GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — Guatemala's current and former tax chiefs were detained along with more than a dozen other people in a crackdown on a ring that defrauded the state through bribery and theft and that was led by a top aide to the vice president, authorities said Thursday.
Prosecutors alleged that workers at the Tax Authority accepted bribes in exchange for charging businesses and individuals less than the legal tariffs on imports.
"This was a criminal structure that defrauded the national treasury through the customs" system, said prosecutor Oscar Schaad, who heads the investigation.
The government had no immediate comment.
Investigators charged that the ringleader was Juan Carlos Monzon, private secretary to Vice President Roxana Baldetti. Monzon is outside the country and not in custody, officials said.
Working in tandem with a United Nations commission against impunity in Guatemala, agents raided offices and homes and took at least 20 people into custody, including Tax Authority director Omar Franco and Carlos Munoz, the agency's former boss.
As Munoz was being taken to court in handcuffs, he told The Associated Press that he had been informed he was being detained for "illicit customs association" but was awaiting more details. He said it is clear that the Tax Authority needs to be fixed.
"You can't do something, cure a sickness that's many years old, if (the agency) is not strengthened," Munoz said. "You can't do much in the year and a half when I was there."
The U.N. commission said that through investigation and wiretaps it was determined that the ring gave the name "The Line" to the scheme, under which officials set up a parallel payment schedule for customs duties to benefit certain businesspeople in exchange for bribes.
Ivan Velasquez, head of the commission, called the investigation important because it touches on "contraband and fraud in general in a country with such a need for resources."
Authorities have not revealed the total cost of the fraud, but said one suspect took in about $330,000 alone in a two-week period during the investigation. The ring was said to have been operating for at least a year.