Hints of Failure in Guatemala
(International Relations and Security Network, 14/05/2009)
Guatemalan lawyer Rodrigo Rosenberg was deep into the investigation of links between organized crime and Guatemala’s Rural Development Bank when he received two death threats. Gustavo Alejas, the Guatemalan president’s powerful secretary, delivered one. The other came from Gregorio Valdez, the president’s financial advisor. Rosenberg did not take the threats lightly, and on Friday, 8 May, he asked journalist Mario David Garcia to make a video to be released only in the event that Rosenberg was killed.
Two days after Garcia recorded Rosenberg’s message, two men in a car pulled up to Rosenberg in Guatemala City’s upper class neighborhood and shot him three times. One bullet hit him in the forehead, killing him instantly. The next day, Garcia released the video, in which Rosenberg blamed Alejas and Valdez for ordering his death with the complicity of Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom.
The professional hit on Rosenberg and the resulting political scandal is just the latest in a chain of events that has gradually dragged Guatemala down the road towards a significantly weakened federal government and possible state failure.
The president’s heretofore presumed distance from corruption and the drug trade in Guatemala was perhaps one of the few life lines left to prevent the country from a full speed slide into failure. Since Rosenberg’s video, Alvaro Colom has fallen into the middle of a maelstrom of rumor and scandal that predates his presidency.
Colom’s party, known as the UNE, tried to weed out its most corrupt members leading up to the 2007 presidential elections, when Colom defeated Otto Perez. Many agree that the presidential campaign was extremely violent due to this process. Many now question whether or not Colom traded his old criminal financiers for new ones.
Gustavo Alejas, his brother, and a distant cousin joined the UNE during Colom’s campaign. Gustavo, especially, was in charge of raising money for the party, and for Colom’s campaign. Many in Guatemala view Alejas’ position as Colom’s gatekeeper as a political favor to the man who helped put the president in office.
Rosenberg apparently died because he was investigating ties between the Rural Development Bank (Banrural) and a long list of “paper companies” used to launder money, embezzle government funds, and essentially facilitate organized criminal operations. Rosenberg thought that Alejas and Colom’s financial advisor, Valdez, were directly involved in Banrural’s illicit activities.
Almost immediately after local media shared the video with the rest of the world, Colom’s office issued a statement to categorically deny Rosenberg’s claims. Since then, Colom has asked for the FBI and Guatemala’s own International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) – a UN-backed organization – to take up the investigation.
If Rosenberg’s allegations are true, then the independent CICIG will likely find evidence to suggest that members of Colom’s administration are directly involved with at least the financial aspects of organized criminal activity in Guatemala.
Many analysts have raised concerns since at least 2006 about the “Colombianization” of Guatemala. In 2007, a UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial killings referred to Guatemala as “a good place in which to commit murder.”
In the first three months of 2009, over 1,000 people were killed in Guatemala, including 44 bus drivers who were most likely killed by members of the country’s thriving street gangs. There is an average of 17 homicides a day, according to local daily Prensa Libre.
Steve McFarland, the US ambassador to Guatemala, said in late March that the expansion of Mexican drug trafficking organizations in Guatemala was “worrisome,” saying that 300 to 400 tons of cocaine passed through Guatemala every year.
At the end of February, Mexican daily El Universal reported that at least 300 members of Los Zetas operated in Guatemala. This report was most recently substantiated by the 27 March discovery of a Zetas training camp in northern Guatemala. Some 37 recruits fled the camp as police and soldiers arrived. An illegal airstrip, obstacle course and equipment used to practice shooting moving targets were discovered along with thousands of rounds of ammunition, some 500 grenades and at least six rifles.
When the lawyer’s video hit the news, hundreds of citizens gathered around the president’s office to call for his resignation. Guatemalans, it seems, are fed up with Colom’s apparent lack of activity. Colom and members of his administration are innocent until proven guilty, but the frustration on the street is palatable.
In a 29 March op/ed article published by Prensa Libre, one writer perhaps best summarized Guatemala’s deteriorating situation when she wrote:
“Our miserable daily life in Guatemala stinks of death. Society is infected everywhere, and the worst thing about it is that no one does anything… Life is worth nothing in this country, because the physical integrity of the inhabitants is not a priority for the State, which fails in its first obligation to provide security and justice.”
In his posthumous speech, Rosenberg called on Guatemala’s vice-president, Rafael Espada, “to revive” Guatemala. Sadly, if Colom is found guilty, it may be too late.