By Sofia Menchu and Enrique Pretel
GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - In a series of meetings that began early this year, the U.S. government pressured Guatemala's then-President Otto Perez to rid his administration of corrupt officials and to renew the mandate of a U.N. Commission charged with investigating corruption in Guatemala, according to officials with direct knowledge of the talks.
In April, Perez reluctantly approved the continued operation of the Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), and in May he fired key members of his cabinet and accepted the resignation of his vice president.
On Wednesday, less than two weeks after the Commission he reauthorized accused him of corruption, Perez himself resigned from office, vowing to clear his name and accusing CICIG of prematurely condemning him.
The meetings between Perez and U.S. officials, including U.S Ambassador Todd Robinson, took place as Guatemala and other Central American nations were seeking $20 billion in U.S. aid, as part of a so-called "Alliance for Prosperity," two sources with direct knowledge of the meetings said, and the U.S. used the lure of that aid to push Perez to act.
The Guatemalan president was a vocal proponent of the proposed assistance plan, which was conceived in 2014 as a way to stimulate regional growth and help stem a burgeoning exodus of Central American migrants fleeing violence at home. The United States had a strong interest in insuring that any aid it provided would not be diverted to corrupt officials.
"The United States insisted that the government renew CICIG's mandate, and they said that the Alliance For Prosperity depended on it," said one of the officials with direct knowledge of the discussions.
During talks with Perez, the U.S. ambassador explicitly urged him "to get Vice President (Roxana) Baldetti to resign" and "to rid his cabinet of those linked to corruption, but to do it in a staggered way to avoid an image of a collapsing government," the official added.
In the months since Perez renewed CICIG's mandate, the group's probes have brought down a number of high-ranking officials, including the central bank president.
Perez's own resignation came after CICIG's commissioner and Guatemala's attorney general publicly accused the president of directing a multi-million dollar customs fraud scheme known as 'La Linea' or 'the line', in which importers paid bribes to avoid customs duties.
Guatemalan prosecutors working with CICIG said they expect to charge the former president with illicit association, accepting bribes and customs fraud.
"We found that in the whole organization ... there was an upper level with the regrettable participation of the president and Baldetti," said Ivan Velasquez, commissioner of CICIG.
As pressure on him grew, Perez lambasted CICIG and also took a swipe at unidentified sectors of the international community for "seeking to intervene" in Guatemalan democracy.
The sources said that the series of U.S. meetings with the president included at least five in April, soon after the customs scandal broke. During those meetings, they said, the U.S. urged Perez to dismiss his ministers of the interior, energy and environment, who had been linked in media reports to possible corruption. They and other office-holders were fired on May 21.
The central bank chief and other senior officials were arrested as part of a separate bribery probe launched by CICIG, which works alongside Guatemalan Attorney General Thelma Aldana, a widely respected figure in Guatemala seen as politically neutral. The charges included fraud, influence trafficking and charging illegal commissions, prosecutors said.
Asked about U.S. pressure on Perez to fire potentially corrupt officials and to renew CICIG's mandate, a spokesperson for the State Department said: "We have encouraged the Guatemalan government and the U.N.-backed CICIG to identify and prosecute corruption cases in Guatemala."
The renewal of CICIG's mandate, the spokesperson said, was supported by Washington but was ultimately Perez's call.
But, the spokesperson added: "The recent investigations and cabinet changes reflect the desire of the Guatemalan people for government leadership and institutions that effectively address corruption and governance challenges."
The State Department did not respond to subsequent requests for clarification on whether it had explicitly made aid contingent on a cabinet purge.
The U.S. embassy in Guatemala and CICIG both declined to comment for this article.
Last month, then-presidential spokesman Jorge Ortega denied that Perez's government had come under U.S. pressure to renew CICIG's mandate or to facilitate Baldetti's removal.
"The ministers who resigned did so for different reasons ... only three who had been suspected of corruption opted to stand down so as not to damage the presidency," he said in August, prior to Perez's resignation.
After Baldetti stepped down, the U.S. State Department released a statement applauding Perez, a retired general, for taking steps to fight corruption in Guatemala.
The U.S. pressure on Guatemala came even as President Obama apologized for previous meddling by the United States in Central America, which included backing a 1954 coup in Guatemala and supporting Contra rebels in Nicaragua in the 1980s.
"The days in which our agenda in this hemisphere presumed that the United States could meddle with impunity, those days are past," said U.S. President Barack Obama in Panama in April during historic meetings with Cuban leader Raul Castro.
Washington's softer attempts to exert influence this year were seen by some observers as better-intentioned.
"I'm not justifying that they impose conditions on us, but they're right," said one of the officials familiar with the matter. "The corruption in Guatemala is intolerable. At the end of the day, they do it for our own good - but it hurts."
(Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle and Lesley Wroughton in Washington, and Gabriel Stargardter and Dave Graham in Mexico City; Editing by Simon Gardner and Sue Horton)