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Slain Guatemalan lawyer leaves video blaming president

GUATEMALA CITY — Rodrigo Rosenberg, a handsome and successful corporate attorney, had just set off on a Sunday morning bike ride in an upscale neighborhood of the capital when a car swerved into his path, knocking him to the ground. A man stepped from the car and fired three bullets into Rosenberg's face.

Rosenberg's murder on May 10 might have been easily overlooked in a country where as many as 30 homicides are committed daily. But a surprising thing happened a day later at his burial when one of the mourners made a brief announcement.

"Rodrigo left me his testimony. He wanted you to know who killed him, and why," declared Luis Mendizabal, a longtime friend.

Mendizabal then handed out copies of a recording made a few days earlier by Rosenberg — that began with these words:

"Unfortunately, if you are watching this right now it's because I was assassinated by President Alvaro Colom."

The shocking claim, and the novelistic way it appeared posthumously, has set off a political firestorm, implicating not just the president, but also his wife, his private secretary and a top campaign contributor.

For two weeks, Guatemalans have spoken of little else, trading theories on the case that range from an internal palace power struggle to a sinister right-wing plot to bring down the 16-month-old Colom government. The Coloms have denied involvement and an investigation is under way.

But one thing is certain. Overnight, "the Rosenberg Case" has become a symbol of everything that is wrong with Guatemala, perhaps Latin America's most corrupt and violent society. The sensational allegations have exposed the mafia-style politics and organized crime that has been steadily eating away at the democratic organs of state.

• • •

A brilliant lawyer with master's degrees from both Cambridge and Harvard, the 47-year-old Rosenberg, say his friends, was a stickler for rules.

"He was a man of principles, a dreamer who wanted a better Guatemala," said Eduardo Rodas, 53, a business consultant. "He was a person of straight lines and acute angles."

Five days before his death Rosenberg stopped by Emilio's Boutique, a high-end men's clothing store owned by Mendizabal.

"He told me 'I fear for my life,' " Mendizabal, said last week. "He said, 'I want to record my testimony.' "

Mendizabal, 62, advised him to leave the country immediately, but Rosenberg insisted on getting everything written down and taped first. "If something happens to me I want you to tell the whole world what they did to me," Rosenberg told his friend.

For all the video's drama, Rosenberg offered no smoking gun. He mentioned he had documents to back him up, but piecing the case together hasn't been easy.

"The Rosenberg case is full of shadows and dark places," said Frank La Rue, a prominent Guate­malan human rights advocate who heads Demos, a pro­democracy foundation. "But more than anything else, it's a story about the weak institutionality of the state."

Only a decade has passed since Guatemala emerged from the dirtiest of Latin America's "dirty wars." Some 200,000 people were killed and 45,000 other people disappeared.

Guatemala still has one of the most unequal income distributions in the world, according to the United Nations, with rural poverty on par with Haiti and Afghanistan.

Taxes are low and public services minimal. "It's impossible to imagine a functioning democracy, because underlying all of this is an economy based on exclusion and huge private wealth," said Matthew Creelman, a local political analyst.

• • •

The centerpiece of Rosenberg's allegations is a state-run development bank called Banrural, long a focus of corruption rumors, which has expanded rapidly under the Colom government. Some reports describe special interest rates for a select group of shareholders, as well as allegations of laundering drug money and siphoning off federal funds.

In his video, Rosenberg explained that a key spot on the bank's board of directors had been offered to a client of his, Khalil Musa, a respected Lebanese-born textile manufacturer. Musa, he said, would have exposed corruption at the bank that would have embarrassed the Colom government.

But, in April, Musa and his daughter, Marjorie, were gunned down in their car on their way to lunch. The killings had been ordered from inside the presidential palace, Rosenberg alleged.

• • •

President Colom's wife, Sandra Torres de Colom, hails from the lawless Peten region of dense rain-forest in the north of the country, famous for its Mayan ruins.

She is known in the palace as "the bulldozer" for riding roughshod over ministers, as well as her own husband. "Sandra is seen as a malignant and malevolent power behind the throne, the head of a parallel power," said Carmen Ibarra, political coordinator at the Myrna Mack foundation, named after a murdered anthropologist.

Torres de Colom heads a government welfare program, Social Cohesion, which hands out food parcels and cash-transfers for the poor. Each morning, hundreds of poor women line up outside the back door of the presidential palace for their food packages.

"Guatemalan presidents have always done things for the rich," said Maria Chacon, holding her 3-month-old granddaughter in a tightly wrapped bundle. "This president is doing things for the poor."

In his video, Rosenberg claimed that Mrs. Colom was using Banrural as a piggybank to fund her social program. It's widely believed in Guatemala that she is eyeing a presidential run in 2011, when her husband must leave office.

But the future of Colom's social-democratic party could be hampered by the string of scandals that have dogged it in the 16 months since Alvaro Colom took office. The president of Congress resigned over allegations he misappropriated $7.75 million. Several senior government officials have also been killed or died mysteriously, including a top prosecutor, and the head of the police antikidnap unit.

The Rosenberg accusation was not even the first time the Colom government has been impugned from beyond the grave. After journalist Hugo Arce was murdered in January last year, an essay titled "I Accuse" began to circulate on blogs, supposedly written by Arce before his death. In it he accused Colom and his wife of being "directly responsible" for his murder.

• • •

Government officials contend the tape is part of a right-wing conspiracy designed to embarrass the Coloms, thereby sabotaging their social reforms.

The Colom government "is the being subjected to a conspiracy, woven by fine hands," said government spokesman Ronaldo Robles.

Officials highlight the role of Mendizabal, the distributor of Rosenberg's CD at the funeral, pointing out that he has a long history of right-wing militancy. A security expert, specializing in negotiating kidnappings, Mendizabal helped found El Salvador's right-wing ARENA party, linked to death squads during the 1980s.

Mendizabal makes no apologies for his right-wing sympathies, and is proud of a U.S. Department of Justice plaque given to him in 2000 "in recognition of meritorious service and acts under most difficult conditions" while serving briefly as head of Guatemala's immigration service.

Government officials also point to the fact that Rosenberg, a divorced father of four, was having a secret affair with Marjorie Musa, who was married.

While Rosenberg was distraught over her death, his principal motive was to denounce the corruption involving Banrural and the Coloms, his family and friends say.

So far no one has been arrested.

In an effort to reassure a skeptical public, the Colom government invited the FBI to assist in the case. A special United Nations investigative unit, the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala headed by a Spanish prosecutor, is working jointly with a Guatemalan federal prosecutor.

A black bow now adorns the facade of Rosenberg's condo. Buckets of flowers and a wooden-and-marble cross stand by the roadside where he was killed.

"Hero of the good Guatemalans," reads one hand-made sign. "You didn't die in vain!"

But if Guatemala's track record is anything to go on, cracking the Rosenberg case is a long shot. According to the United Nations, just 2 percent of crimes in the country are solved.

David Adams can be reached at


Political murders
in Guatemala

1990: Anthropologist Myrna Mack was killed by a member of the presidential palace guard who stabbed her 27 times.

1993: Newspaper publisher and rising politician Jorge Carpio was ambushed by gunmen on the way to a political rally.

1998: The bludgeoned body of Bishop Juan Gerardi was found in his garage, just four days after he announced the publication of a devastating human rights report.

Slain Guatemalan lawyer leaves video blaming president 05/30/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 2, 2009 1:54pm]
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