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Lime attack incapacitates Guatemala’s vice president

Benjamin Patrick Reeves

A strange act of protest last week in which two women tossed white powder into the face of Guatemala’s vice president has underscored the political tensions in the Central American nation.

Initially, the substance thrown at Vice President Roxana Baldetti was thought to be flour, but scientists later determined it was lime, a caustic material that can be quite toxic.

Baldetti spent a night in the hospital and has been under medical observation since. Her ailment forced President Otto Perez Molina to cancel a trip to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, which began Wednesday. Doctors said Baldetti wasn’t well enough to take over his duties temporarily.

The spokesman for the presidency, Francisco Cuevas, said Baldetti was in stable condition with a cough and respiratory inflammation.

The Davos trip had been considered an important part of Perez Molina’s image as an internationally inclined leader in Guatemala. He’d been scheduled to sign an agreement with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto for the construction of a $1.2 billion gas pipeline.

The Guatemalan Constitution stipulates that when the president is out of the country, the vice president takes over his domestic duties.

The women who threw the powder at Baldetti are imprisoned. Their political leanings are unknown. The ruling center-right Patriot Party has sought to pin responsibility on the right-wing LIDER party, which it says harbors a violent streak. LIDER party Secretary Carlos Milian charged that the Patriot Party had organized the attack itself to win sympathy for Baldetti, who’s faced corruption allegations, and to shift attention from the poor performance of the Perez Molina government.

The attack took place at the National Theater on Jan. 14 after Perez Molina delivered his annual state of the nation address.

Last Thursday, the National Forensic Science Institution determined that the substance thrown was lime, raising the seriousness with which the attack was viewed.

Baldetti has faced increasing public dissatisfaction since April, when the newspaper El Periodico, working with the Mexico-based MEPI Foundation, accused Baldetti and Perez Molina of “rampant cronyism, influence peddling and corruption.” The report questioned how Baldetti had derived a fortune of more than $10 million from a modest government salary and small businesses.

El Periodico called on Baldetti to publish her financial records. Instead, she accused the paper’s editor, Jose Ruben Zamora, of misogyny and sued him in a special court for attacks on women. In December, the judge in the case ruled that Zamora no longer could approach Baldetti, labeling him an aggressor and banning him from “disturbing or intimidating” Baldetti.

Perez Molina also has taken out after El Periodico, accusing Zamora in November of coercion, extortion, blackmail, rape and contempt for the constitution. Although that case won’t be heard until February, the judge has banned Zamora from leaving the country for six months. Another hearing is scheduled for March to ascertain whether Zamora has violated the earlier court order by continuing to write about Baldetti. On Monday, El Periodico announced that the government had ordered a comprehensive audit of its books.

Zamora contends that the current government wants “newspapers to stop critical journalism.”


By Benjamin Patrick Reeves
McClatchy Foreign Staff