By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 23, 2007
GUATEMALA CITY -- It began with four charred bodies on a dirt road.
The victims had been kidnapped, investigators concluded, and two of them burned alive. The men who were found that day in February on a ranch outside Guatemala City turned out to be three Salvadoran politicians and their chauffeur. Among them was Eduardo D'Aubuisson, son of Roberto D'Aubuisson, the late founder of El Salvador's ruling party and the alleged architect of death squads in the Salvadoran civil war.
Three days later, four Guatemalan policemen were accused of the killings and arrested. Three days after that, with international attention trained on this country, the officers' throats were slashed and they were shot in their cells. The prison murders have not been solved.
The back-to-back sets of killings -- each chillingly professional and brazen -- are exposing the depth of corruption and impunity in a nation still struggling to right itself 11 years after the end of more than three decades of civil war. "A Pandora's box" is opening, said Salvadoran police chief Rodrigo Avila.
Over the past several weeks, some of Guatemala's most powerful political figures have been forced to acknowledge that their government and criminal justice system are deeply infiltrated by organized crime. Human rights activists have responded by blaming the corrupting influence of drug traffickers, who make fortunes funneling up to 300 metric tons of cocaine to the United States each year.
"It's a paradise for organized crime," Anders Kompass, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights representative in Guatemala, said in an interview. "The state apparatus is weak. The impunity rate is very high. This has shown that organized crime has penetrated at a much higher level than we ever thought."
Guatemala has one of the highest murder rates in Latin America, with 30 killings for every 100,000 residents in 2005, according to the Observatory of Violence and Crime, which the United Nations set up in Honduras. Few of the 5,000 killings in the country each year are solved, and there is scant hope here that the full truth about last month's assassinations will be known any time soon. The question now is, whom can the public trust?
On Tuesday, the Guatemalan Congress overwhelmingly approved a no-confidence motion against Interior Minister Carlos Vielmann, whose domain includes prisons. Now President Oscar Berger must decide whether to remove Vielmann from office or launch a battle with Congress by vetoing the decision.
Meanwhile, Congress has stonewalled a U.N. proposal to create an independent commission to investigate corruption in Guatemala. Vielmann, a wealthy businessman who is fighting to keep a job and a paycheck he says he does not need, said in an interview that he supports the U.N. proposal.
Speculation about the killings last month has stoked a public clamor for answers here and in neighboring El Salvador, as well as a number of conspiracy theories.
"People don't want to believe that the reality is simpler, more ironic and more stupid," Guatemala's national police chief, Erwin Sperisen, a Vielmann ally, said in an interview. "It wasn't a great conspiracy. It was a series of coincidental events. But the people don't want to believe. They want a soap opera, a spy drama, a James Bond movie."
In the weeks since the killings, government officials have outlined their version of events: The politicians were kidnapped Feb. 19 on their way to a meeting in Guatemala City of the Central American Parliament, a regional planning body of which all three were elected members. Guatemalan policemen killed them but were soon caught, in part because a global satellite positioning system in their car placed them at the scene of the crime, 20 miles outside Guatemala City, according to this version.
The police officers might have been hit men tricked into believing that the Salvadoran politicians were Colombian drug dealers posing as representatives to the parliament, Sperisen said. A political motive in El Salvador could not be discounted, nor could a link between the Salvadorans and drug dealers, he said. Four new suspects with alleged links to drug trafficking were arrested Tuesday and accused of ordering the killings.
Sperisen and Avila, the Salvadoran police chief, said the slain Guatemalan officers had confessed, although Sperisen noted the obvious: "They can't repeat their declarations." The alleged admissions have been widely reported in the news media, but attorneys for the four officers painted a different picture.
"They said they were innocent," Carlos Pocon said of his clients, the slain officers Jose Korki Lopez Arreaga, Jose Adolfo Gutierrez and Marvin Langen Escobar Mendez.
Alfredo Vasquez, the attorney for Luis Arturo Herrera Lopez, called the officers "scapegoats," who had been killed to cover up the identity of the real assassins.
