Friday, May 29, 2009

Guatemalan murder mystery threatens government


Guatemalan murder mystery threatens government, deepens political divide between rich and poor



AP News


May 28, 2009 02:31 EST


A slain lawyer's taped accusations that the president wanted him dead threaten to topple Guatemala's first leftist government in more than 50 years and have sharpened the political divide between rich and poor.


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 Rosenberg, 47, were distributed to reporters on DVDs at his May 11 funeral, and immediately set an already polarized country into a frenzy of protests and allegations of corruption.


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 Cambridge who served as assistant dean at a private university.


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 to lose what it has waited for for 50 years because of a bunch of irresponsible people."


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, Rosenberg declared that "narcos, assassins and thieves" were taking over the country.


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 Rosenberg under threats to make the DVD.


"There is nothing to support this recording," Colom said.


Colom said the two men who helped Rosenberg make the video supported past coup attempts. Indeed, the video was recorded in the office of journalist Mario David Garcia, whose national TV news show was briefly suspended in 1988 when President Vinicio Cerezo said rogue colonels planned to use it to announce a coup. Luis Mendizabal, a Rosenberg friend who urged the attorney to record the video, admits he helped rally support for that abortive coup.


Rosenberg's friends say the father of four loved his country enough to risk his life for it.


"He was a man who fought for just causes," said Jorge Briz, a former foreign minister.


The evidence Rosenberg said he had about corruption at Banrural has not surfaced. The bank, owned by government, small businesses, organizations and individuals, handles millions of dollars in government and international aid — including funds from the U.S. Agency for International Development — and provides loans to some of Guatemala's poorest people.


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 Mexico City.


Source: AP News


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