On the morning of February 19, 2007, three Salvadoran members of the Central American Parliament and their driver crossed into Guatemala to attend a meeting with other regional delegates. Shortly after entering the country, they disappeared. Their burned bodies were found later on a dirt road about 50 kilometers from Guatemala City alongside the still-smoldering remains of their car. Before it was torched, the vehicle had been taken apart, as the perpetrators presumably searched for either drugs or money -- or both.
Guatemala’s Interior Minister Carlos Vielman dispatched his top operatives to deal with what became known as the “Parlacen case,” after the Spanish acronym for the Central American Parliament. By February 22, Guatemalan authorities had captured four policemen and had formally accused them of killing the three parliamentarians and their driver. However, almost immediately after the arrests, it was apparent that something was amiss.
One of the policemen captured was Luis Herrera López. Herrera was part of a select group of police who was working under Victor Rivera Azuaje, a shadowy Venezuelan who had worked for years with Central American governments and the private sector, dealing with kidnappings and other security matters.
Rivera Azuaje was Interior Minister Vielman’s right-hand man at the time, and after the arrest of the four policemen, he showed up to talk to them. In a video taken of the meeting at the Interior Ministry in downtown Guatemala City, the tension between the captured police and Rivera Azuaje is evident.1
“I am telling you, I am taking you all down with me, because I, I am taking you all down!” Herrera tells Rivera Azuaje. “I’m going down for this. We asked for help, and this is what you give me? This is the help that you are giving me?”
Rivera Azuaje responds to Herrera, but the microphone does not capture the audio.
“I am telling you: you are going to remember me,” the policeman says, his face in an angry knot. “You and everyone else. You are going to remember me! I promise you. I swear on my mother’s grave.” (See video below)
Three days later, the four police suspects were found dead, killed execution-style in a prison some 65 kilometers south of Guatemala City. The authorities quickly blamed it on gang members, but it was clear that a cover-up was underway. Later investigations linked the massacre of the police suspects to the “Three ‘V’s”: Victor Rivera Azuaje; Victor Soto Diéguez, the former head of the police investigations who was also part of Vielman’s inner circle of operatives; and Victor Rosales, the head of the prison system.2
At the time, the government, civil society groups and parts of the international community were pushing for the establishment of a new, international body to help it deal with cases like these. They called it the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG). The CICIG was an experiment in justice. Designed as a special aide to the Attorney General’s Office, the commission could act as both watchdog and assistant prosecutor, all with the imprimatur of its sponsor, the United Nations. It was staffed with international investigators, who were meant to be less susceptible to pressure and corruption. Understandably, Guatemalan lawmakers and other authorities were dubious, but the Parlacen case helped turn the tide of the debate in the CICIG’s favor and, in part due to this spectacular series of crimes -- and Vielman’s lobbying -- Congress eventually approved the CICIG.
Vielman and many of his colleagues who pushed for the CICIG never thought it possible that the commission might one day go after them. But Vielman’s possible participation and cover-up of the Parlacen case and several other crimes would become a central part of CICIG’s work. By 2009, commission prosecutors were pushing for then-CICIG Commissioner Carlos Castresana to bring these cases to trial.
They alleged that, as interior minister, Vielman had various special units, such as that of the Venezuelan Rivera Azuaje (pictured), and another run by police investigator Soto Diéguez as well as two other top police officials. Rivera Azuaje’s unit -- which took on the name “Riveritas,” an homage to Rivera Azuaje’s leadership -- and the other unit, CICIG investigators claimed, were more than special forces. They were a “social cleansing” outfit who started out extrajudicially executing suspected criminals, including gang members, kidnappers and bank robbers who they captured or who had escaped from prison. They soon moved into more sophisticated criminal acts such as theft of drug shipments, kidnapping and extortion. All of these activities, CICIG prosecutors said, were directed by or approved by Interior Minister Vielman.
Vielman was no ordinary suspect. He was a member of the country’s traditional economic elite. He was once the president of the Industrial Chamber of Commerce of Guatemala’s foremost business association, the Coordinating Commission of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial and Financial Associations (Comité Coordinador de Asociaciones Agrícolas, Comerciales, Industriales y Financieras – CACIF). The CACIF is a multipronged institution with vast political influence, and Vielman was close with some of the most conservative and powerful members of the business elite.
When his prosecutors came to him with the cases against Vielman and the Riveritas two years after the Parlacen murders, CICIG Commissioner Castresana faced a dilemma. Vielman’s support had been vital to the creation of the CICIG. What’s more, Castresana had developed a relationship with numerous members of the economic elite who were closely linked to Vielman. These relationships were an important part of the commissioner’s work: the CICIG needed allies in order to operate in an immensely challenging place like Guatemala.
