An urban war reigns in Guatemala with some 8000 reported violent deaths in 2008 (Photo: Victor J Blue)

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President accused of corruption
while gangs reign in Guatemala

By Vanessa Plihal, Central America Correspondent

27 May 2009: Government and judicial corruption, organised crime and wholesale murder, all threaten Guatemala’s fragile democracy. While the country is feared to be on the verge of becoming a failed state, its young people are rising up in a fervour they have never before displayed in its history.

The youth of the country responded with extraordinary anger and passion after a prominent and campaigning lawyer, Rodrigo Rosenberg, 47, was assassinated on 10 May 2009. The day after his murder, a “post mortem” video was released, which communicated: “Good afternoon. My name is Rodrigo Rosenberg Marzano, and if you are watching this video, it is probably because I was assassinated.”

He was brutally killed as he enjoyed a Sunday cycle ride just a few blocks from his home. The next day, outraged youth groups distributed the video worldwide, demonstrating a new and unprecedented participation in democracy and justice. Wasting no (cybernetic) time, they started forwarding the video across the world and then organised groups through FACEBOOK, text messages and chatting, daily urging that justice should prevail under the rule of law, and to fight without violence for a new Guatemala.

What had the murdered lawyer done? He had accused President Colom, together with his first lady, and his Private Secretary Gustavo Alejos, as well as certain well known bankers of BANRURAL (bank that manages governmental aid programs), of being jointly responsible for the assassination of a well known businessman, Khalil Musa, and his daughter, Marjorie, who were both murdered by contract killers on 14 April 2009. Some months before the murders, Mr. Musa was offered a position on the board of directors of BANRURAL, a position that he declined on the advice of his lawyer, Mr Rosenberg.

Many people now feel rage and disgust that Guatemala’s democratic future lies in the hands of a government that has been infiltrated by corruption at all levels from organised crime. Since President Colom took office in January 2008, violence has escalated due to gang wars, drug smugglers and other organised racketeering. The Attorney General’s office said some 6,000 violent deaths were reported in 2008 alone.

An urban war now reigns in Guatemala, with all citizens on their knees to organised crime. The national press has described the government as presiding over the weakest and most inefficient judicial system of all time, which among other things has been infiltrated by organised crime. At present, not even a President of the Judicial Office has been elected. And according to reports from the CICIG (the UN-backed international commission against impunity) 98 per cent of murder cases go uninvestigated or fail to undergo due process in a court of law.

Mr. Rosenberg’s accusations are said to reveal the “spider web of corruption” within the government involving alleged money laundering through BANRURAL, graft, and other corrupt practices relating to projects dealt with by the first lady with tax payers’ money and international aid.

Every Guatemalan has stood in awe at the state of affairs revealed in this political earthquake that has rocked the nation. Almost immediately, thousands started gathering in front of the Presidential House demanding that President Colom temporarily stepped down from office so that a “clean and transparent” investigation of the recent accusations could be conducted. The government’s response was even more shocking to Guatemalans. Instead of stepping down, it issued a press release stating that all the accusations were just a “gimmick” to destabilise the government and that the same organised crime syndicates complained of, and other political powers, were behind it all.

According to a study undertaken by the civic group GAM (Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo), the government spent around two million US dollars in one week on publicity and the mobilisation of specific people in an effort to show support for the President. These “mobilised” people were members of different projects developed by the first lady, and included certain union leaders. They were all paid with food, and sometimes cash, to rally in support of the President and to clash with genuine protesters seeking justice.

Simultaneously, President Colom convened a meeting of all Guatemala’s mayors outside the city (except the capital city’s mayor) in which they were briefed on the situation and their support sought. Some of them arrived in private planes, thought to be paid for with money from Colom´s political party UNE.

Congress so far has received 30,000 signatures from Guatemalans demanding a fair and impartial judiciary and for the temporary resignation of the President in order to face a hearing. The private sector has shown total abhorrence of the situation and has urged the President to stop polarising society and to prevent further social decay.

Mr. Castresana, the director of the CICIG, has started to investigate these allegations and has declared the authenticity of the video. He recently declared on Mario David Garcia’s radio show – the person who made Mr. Rosenberg’s video - that the President and those accused with him, should temporarily leave office so that a transparent and impartial investigation can be carried out. President Colom replied in a televised message that he would “step down and leave my presidency” only when he was dead.

On 18 May 2009 the European Union, jointly with Canada, issued a press release confirming their total support for the investigations to take place and for the CICIG to conduct them. OAS General Secretariat, Jose Miguel Isulza, arrived on 24 May to be briefed on the crisis and will report back to all OAS members in advance of any decision.

As this political crisis deepens, the death toll rises. On 23 May, a 74-year-old American priest was brutally assassinated while driving back to the mission house in Alta Verapaz. Every day gangs kill at least one bus driver. Some 14 million Guatemalans daily receive death threats as they leave home for work or school, not knowing whether they will return alive.

Every Sunday since the release of Mr. Rosenberg´s video, thousands of Guatemalans gather together dressed in white, demanding justice. With this political crisis, Guatemala is sadly becoming a failed state – but it also faces opportunities. There is the chance of transforming the nation by fighting against impunity and corruption, by establishing a real rule of law and a strong democracy. These things will open the road to a future where effective public policies are applied, with continuous political civil participation and a government prepared to implement programs to reduce poverty and discrimination and to improve health and education, all based upon a transparent and efficient judicial system that will not allow Guatemala to fall again.

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