Guatemalan murder mystery threatens government, deepens political divide between rich and poor
JUAN CARLOS LLORCA
May 28, 2009 02:31 EST
A slain lawyer's taped accusations that the president wanted him dead threaten to topple
Attorney Rodrigo Rosenberg looked squarely at the camera as he foretold his death: "If you are watching this message, it is because I was assassinated by President Alvaro Colom." Three days later, he was fatally shot while riding his bicycle. President Alvaro Colom told The Associated Press he was not involved.
The accusations by
Guatemala's largely Mayan Indian poor overwhelmingly support Colom, a mild-mannered industrial engineer who has pushed to tax the rich and build schools and clinics for disadvantaged communities.
The elite — less than 10 percent of the population owns 75 percent of the land — have fought the president's attempts to eliminate tax loopholes for corporations, criticized his inability to reduce crime and complained his wife has too much say in the government.
They found a hero in Rosenberg, a corporate lawyer with degrees from Harvard and
Tens of thousands of lawyers, CEOs, doctors and other upper-class Guatemalans — often flanked by their bodyguards — have marched in Guatemala City to demand Colom step down while authorities look into Rosenberg's claims that the president ordered him killed to cover up corruption.
They have gathered 35,000 signatures to demand that Congress strip the president of immunity from prosecution.
Slum-dwellers and peasants have marched in similar numbers to defend Colom, who has spent his 18 months in power focusing on job-creation and social programs, as well as tackling organized crime and fighting corruption in the federal police.
Colom has said he does not expect a military coup in a country that has seen many, but is concerned his opponents will seize on the scandal to try to unseat him. Analysts agree the scandal could force Colom out.
"If his opponents are able to generate enough frustration, or rather out-shout the rest of Guatemalan society, then I think things will get very tricky for Colom to stay," said Heather Berkman of the Eurasia Group, a New York-based political risk consultancy.
"Whether or not the allegations are true, Colom's credibility certainly has been tarnished, and this is a president already up against a strong, politically powerful elite."
Colom says firmly he isn't going anywhere.
"They would have to kill me," he told the AP in an interview. "I will not allow
Guatemala has one of Latin America's highest murder rates, and more than 6,000 people were killed last year. Most of the victims were poor people slain by street gangs or killed during bus robberies, however, and rarely have asssailants attacked prominent figures.
In the DVD, Rosenberg said he was being targeted because he planned to go public with evidence that the Colom administration used Guatemala's rural development bank, Banrural, to launder drug money and funnel public funds to drug cartels through shell organizations linked to the first lady, who oversees scores of social programs.
Becoming increasingly angry as he spoke into the camera,
Colom, the first leftist president since a CIA-orchestrated coup overthrew Jacobo Arbenz in 1954, said the accusations are part of an elaborate plot to destabilize the country. His foreign minister suggested the entire scandal might be staged by organized crime groups, suggesting drug gangs forced
"There is nothing to support this recording," Colom said.
Colom said the two men who helped
"He was a man who fought for just causes," said Jorge Briz, a former foreign minister.
Business leaders are demanding an independent probe of the bank, already reeling from a 500 million quetzal ($62 million) run on deposits. Clients returned 80 percent of the money within days, according to bank official Sergei Walter.
"The obvious winners when people withdraw their savings from Banrural are the major private banks," said Gustavo Berganza, the leader of a media watchdog group who believes the president has been framed.
Colom's attorney general has given the investigation of Rosenberg's assasination and his accusations of corruption to the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, a U.N. agency created in 2007 to battle corruption and organized crime. The FBI is also helping at Colom's request.
But Carlos Castresana, head of the U.N. agency, warns it will be hard to solve the crime in a judicial system so inept that only 3 percent of criminal cases go to trial.
"I still have no wire taps, no maximum-security prisons, no far-reaching courts," he said, "so how do you expect us to resolve the Rosenberg case — or any other?"
Associated Press writer Julie Watson contributed to this report from
Source: AP News