Yet some of the commission’s prosecutors and outside critics said Castresana had become too close to these elite allies, that they influenced his decision-making, and delayed or even undermined justice. Castresana is a tough man with a strong personality who was hardly one to cower in the face of traditional authority. But in Guatemala, when Castresana’s prosecutors came to him with information connecting Vielman to Parlacen and other cases, the CICIG commissioner balked, saying that the evidence was not strong enough or that it was not the right political moment.
The question of how much influence these elites exerted over Castresana -- and by extension the CICIG -- is at the heart of this case study. Castresana was not corrupt or nefarious. The Spanish judge did the hard work of setting up the commission, pushing for important legal reforms, helping to vet the country’s putrid court system, and to train local prosecutors in modern criminal investigative techniques. He prosecuted several important cases, including a landmark case that saved the presidency of Álvaro Colom, which was on the brink of collapse due, in part, to pressure from various rival elites. And the CICIG -- after Castresana left -- did eventually bring cases against some of those accused in the Vielman cases, although many of them, including Vielman, were tried in Europe. But questions remain about his tenure, questions that we probed for this case study.
To do this study, we investigated the actions of the controversial and often celebrated Commissioner Castresana through dozens of interviews with former CICIG employees, government officials, diplomats, and political and judicial analysts. We also analyzed the CICIG in the larger context, and we studied the CICIG’s cases and tried to determine whether the commission targeted or favored one group over another. Most of all, we looked closely at specific, hallmark cases through the prism of the battle between the different elites in Guatemala. Among them was the case the CICIG built against Vielman, but there were many others, some of which involved the reason the commission was created in the first place: the CIACS.
The CICIG is a byproduct of Guatemala’s brutal civil war, and the development of what became known as Illegal Clandestine Security Apparatuses (Cuerpos Ilegales y Aparatos Clandestinos de Seguridad - CIACS). That war had its origins in the 1954 US-backed military coup which overthrew President Jacobo Árbenz. The coup was the beginning of a vast upheaval, and in 1960, with the country still under military rule, a group of mid-level army officers declared the government corrupt and began an insurrection that started a 36-year long civil war.
The rebellious military officers soon gave way to students, labor leaders and indigenous-backed insurgent groups who fought mostly from the northwest highlands. Eventually they formed an umbrella organization -- the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca - URNG). The URNG was a poor and disorganized guerrilla organization, which would never resemble its organized, disciplined insurgent brethren in Nicaragua or El Salvador, both of which eventually forced major changes in their own countries.
The URNG’s weakness was due, in part, to the Guatemalan military’s strength and its ability to marshal support from the country’s economic elites and foreign allies like the US government. In response to the insurgency, the military expanded its hold on power. While it did not always control the executive branch, it effectively determined who would become president for nearly four decades after overthrowing Árbenz. It also strengthened its intelligence services and took control of numerous important government institutions, from the customs agency to the finance ministry. And it exerted a vast amount of control over the war effort. Soon it was gathering information from the country’s rebel groups and economic powers alike. Eventually the war was as much about illicit interests as it was about capturing and killing rebels. With it, the military began a more clandestine, nefarious chapter, which included collecting “quotas” or bribes from legitimate and illegitimate businesses for movement of their goods across Guatemala’s borders, and obtaining control over various contraband routes.
This shift culminated in March 1982. As the guerrillas continued a mini-surge in the highlands that had begun in the late 1970s, a military-civilian junta overthrew the government of Gen. Romeo Lucas García. At the top of this junta was Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, a decorated officer and one-time presidential candidate who had converted from Catholicism to an evangelical church that espoused an apocalyptic vision of the world. With the guerrillas advancing, Ríos Montt applied a quasi-religious counterinsurgency approach that in some ways fulfilled the gospel of his own church. In the northwest highlands, the guerrillas’ stronghold, the army began a “scorched earth” campaign, killing thousands and displacing hundreds of thousands. News of the massacres seeped out, and Guatemala became an international pariah -- though not for the US government. The military’s war crimes would be subject to scrutiny for years to come. And in its report following the war, the UN truth commission (Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico - CEH) would say the army had committed “acts of genocide against groups of Mayan people,”3 setting the stage for future prosecutions, one of which would be against Ríos Montt himself.
