Sunday, May 17, 2009

INTERVIEW-Guatemala President Sees Plot Behind Murder Claims

By Sarah Grainger
May 15, 2009

GUATEMALA CITY, May 15 (Reuters) - Guatemala's president said on Friday powerful enemies are behind a scandal about claims he ordered the murder of a prominent lawyer, as his government cracked down on military abuses and drug gangs.

President Alvaro Colom has tried to prosecute former military officials linked to massacres during the country's 1960-1996 civil war and at the same time is clamping down on drug cartels operating in the country with dozens of arrests.

"Opening the all the military files from the war was almost impossible but I did it," Colom told Reuters in an interview.

"There is a war we are fighting against different drug traffickers. We have made a lot of changes and some are causing anger," he said.

Colom was plunged into crisis this week when a videotape surfaced accusing him of ordering a murder, misusing government funds and turning a blind eye to drug money transactions at the local development bank Banrural.

Lawyer Rodrigo Rosenberg, who represented a well-known businessman also killed this year, was gunned down in Guatemala City on Sunday. The next day a pre-recorded statement was delivered to Guatemalan media in which Rosenberg warned he might be killed and accused Colom of ordering the hit.

"It's a conspiracy and we still haven't found out who's at the heart of it, but we are looking," Colom said.

The video and written statement from Rosenberg also accused Colom's wife and his private secretary of crimes.


Hundreds of people have taken to streets in the past three days, protesting Rosenberg's death and demanding Colom's resignation, but the president has refused to step down.

After a 1954 U.S.-backed military coup successive governments were overthrown by the army until the first democratic election in 1985.

Colom said such military overthrows were impossible in today's world.

"The only way there will be a coup d'etat is by killing me," he said.

Colom, a center-leftist who took office in 2008, has made a priority to try to criminally charge former officials accused of ordering massacres during the 36-year civil war that killed close to a quarter of a million people.

Colom opened military archives to aid lawyers in a case against a former Guatemalan dictator for genocide and the government is collecting statements from war victims for use in future criminal cases against army and police officials accused of abuses during the war.

Colom's uncle, also a prominent politician who ran for president, was murdered by the army in 1979.

Mexican drug cartels are an increasing presence in Guatemala, using the country as a passageway for South American cocaine headed north to the United States.

Escalating street crime led to more than 6,000 murders last year, making the small country of just 13 million inhabitants one of the most violent in Latin America.

A United Nations-backed commission set up in Guatemala to tackle high-level corruption has begun investigating Rosenberg's allegations, after doubts were cast on the independence of Guatemala's Attorney General's office.

The U.S. Embassy in Guatemala said a Federal Bureau of Investigation agent is in the country to offer assistance to the commission. (Editing by Jackie Frank)

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