World News

Guatemala denounces corruption at U.N. while scandal brews at home

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales gave a fiery speech against corruption at the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday, a week after a judge barred his son and brother from leaving the country due to a pending fraud investigation.

Morales, who rose to fame as a TV comedian, won office last year on a platform of fighting the corruption that has battered confidence in Guatemala and its Central American neighbours Honduras and El Salvador.

But Samuel “Sammy” Morales, an older brother and a close adviser to the president, and Jose Manuel Morales, one of the president’s four sons, have been questioned in a case over suspicious business dealings.

“The rule of law is now unmistakably more vigorous than it was a year ago,” said the president, whose 2015 campaign slogan was “Neither Corrupt, nor a Thief”.

The scandal may dent Morales’ image, which is based on setting himself apart from previous leader Otto Perez, who is in jail for fraud.

“2015 changed the course of history in Guatemala,” Morales told the assembly. “There was a rejection of the perverse system of corruption that had undermined our development potential.”

The current case involves payments linked to the mother of Jose Manuel’s then-girlfriend in 2013.

The mother, who has not been identified, agreed to supply Christmas hampers to the national property registry, which is being investigated for suspected corruption, according to testimony given during a public hearing about the registry.

She instead sent the registry a $12,000 (9,170.11 pounds) bill made out in the name of a local restaurant for 564 breakfasts, according to the attorney general. The breakfasts were never delivered, according to statements given by a witness in a public hearing.

Sammy Morales told local newspaper Prensa Libre last week that he got involved in the transaction as “a favour” to his nephew, but he denied it was part of a fraud scheme. No formal charges have been filed against Sammy Morales or Jose Manuel.

The president’s landslide victory was attributed to popular discontent with Guatemala’s political class and compounded by a U.N.-backed investigation into a multi-million dollar customs racket that reached deep into the previous administration.

The president said last week he would not interfere in the matter but expressed support for his relatives.

“My wife and I fully support our son and believe that my brother is an honourable man,” he said in a televised address.

Reporting by Hugh Bronstein