However, in the early 1980s, few could challenge the general’s regime. Ríos Montt froze the constitution, implemented secret courts, and tracked down political dissidents and suspected guerrillas in the cities. Through the Presidential Intelligence Service (Estado Mayor Presidencial - EMP), as well as other branches of military intelligence, the government kept watch on political dissidents, human rights groups, union leaders and student activists. The EMP kept files, or “archivos,” on these dissidents, earning it the moniker: “El Archivo.” Working closely with the military’s famed intelligence services, the G-2 and D-2, the EMP rounded up dozens of dissidents, then killed or disappeared them. One Guatemalan military document, released by the National Security Archives, listed 183 disappeared between 1983 and 1985.4
With their rising influence in political affairs, Ríos Montt (pictured) and the military he represented became a threat to the traditional economic elites. The army established a bank. Its officers obtained large tracts of land and bought cement companies, parking garages, and fish farms, among other businesses.5 Military personnel also created their own political parties or joined with others. In sum, they became bureaucratic elites,6 who directly challenged the traditional elites in the beverage industry and the agro-industrial sector as early as the 1970s.
At first, the bureaucratic and traditional elites did not openly squabble, in part because they had a common enemy: the URNG. One member of the powerful CACIF business association was part of Ríos Montt’s ruling junta, and others helped the army implement its counterinsurgency strategy. Among various means of support, the businessmen provided airplanes to drop bombs.7 The CACIF also lobbied to keep Guatemala from being frozen out of international aid due to human rights violations.8 It would be a short-lived alliance of convenience that would end when Ríos Montt and his political party would turn their sights on the traditional elites and their businesses two decades later.
Ríos Montt was ushered from office just short of 17 months after the 1982 coup, and Guatemala returned to a democratically elected government in 1985, but the military retained considerable power and continued its dirty war against opposition groups. The presidential intelligence service, EMP, was at the core of what was, in essence, a parallel government that worked to maintain impunity for the military’s past and present crimes. Human rights defenders were regularly targeted, as were union leaders, student activists, journalists and public prosecutors. This parallel government -- or what was often referred to as “hidden powers” -- also set the stage for the development of large scale organized crime in Guatemala. Military personnel, both active and retired, used their government posts to facilitate criminal activities, such as moving contraband or illegal drugs. They provided illegal weapons, intelligence or security services to criminal groups. And they assisted in illegal adoptions, human smuggling, and the issuing of false government documents.
By the early 1990s, the parallel state had a name: Illegal Clandestine Security Apparatuses (Cuerpos Ilegales y Aparatos Clandestinos de Seguridad - CIACS). The CIACS were not a single unit or organization, but loosely defined groups who had worked with each other during the war, mostly in the intelligence branches of the military. Some of these groups had names such as the “Cofradía,” or the “Brotherhood,” a reference to the Mayan elders’ means of organizing themselves; others were part of what was called the “Oficiales de la Montaña,” “Officials of the Mountain,” or simply, “La Montaña.”9 They were not criminal operators as much as criminal facilitators, the contractors for organized crime who put everything in place so crime could happen on a large and often systematic scale. Their networks were thought to be so powerful and cunning that they could topple a government without the slightest hint they were even involved.
The face of the CIACS was Gen. Francisco Ortega Menaldo. The general is a near-perfect example of a member of the bureaucratic elite. In the early 1970s, he worked with the EMP. Later, he worked in the Finance Ministry. He married the daughter of an ex-president, himself a former military officer. In the mid-1980s, he became head of the G-2 military intelligence division. And in the early 1990s, during the presidency of Jorge Serrano Elías, Ortega Menaldo ran the EMP, where he became what the country’s leading magazine called “the government’s shadow.”10 The article -- which had a cover photo of Ortega Menaldo that said he was: “the most influential man in the government” -- said the general set up microphones so he could keep tabs on all the conversations in the presidency. He controlled nearly every aspect of the president’s agenda, the article added, and could filter what the president read; he had the power to keep ministers at a distance and cancel media interviews.
“When the president wakes up in the morning, he is there, neat, polished, in his perfect uniform,” the article began. “‘What do we have today,’ Serrano asks.”11
Ortega Menaldo was also a criminal who ran the most powerful of the CIACS -- the Cofradía -- according to Guatemalan and US investigators who spoke to InSight Crime. In the early 1990s, Ortega Menaldo and his military cohorts skimmed millions of dollars from customs proceeds.12 The scam took on the name Moreno for its principal operator, Alfredo Moreno, a former military intelligence officer who had worked under Ortega Menaldo when he was head of the G-2 intelligence division. The Moreno case involved falsifying bills of lading and the theft of merchandise, among other schemes. It reached the highest levels of the security sector, including the chief of police and numerous military officials, who received regular envelopes with cash from the customs office.
