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THE WORLD

In Central America, crime is king

Killings in Guatemala illustrate the dark grip of illicit groups on criminal justice systems.

March 11, 2007|Hector Tobar and Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writers

GUATEMALA CITY — The distinguished guests from El Salvador entered this capital city with one set of police officers as bodyguards, and another set of police officers waiting to ambush them.

As they drove along mountain roads, Eduardo Jose D'Aubuisson and fellow legislators were entering a trap set by rogue Guatemalan police officers at the hire of drug traffickers, officials said. Those officers believed the Salvadorans were using their diplomatic immunity to work for rival traffickers.

The final, violent hours of D'Aubuisson's life, and the events of the days that followed, seem plucked from the plot of the Oscar-winning movie "The Departed," where trust is illusory and crosses and double-crosses are bloody. But that is reality in today's Central America, a region of weak institutions where crime bosses control police death squads and organized crime is said to be more powerful than the state.

Fear of rogue police is widespread.

"There are criminal cases where a witness has named a police officer, and the prosecutor will say to the witness, 'Are you really sure you want to say that?' " said an advisor to Guatemala's public prosecutor's office, who spoke on condition of anonymity citing fear for his safety. "The prosecutor says this not only because he is afraid that the witness might be killed. The prosecutor is afraid he will be killed too."

Guatemalan Vice President Eduardo Stein said in an interview last week that organized-crime groups have "penetrated" most of the agencies of the criminal justice system, including the police, the public prosecutor's office, the courts and the attorney general's office. Such corruption is also endemic in El Salvador and Honduras. "This is not just a Guatemalan problem, it's a regional problem," Stein said. "These groups transcend borders, and they have more resources than we do."

Four Guatemalan police officers were arrested in the killing of D'Aubuisson and two other legislators. The suspects were slain in a maximum-security prison three days later, in a stunning extrajudicial crime that placed new pressures on the government to take radical steps.

At one point, Guatemalan defense officials, business leaders and diplomats "from a friendly country" suggested to President Oscar Berger that he declare a state of emergency and place the police under military control, Stein said. The president ignored this advice.

"We don't want to relive the past ... with the military running civilian agencies in violation of the constitution," Stein said. To do so would have been a violation of the peace accords that ended Guatemala's civil war a decade ago, he added.

Berger is expected to ask President Bush for help in fighting organized crime when the two men meet here today.

A swirl of accusation, official leaks and rumor has linked the killings to top officials of the Guatemalan security forces, and also to crime groups and legislators in El Salvador.

Many fear the authors of the crime will escape justice.

"There will not be an exhaustive investigation, either in El Salvador, or in Guatemala, to reach the truth," said Beatrice Alamanni de Carrillo, El Salvador's ombudswoman for human rights. "Organized crime is a problem in three countries.... In each place it is destroying the rule of law."

D'Aubuisson, William Pichinte and Jose Gonzalez Rivas were members of the Central American Parliament, a body that promotes and regulates regional trade. They left San Salvador by car the morning of Feb. 19 for a meeting of that body in Guatemala City.

'What was the motive?'

Guatemalan officials said privately that they have long suspected that some members of the parliament engage in drug dealing. Central America is a key conduit of cocaine between Colombia and Mexico. The legislators have diplomatic immunity and their cars cross Central American borders without being inspected.

Officials in Guatemala and El Salvador say there were no indications that D'Aubuisson, 32, was involved in illicit activities.

"My brother was an upstanding person who was just starting his political career," Roberto D'Aubuisson Jr. said. But he said he didn't believe the killing was a case of mistaken identity either, a theory floated by some Salvadoran officials. "The question is: What was the motive?"

Roberto D'Aubuisson said he believed former Salvadoran Congressman Roberto Silva, who was thrown out of the legislature last year for alleged drug ties, ordered the killing of his brother as "payback" against the government of Salvadoran President Tony Saca. The D'Aubuissons are sons of the late Roberto D'Aubuisson, the controversial founder of the ruling party in El Salvador. Silva evaded arrest and remains a fugitive.

The rogue officers were led by Luis Arturo Herrera, head of the national police's anti-organized-crime unit. On the surface, he was a respected officer. When armed robbers stole $8 million in cash at Guatemala City's airport that was headed for the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank in September, Herrera helped lead the probe.

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