GUATEMALA CITY – A murder scandal that has rocked Guatemala for more than a week and led to calls for the president’s ouster is dividing the country into rival protest movements of rich and poor.
Middle and upper-class Guatemalans are demanding the resignation of President Alvaro Colom for his alleged role in the murder of a prominent lawyer, while mostly poor Guatemalans are defending their president, considered the country’s first leftist leader since Jacobo Arbenz was ousted by a CIA-led coup in 1954.
“(Colom) has helped a lot of poor people, that’s why they like him,” said anti-government demonstrator Dennis Ronaldo. Ronaldo said the president’s social projects that give free food, oil and other supplies to those in need have helped him gain popular support among the poor.
But some people now allege the president is using handouts to lure the poor into demonstrate on his behalf amid the crisis.
So far, most of the protesting noise has been made by more well-to-do Guatemalans calling for Colom’s head.
The protests started last week when a video was released showing deceased lawyer Rodrigo Rosenberg – in a previously recorded statement – blaming the president and his aides of murder in the event of his death.
“Unfortunately, if you are watching this message, it is because I was assassinated by President Alvaro Colom,” Rosenberg said in his video statement, which has been viewed more than 150,000 times on YouTube.
Rosenberg was shot and killed May 10, while riding his bicycle in Guatemala City.
The video was released the following day at his funeral.
In the video, Rosenberg predicts he was going to be killed because of information he has about his former client, Khalil Musa, a businessman who was shot and killed along with his daughter, Marjorie Musa, on April 15. Rosenberg alleges his client was also a victim of a government assassination, after he allegedly refused to become involved in a corruption deal involving Banrural, the country’s largest bank.
In the video, Rosenberg also preemptively fingers Colom’s wife, the president’s private secretary and a top presidential aide as culprits in his foretold murder.
The case is being investigated by the United Nations’ International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), which has asked the Colom administration not to intervene.
The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has also sent an agent to the country to help with the investigation, specifically at the crime scene and on matters of ballistics.
Colom has denied the allegations and says he has nothing to hide. The president has rejected calls for his resignation, saying that “only death” would cause him to end his term prematurely.
He alleges the video is part of a campaign to destabilize his government.
Colom has received the backing of 250 of Guatemala’s 331 mayors, as well as a resolution of support from the Organization of American States (OAS). OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza said he would visit Guatemala this week to speak to all those involved and help work toward a “clarification of the events.”
With Internet sites such as YouTube and Facebook being used to organize protests, outrage among the middle and upper classes has spread quickly.
Each day since the scandal broke, protesters have been gathering at the ConstitutionPlaza in Guatemala City.
On May 15, the plaza quickly turned into a sea of people chanting for justice. At one end of the plaza stood people from lower-income neighborhoods, clutching identical glossy placards showing the president’s face with the nation’s blue-and-white flag. At one point the group got down on their knees to pray for their president, a man whose social policies, including handing out free food, have won him support among the poor.
On the other side of the plaza, a larger group of middle class and wealthy Guatemalans held a parallel protest with drums, flags and home-made signs – one which bore Colom’s picture and the caption: “Murderer, we want justice.”
On May 17, exactly one week after Rosenberg’s death, the protests had grown to tens of thousands of people. The rival groups gathered in two separate plazas to avoid potential violence.
Dressed in all white, those demanding Colom’s ouster packed the streets of the capital last Sunday.
“You couldn’t walk,” says 21-year-old university student Christina Enriquez of last weekend’s protest. She said the mood of the demonstration was festive and that more than 1 million signatures have been affixed to petitions calling for Guatemala’s Congress to strip the president of his immunity so he can be investigated for Rosenberg’s murder.
“What we want is Colom to be judged, so everything can be resolved,” said protester Pedro Porras, a Guatemala City businessman.
Those defending the president, however, insist there is no way he could have been involved in murder. “We know that the president is not guilty; that’s why we are with him,” one supporter said.
As the protests grow, they have also become more generalized against the Colom government’s inability to get a handle on rising crime and citizen insecurity.
“We are sick and tired of crying and waiting for our sons to come home from work. We are gathering here because we don’t want to cry anymore,” said businesswoman Mayra Reyer, in reference to the growing violence.
Michael Shifter, an analyst with the Inter-American Dialogue, a leading Washington, D.C. think tank on Latin America, says “organized crime has penetrated all spheres of society, and the levels of violence are out of control.”
Shifter said in an e-mail that whatever the truth may be about the Rosenberg killing, it has raised serious questions about the president in a country where “confidence in government is already at rock-bottom levels.”
Even if Colom manages to weather the storm and remain in office, Shifter said, “Uncertainty and suspicions have been heightened to such a point that his agenda will be virtually crippled.”