How 9 strangers used Facebook to launch Guatemala’s biggest protest movement in 50 years

GUATEMALA CITY — A civic rebellion that started with a frustrated Facebook post is now threatening to oust Guatemala’s strongman president, retired special forces commander Otto Pérez Molina.

Gabriel Wer, a 33-year-old business administrator with no history of social activism, said he finally reached his tipping point two months ago when he read the newspaper headlines decrying a corrupt cabal of government officials who were bilking the state out of untold millions through a massive customs bunco scheme. The knavish network, dubbed “La Linea” in the Guatemalan press, led directly to the office of the vice president, according to the findings of International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala.

Exasperated by the government’s repeated, shameless, and brazen malfeasance, Wer pecked a grumbly message on his Facebook page. He called on Guatemalans to stand up for their democracy and demand the resignation of Vice President Roxana Baldetti, or some words to that effect.

Guatemala's President Otto Perez Molina is against the ropes.AP Photo/Luis Soto

Guatemala's President Otto Perez Molina is against the ropes.

What happened next was a dizzying chain of events that led to Baldetti’s resignation, put Pérez Molina against the ropes, and thrust Wer to the forefront of a massive protest movement that he’s still trying to get a handle on. Saturday’s protest, the third organized by Wer’s Facebook group in the past six weeks, drew some 15,000 people—down slightly from past weeks.

Still, it’s not too shabby for a social media movement started by a small group of strangers with no experience in rabble-rousing.

“I still don’t consider myself an activist,” Wer, 33, told Fusion with a laugh. “It’s strange, really. People are telling me: ‘You guys lit the spark.’ But we didn’t. There was so much indignation among Guatemalans that the only thing that was missing was for someone to set a place and a time. It was nothing special.”

The place and time was April 25, at 3 p.m. in the Central Park. Wer, who helps manage a small family business in his normal life, said he and a group of eight other Facebook event organizers — most of whom he didn’t know — were originally hoping for a crowd of 50-60 of their friends. Instead, they got 20,000. Three weeks later, the vice president resigned in disgrace and a second protest filled Central Park with a crowd of some 60,000 — by far the largest demonstration in Guatemala in more than 50 years.

Protesters make themselves heard outside the National Palace.Tim Rogers/ Fusion

Protesters make themselves heard outside the National Palace.

The president’s administration has since fallen to shambles as other corruption scandals have surfaced. In addition to the veep’s resignation, two energy ministers have quit, the central bank president and tax director were arrested, and the ministers of environment and security got canned. Though the president has vowed to stick out his term until it ends on Jan. 14, there are already whispers inside the presidential palace that the former general could step down within the next two weeks if congress votes to lift his immunity to possibly face corruption charges.

The Guatemalan protests have been so successful that the hashtag campaign calling for the president’s resignation has spread across the border to Honduras, where tens of thousands of people recently marched against rightwing President Juan Orlando Hernandez over a multi-million dollar campaign embezzlement scandal.

All in all, it’s been a pretty eventful six weeks for Central America’s lively northern triangle. And we probably haven’t seen the end of it yet.

How a Facebook post became a movement

How Guatemala got here is a bit of a blur.

The short version of how the #RenunciaYA (Resign Already) protest movement started is this: A friend of the family saw Wer’s initial gripe, which echoed what other people were saying in her Facebook feed, and turned it into an event page for a protest march last April. Wer was named one of a dozen event organizers, although several of the others dropped out immediately out of fear of reprisal.

The original Facebook event had some unruly title like The Citizen Protest To Demand The Resignation Of The Madame Vice President For Her Alleged Involvement In The Customs Fraud. Wer decided to edit that into something more tidy, memorable and shoutable.

“I looked at that title and thought, I wouldn’t go to that protest. So I changed it to #RenunciaYA and had some art designed,” he says.

Screen Shot 2015-06-13 at 7.04.09 PM

That turned out to be a stroke of genius. Within a few hours #RenunciaYA had more than 500 people signed up to participate in the protest. That’s ten-times more than the event organizers had expected. “Originally we told people to wear white t-shirts so that at least we’d look like a group in the plaza, and not get lost in the crowd of normal Saturday afternoon foot traffic,” Wer said.

But getting noticed wasn’t a problem. By mid-afternoon their event page had swelled to 3,000 participants. That’s when the traditional media noticed the effort and linked to it on their social media pages. Forty-eight hours later, the protest had 20,000 confirmed attendees. That was Wer’s oh-shit moment.

“What are we going to do? That’s a lot of people, and none of us had any experience with politics or organizing protests or social struggles. The whole thing was totally spontaneous and we were shocked by the numbers.”

- Gabriel Wer

The first thing they did was meet face-to-face for the first time. The nine remaining organizers were strangers removed by several degrees of separation. But after connecting on Facebook, they agreed to met up in real life to plan how they were going to pull off what was shaping up to be the largest protest in Guatemala’s modern history.

The group agreed on three basic points:

  1. The protest must to be peaceful.
  2. No protagonism— it will be a leaderless movement.
  3. The protest will end with the national anthem.

“We didn’t want the protest to be led by any names or faces,” said Wer, who declined to have his photo taken for this article. “We don’t want to give the movement an ethnicity or gender. We are very diverse in Guatemala so we wanted to maintain that plurality in the protest. It’s also why we decided not to have a stage at the protest, because we didn’t want any one group to appropriate the platform and start making speeches. We just wanted everyone to assemble in the plaza peacefully, without a march, because a march is always led by someone.”

The original protest movement has split into more than a dozen groups, including Hagamonos El Paro which is pushing for a nationwide strike and a new constitution.

The original protest movement has split into more than a dozen groups, including Hagamonos El Paro which is pushing for a nationwide strike and a new constitution.

Though the original #RenunciaYA protest movement has atomized into more than a dozen groups in recent weeks, Wer says it’s all good. All the splinter protest movements appear to be calling for variations of the same thing: 1) the president’s resignation, 2) substantial changes to the constitution, and 3) the postponement of the Sept. 6 general elections until the electoral system can be put in place and better candidates found.

The important thing, Wer says, is that Guatemala City is finally waking up and not leaving all the protesting to rural indigenous and campesino groups, who have always been organized and mobilized against the government.

Guatemala Protest

A video posted by Tim Rogers (@bajopatas) on

That sudden commonality of cause is helping to build a new empathy between middle class mestizo Guatemalans in the capital and the indigenous groups from the countryside. Protest leaders say that alone is an important advance in a country that has long been deeply racist and segregated.

“On May 20 an indigenous group marched on the capital and people from Guatemala City actually got out of their cars to applaud them,” Wer says. “That never happened here before.”

While it’s anyone’s guess which way Guatemala will bounce next, Wer thinks the awakening is real.

“What everyone says now is that things will never be the same, and that gives me great hope,” the accidental activist says. “At least there is a new awareness that things can change, and are changing.”

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This article was modified on 6/15 to clarify that Wer’s initial gripe was part of a broader complaint.