Guatemala murder scandal could threaten the presidency

Accusations that President Alvaro Colom helped orchestrate the murder of a prominent lawyer continue to intensify – deepening divisions in a country still recovering from a 36-year civil war.

Rich Clabaugh

The scandal surrounding accusations that Guatemala's president orchestrated the murder of a prominent lawyer is intensifying – deepening divisions in a country still recovering from a 36-year civil war. It is also, according to some analysts, handing the country its greatest threat to democracy since that war ended in 1996.

Tens of thousands of Guatemalans have taken to the streets since a video emerged in which Rodrigo Rosenberg, the lawyer, accused Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom and three others of murder and corruption.

Mr. Rosenberg, who was shot dead while riding his bike on May 10, recorded the video days earlier, saying in it that: "If you are watching this, it is because I was murdered by President Alvaro Colom, with the help of Gustavo Alejos," the president's secretary.

Mr. Colom denies any involvement and says the protests are politically motivated. His critics maintain that they are not out to topple any president but merely are seeking the truth.

On Monday, they presented a petition to Congress signed by more than 35,000 Guatemalans that calls for Congress to strip Colom of his prosecutorial immunity.

The scandal comes as Guatemala is threatened by rising levels of lawlessness, with street gangs terrorizing residents and drug traffickers taking over wide swaths of the country.

"This is a crisis. When the people lose confidence in the authorities, what comes next is ungovernability and with it more corruption and violence," says Mario Polanco, director of the human rights organization Mutual Support Group in Guatemala City.

Vast right-wing conspiracy?

Colom, the nation's first leftist president in 50 years, says the scandal is a right-wing political conspiracy designed to bring down his government.

His administration has challenged the traditional power brokers, including former military officials. Earlier this year, he agreed to open a police archive that details information on left-leaning dissidents abducted and killed during the country's civil war.

Guatemala's past has been marred by a series of military coups. When the war ended, politically motivated murder did not. Eleven years ago, for example, Catholic Bishop Juan Gerardi was bludgeoned to death after delivering a damning report on abuses committed by the state during the war.

Today's accusations "have created the greatest political crisis for this democracy, because never before has a democratically elected president been accused of murder," the Prensa Libre newspaper said in an editorial.

Video details money-laundering scheme

In the video, Rosenberg says that Colom, the first lady, and two others were involved in a money-laundering scheme that diverted public funds to dummy organizations that could be accessed for personal gain and by drug traffickers. Rosenberg also alleged in the video that a powerful businessman, Khalil Musa, was killed with his daughter in April because he refused to take part in the scheme. Rosenberg represented him.

Although Rosenberg mentions documents to support his claims, they have not surfaced. "We know nothing about any documents that he was talking about," says Rosenberg's nephew Andres Rodas. "He kept the family out of it because he did not want to put us in danger."

Colom – as well as the three others named in the video – has repeatedly denied the accusations and said that he has no reason to step down, even temporarily.

But, if the scandal escalates, it could threaten to undermine his presidency, says Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a left-leaning think tank in Washington. "He is in real trouble right now," says Mr. Birns. "The case against him is very formidable, and he hasn't attempted to come forth with an explanation that fair-minded people could see as a possibility. There is no explanation for why someone would commit suicide to get back at him."

Dueling protests reveal 'two Guatemalas'

Demonstrators took to the street daily last week to call for Colom to step down. They dressed in white and carried signs calling Colom an "assassin."

The protests were organized by wealthy and middle-class Guatemalans and students from the city's right-leaning private universities. One of the organizers, Javier Ogarrio, says that Rosenberg was acting in the interest of the country.

"We have lived with so much violence and corruption here," Mr. Ogarrio says. "We have to continue what he started."

The poor and mostly indigenous rural population forms the base of Colom's political support – and many have come out in protest to support him. "He is the only president that has given us anything, and they don't like that," said local resident Julieta Espinoza at a rally last week. "These are all lies against him."

Allegations threaten to further polarize the country. "What you see are the two classes in distinctly different demonstrations," says Anita Isaacs, a professor of political science at Haverford College in Pennsylvania who was in Guatemala City to observe the protests. "This has exposed the rift between the two Guatemalas."

The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a United Nations-backed body formed to probe the country's growing organized crime problem, has been asked to investigate. The FBI will also investigate.

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