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Guatemala: Guatemala Cabinet minister steps down after criticism for not acting forcefully against protesters

The sudden resignation of a Guatemalan Cabinet minister appears to signal a division within the administration of President Alejandro Giammattei over how to remove roadblocks by pro-democracy protesters that have stretched into a third week.

Interior Minister Napoleón Barrientos, a retired brigadier general, resigned late Monday following a shooting near one of the roadblocks that killed one person and wounded two others.

Barrientos had said publicly that he preferred to seek dialogue with protesters who have demanded the resignation of Attorney General Consuelo Porras over her office’s investigations into the election victory of President-elect Bernardo Arévalo.

Porras had urged the blockades’ immediate removal, with force if necessary. On Monday, hours before Barrientos quit, she had called for him to be fired for not heeding a court order to clear them.

Those responsible for Monday’s shooting were not immediately identified, but Barrientos’ Interior Ministry condemned the violence in a statement hours before the government confirmed his resignation.

Barrientos did not comment publicly on his reasons for stepping down and did not respond to requests for comments from The Associated Press.

Days earlier, however, responding to a hypothetical question from a local news outlet about what could lead him to resign his position, Barrientos said that a demand to follow illegal orders would do it.

Francisco Jiménez, a security expert who once held the same position as Barrientos, said Barrientos’ actions “have been within the normative framework and protocols of the National Civil Police, based on the proportional use of force, something that has not been liked by various sectors.”

The government had moved more aggressively against a couple of the roadblocks last week, including deploying riot police with tear gas, following public expressions of frustration from Giammattei.

There are far fewer roadblocks now than there were a week ago, but the Indigenous groups that initiated the protests say they will maintain them until Porras and some of her prosecutors resign. The protesters see their investigations as interfering with the voters’ decision and a threat to Guatemala’s democracy.

Late Tuesday, the government announced that Byron René Bor Illescas, another retired brigadier general, would replace Barrientos. The Interior Ministry said it would continue to respect the rule of law and maintain public order in dealing with protests.

Mario Mérida, a retired colonel and security expert, said that in the wake of Guatemala’s 36-year civil war, the military has a better understanding of how its actions against civilians are viewed.

“In the past, the decisions and criteria used by the military were more authoritarian than rational,” he said. Now, with that experience, making decisions as a public official “is complicated.” he said.

Mérida said there could be multiple explanations for Barrientos’ resignation, including stepping down to avoid being fired or to avoid being pressured into taking illegal actions that could lead to criminal prosecution later.

He said Barrientos’ departure showed “weakness” in Giammattei’s administration with little time remaining.