Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

GUATEMALA: Nine Arrested for Murder that Caused Political Turmoil

Danilo Valladares

GUATEMALA CITY, Sep 12 2009 (IPS) - Nine suspects, including police officers and members of the military, have been arrested in Guatemala for the murder of prominent lawyer Rodrigo Rosenberg, who had accused President Álvaro Colom of his murder in a video broadcast after his death.

“Rest assured, today your police, your prosecution service and your armed forces have arrested the murderers in one of the cases that not only shook Guatemala but the entire international community,” Spanish prosecutor Carlos Castresana, head of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), said in a press conference Friday.

Rosenberg, a 47-year-old Harvard and Cambridge-trained corporate lawyer, was shot on May 10 while riding his bicycle in an upscale neighbourhood in the capital.

His murder sparked demonstrations demanding that the centre-left Colom step down, after the posthumous broadcast of an interview in which the lawyer himself accused the president, in case anything happened to him. (In the interview, taped two days before his death, Rosenberg said “If at this moment you are hearing or watching this message, it is because Álvaro Colom had me killed.”)

Castresana announced the arrest of former National Civil Police (PNC) officer William Gilberto Santos, allegedly the head of an organised crime band, PNC officer Mario Luis Paz, and former soldier Edwin Idelmo López. The three are accused of directly participating in Rosenberg’s murder.

Four other men – Samuel Girón, José Armando Ruano, Balmore Guzmán and Lucas José Santiago López – face charges as accomplices.

Alberto Santos, the brother of the criminal band’s leader, and PNC officer Carlos Aragón were arrested later.

According to the information provided by CICIG, the suspects were members of an organised crime group involved in murders, kidnappings, drug trafficking and extortion.

“We have no witnesses, but we have overwhelming scientific evidence,” said the head of CICIG, a United Nations-sponsored body that began to operate in January 2008 with the aim of restoring trust in institutions like the corruption-riddled police and justice system by assisting the prosecution service, Supreme Court and police in investigating criminal activities of illegal, armed security groups and organised crime.

Castresana showed reporters a video recording in which a black car chased Rosenberg down on his bicycle.

In the interview taped before his death, the lawyer also accused First Lady Sandra Torres and high-level government officials of covering up “dirty” business deals in the Rural Development Bank (Banrural), a commercial bank owned by the state, small business associations, cooperatives, indigenous groups, employees and individual shareholders.

The crisis triggered by the anti-government demonstrations when the video was broadcast after Rosenberg’s murder was the worst Colom has faced since taking office in January 2008.

Social and tax policies implemented by the first left-leaning president in over 50 years have drawn strong opposition from Guatemala’s conservative elite, who have traditionally governed the country.

Organisation of American States (OAS) Secretary General José Miguel Insulza said at the time that Rosenberg’s murder was “part of a chain of events over the last months” linked to organised crime. The OAS gave Colom its full support, passing a resolution backing the Guatemalan government “in its obligation to preserve the institutions of democracy and the rule of law.”

At Colom’s request, the CICIG and the FBI (U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigations) were investigating Rosenberg’s killing.

Guatemala has one of the highest murder rates in Latin America: 47 per 100,000 population in 2007, according to the 2008 UNDP Statistical Report on Violence in Guatemala. In the first four months of this year alone, 1,996 people (16 a day) died violent deaths in this country of 13 million, according to the Interior Ministry.

In response to questions from reporters, Attorney General Amílcar Velásquez, who took part in Friday’s news briefing alongside Castresana, said “no more details on the investigation can be provided, for security reasons.”

Velásquez and Castresana said every effort would be made to find the people who planned the murder.

Civil society organisations see the arrests as a major step forward in the fight against impunity in Guatemala, where in 98 percent of all crimes, no one is punished.

“It is important for the investigation to get to the bottom of things in this case – and in all cases, because this should not be the only case investigated,” Sandino Asturias, an analyst on security issues at the Guatemala Studies Centre, told IPS.

Asturias said the Rosenberg case shows that when the political will exists, the rule of law can work. “That is the point of CICIG – to leave that political capacity in place so that institutions like the prosecution service can carry out criminal investigations,” he said.

Jorge Santos, head of the International Centre for Human Rights Research (CIIDH), told IPS that with CICIG’s support, “the public prosecution service has taken swift steps towards purging itself and is on the path towards more effective, scientific criminal investigations.”

The expert added that “it is very important for the results that have derived from CICIG’s support to be incorporated into the country’s institutions, so that they function according to the same criteria.”

Human rights groups warned that the suspects arrested in the Rosenberg case will need protection. “The government must now guarantee that nothing happens to any of the suspects in custody, because otherwise the opportunity to get to the intellectuals authors of the crime would be lost,” activist Mario Polanco, head of the Mutual Support Group, commented to IPS.

Polanco cited the case of the Feb. 19, 2007 assassinations in Guatemala of three Salvadoran members of the Central American Parliament and their driver. Five police officers were arrested in connection with the murders, but the day after their arrest they were killed in prison.

Without CICIG, things would not be the same in Guatemala, said lawmaker Oscar Córdoba of the opposition Patriot Party, who sits on the congressional governance committee.

“A large part of the progress made in the areas of security and law enforcement are due to the work of CICIG,” Córdoba told IPS.

He pointed out that Congress has supported its work by approving two specific laws, on penal jurisdiction and against organised crime, on Aug. 4.

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