The 2007 Elections
The 2007 elections featured an interesting mix of presidential hopefuls, including Rigoberta Menchú and well-known evangelical pastor and radio personality Harold Caballeros. The front-runners were Álvaro Colom, a self-proclaimed social democrat of the UNE party (Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza, or National Unity for Hope), and Otto Pérez Molina of the Partido Patriota (Patriot Party), an ex-military hardliner whose main campaign promise was to combat Guatemala’s rapidly deteriorating security situation with a “strong hand.”
To no one’s surprise, Pérez Molina and Colom would eventually face each other in a November run-off election when none of the dozen or so presidential candidates received a majority vote in the September polls.
CICIG became a hot campaign issue in July 2007 after two rogue UNE party congresspeople inexplicably voted against its creation during a congressional assembly, despite assurances by Colom that he and his party were pro-CICIG. This also raised questions about whether or not Colom truly held the reins of power over UNE—questions that came to the forefront when one of these congresspeople, party Adjunct Secretary General César Fajardo, was accused of masterminding a plot against Colom’s campaign manager, José Carlos Marroquín.
The attempt on Marroquín’s life was supposedly in retaliation for the firing of ex-military personnel (formerly members of ex-President Portillo’s security team) from Colom’s security detail. CICIG was eventually approved by Guatemala’s congress on August 1, 2007.
The weeks leading up to the November run-off were a thrill ride, with both candidates vehemently accusing each other of corruption. Newspapers readily dished out the dirt on both of the candidates’ supposed past follies and present hypocrisy. Meanwhile, voters feared Pérez Molina’s “strong hand” policies would return Guatemala to the dark ages of the civil war, but they were also suspicious of Colom’s appeals to social democracy, which smacked of demagogy and were vaguely reminiscent of the Portillo campaign.
It should be noted that Pérez Molina, a retired army general, was part of the reformist wing of the Guatemalan military and was a signer of the 1996 peace accords, so it’s not clear just how militarized his policies may have become once in power. Persistent rumors of ties to organized crime continued to haunt the UNE party during the campaign, but in the end Colom’s appeals to Guatemala’s mostly poor indigenous majority won him the victory in the countryside, though he was decidedly the loser among Guatemala City voters.
As is usually the case for Guatemalan voters, their choice for president came down to what (or who) they perceived to be the lesser of two evils.
Shortly before taking office, Vice President Rafael Espada, a well-known former Houston heart surgeon, told MSNBC that, “Guatemala is sick, very sick, in intensive care.” Colom chose Espada as a running mate in part because of his credibility with Guatemalan elites, though some had doubts regarding his limited political experience. The foreign press was generally kind in its assessment of Colom and was happy to back a social democrat with the U.S. government seal of approval. Colom told the Associated Press he was confident his government could make Guatemala more conciliatory and that he and Espada knew the country’s problems inside and out.
As usual, however, campaign promises led to few tangible results during the early days of the administration, despite a much-touted “100 Day Plan” to combat nagging grievances such as spiraling crime rates and a generally somber economic outlook. It became clear early on that the oft-quoted U.S. bumper sticker “If you’re not completely appalled, you haven’t been paying attention” might also be applied to Guatemala’s new government. These early days were marked by a palpable lack of direction on the part of the Colom government, as it reacted (or failed to react) to one issue after another.
Colom and Espada frequently made contradictory statements to the press, especially concerning government officials who were to be removed from office. Colom was apparently bent on cleaning house and quickly requested the resignation of many government officials, some of whom had good service records, replacing them with some very questionable appointments. The removal of Civil Aviation Director José Manuel Moreno Botrán, in favor of a coffee farmer whose only connection to civil aviation was a private pilot’s license, is a particular case in point. The official reason for removal was supposedly financial malfeasance during the construction of Guatemala City’s new airport, though evidence to back these claims was never found. It should be noted that the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) oversaw the funding and execution of the project in its entirety.
