“Good afternoon,” the video begins, featuring a man in a drab suit directly addressing the camera. “My name is Rodrigo Rosenberg Marzano, and unfortunately, if you are watching the message, it is because I was assassinated by President Álvaro Colom.”
So begins the final testimony of Guatemalan attorney Rodrigo Rosenberg, who was shot and killed on Sunday in the country’s capital, Guatemala City.
In the video, which was recorded only days before his slaying, Rosenberg goes on to accuse not only the Guatemalan president of complicity in his yet-to-come demise, but also the president’s wife, Sandra Colom; the president’s private secretary, Gustavo Alejos; and a businessman, Gregorio Valdez.
Rosenberg, a respected lawyer, states in the video that he will be killed because of his professional work on behalf of Guatemalan businessman Khalil Musa and his daughter, Marjorie Musa, both of whom were gunned down in Guatemala in March.
Rosenberg states that the elder Musa was unaware, when named by Colom to the board of directors of Guatemala’s Banco de Desarrollo Rural S.A. (Rural Development Bank, popularly known as Banrural), that the body was being used as a center for the laundering of drug profits, the deviation of public funds, the siphoning off of state coffers on behalf of the president’s wife, and other nefarious activities.
Banrural, Rosenberg charges, is a “den of robbers, drug traffickers, and murderers,” and then lays the deaths of the Musas at the feet of the Colom administration, as well.
In a country where political corruption scandals are unfortunately all too common, the Rosenberg murder and subsequent video have sent seismic tremors through the country’s political establishment.
Colom, the head of the left-wing Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza (UNE) who was elected president in 2007 after one of the bloodiest ballots in Guatemala’s history, addressed the nation this week, saying that the accusations on the videotape were ”totally false” and that “my conscience is clear.”
Though in no place to comment on the veracity of Rosenberg’s allegations, having followed Guatemala’s political history for a number of years, and having reported from the country off and on since 2003 (most recently for the winter 2008/09 issue of World Policy Journal), it unfortunately seemed to me only a matter of time before the violent machinations that often go on in obscurity in Central America’s most populous country burst onto the headlines in such a spectacular fashion.
While the United States government pours $450 million into Mexico via its Merida Initiative, an anti-drug trafficking program, the rest of the Central America (including Guatemala) is allotted only $100 million during fiscal year 2009. More than that, Guatemala’s current agony, though of a diverse and disparate nature, has its roots in U.S. policy in the region for much of the last 40 years.
During Guatemala’s 1960-96 civil war, successive governments battled to defeat a leftist insurgency, often with the most brutal of methods and often with the complicity of the United States, which aided a series of military dictators in setting up a sophisticated intelligence-gathering and surveillance capability throughout the late 1970s and 1980s. The war would eventually claim an estimated 200,000 lives.
Through skills learned from counterinsurgency campaigns, and particularly during the regimes of dictators General Romeo Lucas García (1978–82) and his successor General Efraín Ríos Montt (1982–83), elements of Guatemala’s military intelligence services were able to create complex criminal networks that exist more or less intact to this day. Often referred to as the grupos clandestinos, or hidden powers, these groups engage in activities such as skimming customs duties, illicitly acquiring government contracts, human trafficking, and drug trafficking.
Following the formal end of the civil war, Guatemala’s already fragile state was further weakened after Ríos Montt formed the Frente Republicano Guatemalteco (FRG) party in 1989. The FRG’s candidate, Alfonso Portillo, won presidential elections in the country a decade later. As the FRG successfully melded militarism with a virulent hatred of Guatemala’s traditional economic elite, during the Portillo years the grupos clandestinos became virtual contractors of the state. Their links with Guatemala’s various political parties of the left and the right continue to in the present era.
Two of the biggest crime syndicates in the country, La Cofradía (The Brotherhood) and El Sindicato (The Syndicate), are both made up of current and former military officers, according to Guatemalan and U.S. government officials.
La Cofradía is said to be chiefly directed by two former generals, Manuel Callejas y Callejas and Luis Francisco Ortega Menaldo, while the dominant force in El Sindicato is alleged to be Otto Pérez Molina, a former army officer and head of the Partido Patriota. Pérez Molina came in second to Colom in the 2007 presidential ballot.
Animosity between the two groups is said to be extreme and has often spilled over into the political arena.
During a visit to Guatemala City last September, a Guatemalan government official with close links to Colom told me matter-of-factly that, in terms of the state security apparatus, “Colom’s guys are Ortega Menaldo’s guys. He needed them as protection against Pérez Molina.”
As is the case in other nascent democracies in the region, such as Haiti, drug-related corruption and organized crime in Guatemala know no political ideology. As is the case in Haiti, an unarmed civil society is standing up to powerful criminal interests, an entrenched oligarchy, and populist demagogues, attempting to build a decent country at great personal risk. Meanwhile, the international community is greeting wave after wave of drug and corruption-related violence with a disinterested shrug now that Guatemala is no longer part of Cold War power politics.
Towards the end of his video testimonial, Rodrigo Rosenberg faces the camera and laments Guatemala’s present as the “worst period” in the country’s history. He then goes on to issue a challenge, both to his countrymen and to the international community as a whole.
“It is our country,” Rosenberg proclaims. “It belongs to us, not to the thieves, the assassins, and the drug dealers. Guatemala is not theirs. We won’t give it to them.”
Michael Deibert is a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute.