
Vice President Alejandro Maldonado is constitutionally in line to assume the presidency. Maldonado, a conservative lawyer and former Constitutional Court judge, was chosen to replace former Vice President Roxana Baldetti, who resigned May 8 due to the same scandal and is now jailed and facing charges. She too maintains her innocence.
Maldonado would likely remain in office until the winner of upcoming elections is inaugurated Jan. 14, 2016.
The country's reaction was initially quiet as the news played out in the middle of the night.
The order to detain Pérez Molina is not for his arrest, rather to for him to declare before Judge Miguel Angel Galvea, who granted the request Wednesday from Attorney General Thelma Aldana.
The president will have to appear on accusations of illicit association, fraud and receiving bribe money.
No formal charges have been filed, though Aldana said there is a preliminary investigation under way into the president's possible involvement in the fraud ring.
The president's attorney, César Calderón, told the Associated Press that Pérez Molina will appear voluntarily as soon as they have confirmed the order was issued.
Pérez Molina was already under order not to leave the country, and on Tuesday congress lifted his immunity from prosecution.
The corruption scandal, uncovered by prosecutors and a U.N. commission probing criminal networks in Guatemala, 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.
Baldetti's former personal secretary was named as the alleged ringleader.
Protesters have filled the streets almost daily over the scandal, demanding not only that Pérez Molina step down but that next Sunday's presidential elections be postponed. He says delaying the vote would be against the law.