"The atmosphere here makes it seem like my clients were responsible, as if they were devils," Vasquez said. "But there was no confession, and that alarms me."
The other murders -- those of the officers themselves -- are still muddied by conflicting reports. They were transferred from a lockup in Guatemala City to the maximum-security El Boqueron prison, about 40 miles east of the city, without their lawyers being notified, Vasquez said. Witnesses have said that gunmen sneaked into El Boqueron with visitors and killed the officers. But Sperisen said he believes the killers came from inside the prison. It's unlikely, he said, that the killers could have gotten past, or even co-opted, three rings of security -- the army, the police and the prison guards.
A riot broke out after the killings, and the prison warden and several guards were taken hostage, Sperisen said. The warden, as well as more than 20 other men -- mostly guards -- have been arrested, but no one has been charged with the murders, Sperisen said.
This month, one of Sperisen's top aides, Javier Figueroa, resigned and left Guatemala with his family for Costa Rica. Figueroa, who was a gynecologist before taking a high-ranking police job, played a key role in arresting the four officers and now fears for his life, Sperisen said. But with so many questions swirling about the case, Figueroa's abrupt departure generated speculation that he had something to hide.
"It's a question of perceptions," said Kompass, the U.N. official.
The case has also become entangled in presidential politics ahead of an election due in September. Otto Perez Molina, a candidate who served as a general during a devastating civil war, filed a complaint against Vielmann for allegedly allowing two officially sanctioned death squads to operate within the nation's security forces.
"He knew what was happening and he did nothing," Perez Molina said in an interview.
Perez Molina -- who Vielmann says is "playing politics" -- accuses the elite Criminal Investigation Division of operating as a death squad in a campaign of "social cleansing," killing small-time drug dealers to eliminate competition for major drug traffickers. Guatemala's independent human rights attorney general, the Catholic Church and the University of San Carlos of Guatemala this month demanded that the division be disbanded.
Sperisen, a 6-foot-2-inch, 280-pound former Guatemala City official with a shock of bright orange hair, does not deny that there is corruption in his forces. He estimated that he could easily fire 10 percent of his 19,500 officers if Guatemalan law did not require a lengthy appeals process. Vielmann estimated that 40 percent of the police should be fired. As calls grow for both men to resign, they are portraying themselves as reformers.
Vielmann, who acknowledges police have been hired for mafia-style hits, talked of "a titanic battle" against corruption. More than 1,000 police officers have been fired in the past 2 1/2 years, he said, and 250 are in jail. Still, Sperisen said, "it's almost impossible to clean up the force."
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a Guatemalan policeman described a highly structured shakedown and payoff system. Police officers bully business owners into paying bribes, he said, and the bribes are split with supervisors, who withhold promotions if rank-and-file officers don't deliver.
Narco-traffickers sometimes pay $4,000 to $5,000 or more each month to ensure their shipments get through, the officer said.
"They break people," he added. "There are officers who are 10 percent corrupt who become 100 percent corrupt."
Helen Mack, a Salvadoran rights activist, said there is "total impunity" in Guatemala.
Mack's sister, an anthropologist, was murdered on Sept. 11, 1990, shortly after publishing a study accusing government forces of massacring Mayan Indians during the civil war. A member of Guatemala's presidential guard was convicted of stabbing Myrna Mack 27 times outside her office in the middle of the day.
It took more than 13 years for Helen Mack to persuade Guatemala's supreme court to convict Army Col. Juan Valencia Osorio of ordering the killing. But in January 2004, days after his 30-year sentence was reinstated, Valencia fled. Mack says he was aided by a special military unit. He remains a fugitive.
Still, she said, the truth came out, and in Guatemala that means something.
Vasquez, the attorney, is not expecting answers about the killings of the Salvadoran politicians and the Guatemalan policemen, the case now roiling his country, any faster than Mack got hers.
"We might know the truth," Vasquez said, "in 20 years."