The money did not just line their pockets, but was used to undermine justice, particularly attempts to prosecute military personnel for past and current human rights violations and extrajudicial murders. One such case was that of Myrna Mack, an outspoken anthropologist and human rights activist who was assassinated by members of the EMP in 1990. The case dragged through the courts for years, mainly due to the bribes, intimidation and backscratching that characterize the Guatemalan judicial system. The murder would have remained in impunity if not for Myrna’s sister, Helen, who created a foundation in her name to honor Myrna and seek justice. In the end, the killer was convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison. Still, although the case established that the assassin was acting on orders from the top levels of the EMP, only one higher-up was convicted.
Ortega Menaldo was an integral part of the plan to undermine justice in the Mack case, but he was never prosecuted. Nor did he face justice for the Moreno case. Years later, the United States suspended his visa for his alleged involvement in drug trafficking. Sources in the Interior Ministry told InSight Crime that for a high price he also provided false documents to criminal groups and facilitated illegal adoptions. But he never faced any charges for those alleged criminal acts either. Even worse, by the early 2000s, Ortega Menaldo was back working behind the scenes with another president. Ortega Menaldo was, in a word, untouchable, a symbol of the strength of the CIACS and the impunity that surrounded them. The CICIG was established to change that equation.
The Rise of the Bureaucratic and Emerging Elites
In 1994, the Guatemalan government and the guerrilla umbrella organization, URNG, signed the Global Human Rights Accord. The accord was the first part of what would become the final peace accord that was signed between the two sides in December 1996, and it provided a hint of what would become the CICIG’s future emphasis on the bureaucratic elites like those in the Cofradía but did little more. “To maintain absolute respect of human rights, there should not be any illegal entities, clandestine security apparatuses,” it read. “The government recognizes its obligation to fight any resemblance of these groups.”13
The peace accord did open the door to the first two post-war UN interventions in Guatemala: the UN Verification Mission in Guatemala (Misión de las Naciones Unidas en Guatemala - MINUGUA), which monitored and helped implement the post-war accords; and the CEH, the special commission that focused on issuing a report on human rights abuses and war crimes during the conflict. Both experiences made some Guatemalans -- particularly those in the military -- wary of further UN intervention and prolonged the battle to implement the CICIG. The CEH, in particular, stunned and angered the Guatemalan establishment when it wrote that 93 percent of war crimes had been committed by government forces; and that the army had committed “acts of genocide” against the Mayan communities in the northwest highlands. (The commission’s findings opened the door to a wave of local and international prosecutions that has not dissipated.)
The wounds of these findings were still fresh when local human rights groups began clamoring for a new, more permanent commission that would help the Guatemalan government dismantle the CIACS. The problem had, in some ways, mutated following the peace accords, since the military had been cut to one-third its original size. Former members of the military sought new business opportunities, particularly in private security, but also in the powerful illicit networks proliferating in the region. Some of these networks, for example, were connected to the spectacular and troubling 1998 assassination of Bishop Juan Gerardi, who had headed up a team that wrote a multi-volume report on human rights abuses during the war entitled: “Guatemala: Never Again.” But others were seeking legitimacy. They started businesses and formed their own political parties. Ríos Montt, for instance, created a political party, the Guatemalan Republican Front (Frente Republicano Guatemalteco - FRG).
The FRG illustrated the evolution of the CIACS in post-war Guatemala. The party was stacked with former military officials and received dirty money from the Moreno network to finance its campaigns.14 It recruited able and ambitious politicians such as Alfonso Portillo (pictured), a Guatemalan congressman who was himself a part of an emerging political elite. In 2000, after narrowly losing the previous election, Portillo won the presidency. The FRG also won the most seats in Congress, and Ríos Montt became president of Congress. Ortega Menaldo became Portillo’s consigliere, someone to hold his hand while he pillaged the government coffers under the careful guise of Cofradía operatives placed strategically throughout the government. One of their schemes, it would later emerge, was to steal from the military itself.
For the traditional economic elites, the FRG was the embodiment of how much power their rivals in the bureaucratic and these emerging elites had taken from them. Political parties and the military had long been beholden to these interests, serving as virtual messengers and glorified majordomos. However, Portillo’s administration challenged the status quo in unprecedented ways. He opened the door for chicken, beer, sugar, and cement imports, infuriating some of the most powerful Guatemalan elites such as the Gutiérrez-Bosch family, whose Pollo Campero franchise remains a sort of unofficial symbol of traditional economic elite power in the country. In addition, the FRG raised taxes on items like alcohol which angered the beverage giants, and imported sugar from Cuba to undercut the powerful sugar families.
