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Guatemala president faces toughest test yet

Alvaro Colom denies a dead man's videotaped allegation that he was behind his killing. Some see the death as symbolic of violence and corruption in Guatemala.

May 15, 2009|Ken Ellingwood

MEXICO CITY — Accusations by a dead man have delivered Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom his most serious crisis since taking power a year and a half ago.

Protesters and political foes have urged Colom to step aside while investigators look into murder allegations lodged on video by a lawyer days before he was slain by gunmen Sunday.

In the video, attorney Rodrigo Rosenberg stares into the camera and delivers a chilling declaration: "Sadly, if you are hearing or seeing this message now, it is because I was murdered by President Alvaro Colom, with the help of Gustavo Alejos," the president's secretary.

Colom vehemently denies any involvement and has asked a U.N.-sponsored investigative commission and the FBI to help find the killers.

Guatemala has been roiled since the 20-minute video was released Monday by a journalist who helped Rosenberg record it. Hundreds of people, including many who support the president, have participated in peaceful demonstrations in Guatemala City, the capital. Business leaders have made public appeals for calm.

The case will test Colom, a center-left businessman elected in 2007, and Guatemala's fragile democracy, already beset by powerful drug-trafficking groups, rampant street killings and government institutions left weakened by past military rule and a 36-year civil war.

"With this event we have come to the tip of the iceberg of the escalating violence taking place in Guatemala," said Pedro Trujillo, a political analyst in Guatemala City.

He said the scandal could represent the worst crisis since the end of civil war in 1996.

"A murder accusation against the president is serious," said Helen Mack, founder of a human rights legal center in Guatemala City, who worried about the effect on public confidence in government. "In Guatemala, all the institutions are being questioned. . . . That is what is dangerous in all this."

Carlos Castresana, who heads the U.N. International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, said the panel would take up the investigation. He warned against presidential meddling, but did not ask that Colom step down during the probe.

U.S. Ambassador Stephen McFarland said that an FBI representative was in Guatemala and that officials were assessing what help to offer.

The Organization of American States offered Colom political backing. Its secretary-general, Jose Miguel Insulza, said the lawyer's killing was part of a "chain of events" tied to organized crime in Guatemala.

Rosenberg was killed by gunmen while bicycling. On the video, he presents a web of corruption allegations against Colom; the president's wife, Sandra de Colom; and associates, saying they were behind the killing in mid-April of a Guatemalan industrialist, Khalil Musa, and his daughter, Marjorie.

Dressed in a navy jacket and light blue tie and seated at a desk, Rosenberg refers to Colom and those closest to him as "thieves," "cowards" and "killers." He said he could be killed because he represented Musa and his daughter.

"The reason I am dead at the moment you see this message is simply and only because until the end I was the lawyer for Khalil Musa and his daughter, Marjorie Musa," Rosenberg said.

Rosenberg said Colom had named Musa, a coffee grower and textile manufacturer, as a director of Guatemala's Rural Development Bank, or Banrural, in March. But Musa refused to go along with illicit activities that included money laundering and embezzlement, Rosenberg said.

The attorney accused the president of links to drug traffickers -- a charge floated by Colom's opponents during the 2007 campaign -- and of siphoning Banrural funds for his wife's "phantom" projects. Rosenberg did not offer evidence.

There was no immediate sign that the president's tenure was in peril.

Colom, the first leftist elected to lead Guatemala in more than 50 years, has insisted that he will not step down. He was elected over a retired army general, Otto Perez Molina, after promising a better life for the country's poor and indigenous residents.

"I have a clean heart and this government is not a thug or murderer," he said this week. "I am not a murderer."

Colom said "Machiavellian minds" were behind a scheme to undermine him, but he did not name them.

Rosenberg made the video with the help of journalist Mario David Garcia, who distributed copies at Rosenberg's funeral Monday. It was posted on YouTube and Internet pages of Guatemalan news organizations and drew so many viewers that it caused some sites to crash.

Garcia told fellow journalists that Rosenberg had planned to go public with his allegations against Colom on Monday.

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ken.ellingwood@latimes.com

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