On at least two occasions, Colom completely butchered the names of his new appointees, as if he had no idea who he was talking about. Making matters worse, and a matter of national disdain, is Colom’s marked speech impediment.
At about the same time, the press began reporting on a surprising element of power behind the scenes: First Lady Sandra Torres de Colom. It became a matter of public scrutiny that she was also, in fact, presiding over cabinet meetings. Torres de Colom was placed at the helm of the newly created Council for Social Cohesion, which oversees the health and education ministries, among others. The legal framework creating this mechanism granted her tremendous powers and complete control over a $282 million budget free from any third-party oversight. Torres de Colom, according to several analysts, in fact became Guatemala’s co-president, usurping powers that would normally fall under the jurisdiction of government ministers and the vice president.
The greatest scandal in Colom’s first three months in office involved the firing of Security Consultant Víctor Rivera, a naturalized Venezuelan who presided over investigations involving drug trafficking, kidnapping, bank robberies, and other important cases, including the murder of three Salvadoran diplomats in February 2007. Rivera had worked with three successive governments, but his contract was abruptly terminated by Colom in April 2008. Days later, just minutes after granting a candid interview to the daily newspaper Prensa Libre, Rivera and his secretary were intercepted in a drive-by shooting that left Rivera dead, his secretary injured, and 18 bullet holes in his white Toyota Starlet. The government remained silent for two days after the murder, adding to suspicions that they were probably behind it, though only human-rights champion Helen Mack would dare go on record saying so.
Other scandals during the first year in office included the uncovering of wiretaps and unauthorized surveillance in the Palacio Nacional and presidential offices by unknown sources. In October 2008, ex-President Alfonso Portillo returned to Guatemala from his Mexican exile after his visa expired. Although he should have faced numerous charges on counts of well-documented financial malfeasance during his administration, he was released on bail the same day. Many saw this as evidence that Colom and Portillo were in cahoots, an accusation Colom vehemently denied. As of 2010, Portillo was in a Guatemalan prison awaiting U.S. extradition.
On May 10, 2009, prominent Guatemala City lawyer Rodrigo Rosenberg was assassinated while bicycling in Zona 14. The next day, a video surfaced in which he plainly accused the government of orchestrating his death. In the video, recorded just days before his death, Rosenberg states, “If you are hearing this message, it means that I, Rodrigo Rosenberg Marzano, was murdered by the president’s private secretary, Gustave Alejos, and his associate Gregorio Valdez, with the approval of Mr. Alvaro Colom and Sandra de Colom.” The alleged reason for the murder given by Rosenberg claimed it was a government plot to silence opposition to government corruption in Guatemala’s Banrural, including claims of money laundering and using it as a front to fund campaign funds for a future run for office by Sandra Torres de Colom. Mr. Musa had been appointed to Banrural’s board of directors, but his appointment was withheld by the government over a period of three months prior to his murder.
Rosenberg fought valiantly for the solving of the Musas’ murder and had received death threats in the days leading up to his murder. In light of these allegations, an outraged Guatemalan populace took to the streets demanding Colom’s resignation. Colom, meanwhile, denied any wrongdoing and ordered a full investigation. He also orchestrated counter-demonstrations with the UNE party affiliates, bussing in supporters to the capital from the provinces. The murders were investigated by CICIG, though many of the assertions made by Rosenberg in his video were corroborated through other sources, most importantly evidence of Musa’s pending appointment to Banrural. An eyewitness also stepped forward with information regarding the identities of three of the six material authors of Rosenberg’s murder, which were provided to CICIG and the FBI, who were aiding in the investigation.
In January 2010, the results of CICIG’s investigation into the murder of Rodrigo Rosenberg were revealed. It was found that the lawyer orchestrated his own death with the unknowing help of friends and family members, who thought they were being recruited to arrange the execution of his would-be assassin. The truth in Guatemala is often harder to believe than lies.
© Al Argueta from Moon Guatemala, 3rd Edition. Photos © Al Argueta www.alargueta.com