The party also challenged the traditional economic elites’ control of the country’s judicial system by changing laws on the selection of high court judges and the attorney general, among others. Specifically, they passed a new law that opened the internal elections of the country’s bar association to those operating outside the capital city. One member of this bar association, Roberto López Villatoro, used the new law to build coalitions outside the purview of the traditional economic elite. These coalitions helped select high court judges and changed the balance of power in the judicial system.
If the FRG was the face of Guatemala’s bureaucratic elite, López Villatoro was the face of its emerging elite core. This group emerged during the import substitution period of the 1960s and 1970s. Initially, they made their money from non-traditional imports and exports. Later, they profited from privatization processes during the neoliberal reforms of the 1980s. Throughout, they used their government connections to garner favor and to secure public monies. And they eventually established important economic bases that crossed into new industries such as oil exploration and hydroelectric power.
For his part, López Villatoro made his money by selling “replica” tennis shoes and used tires from Asia, he told InSight Crime. His critics simply called these products contraband and started calling him “the Tennis Shoe King.” These critics argue that he used his money and high-level influence in the government to facilitate his explosion in wealth and his burgeoning control of the judicial system. López Villatoro’s allies included his brother, Julio César, who became a congressman, his then-father-in-law, Congress President Efraín Ríos Montt, and his then-wife, congresswoman Zury Ríos. The “first family of Congress,” as they were often called in the press, illustrated an important fusion of interests between the emerging and the bureaucratic elites, another terrifying prospect for the traditional economic elites.
The upheaval in Guatemalan political and economic circles went beyond the Portillo administration and the FRG. In the late 1990s, Guatemala gave more power over public spending to the municipalities and states. The result was an explosion in small construction companies that sought to take advantage of their local connections and the economic opportunities that came with them: while there were 84 construction companies registered in 1998, by 2014, that number was over 2,000.15
These companies became an integral part of the country’s political and criminal structures. Public works contracts are a means through which favors are traded, campaigns are financed and criminal money is laundered. This merry-go-round of back-scratching opened the way for the creation of new, often local political structures that are not dependent on the traditional economic powers for funding and are thus no longer beholden to them politically, another terrifying prospect for the traditional economic elites.
This spread of opportunity -- or as one former interior minister called it, this “democratization of corruption” -- extended to other parts of the government as well.16 Government bodies, such as Guatemala’s Social Security Institute, opened the door for the interests of the emerging and bureaucratic elites, some of them corrupt. In 2002, the board of the institute faced scrutiny due to a deal with a suspected drug trafficker to build housing for the elderly. The housing was never built, and the alleged trafficker escaped prosecution.17
The international community intervened in this complex cauldron of competing interests with varying degrees of success. In some respects, the international community serves as a sort of supra-elite, exerting economic, political and social control over various parts of Guatemalan society in ways similar to local elites. In other respects, the international community is a tool of the elites. With regards to justice issues, the two main players in this international community are the United States and the UN. And in the early 2000s, both were playing very active roles. The United States had decertified Guatemala for its failure to cooperate on counterdrug matters. Meanwhile, MINUGUA, the UN verification mission, was still in the country, monitoring the implementation of the peace accords.
There was also still talk of establishing a special “commission” to pursue human rights abusers connected to the government and parallel, clandestine networks involved in criminal activities and abuse. In 1999, the UN special rapporteur on the independence of judges had recommended the establishment of “an independent enforcement agency with powers to investigate complaints of corruption in public office.”18 And in 2002, a UN technical commission complained of the undue influence of the clandestine networks known as the CIACS.19
Cognizant of the country’s image and the importance of mending fences with the UN and the United States, Portillo assigned Edgar Gutiérrez, his most-able political operator, to deal with the issue. An economist and longtime human rights investigator, Gutiérrez was an integral part of Bishop Gerardi’s team that exposed the government’s central role in human rights abuses, torture and extrajudicial executions during the country’s civil war. He is also one of the country’s foremost authorities on organized crime.20 Portillo tapped him to be the first head of a government civilian-run intelligence unit, and, despite protests and criticism from his long-time colleagues in the human rights community, Gutiérrez took the job.
Divorced from his former colleagues but not from his human rights and activist roots, Gutiérrez took up the fight for the CICIG when he became foreign minister in the later stages of the Portillo administration. During a lunch with José Miguel Vivanco, the head of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch, and President Portillo, the three discussed the possibility of setting up a “commission” to eradicate the influence of the CIACS.21 The irony that the Cofradía -- the country’s principal CIACS -- was the beating heart of the administration, and its head -- Ortega Menaldo -- was a Portillo advisor did not come up, according to Gutiérrez. Instead, the three outlined the basic details of what would later be called the Commission for the Investigation of Illegal Groups and Clandestine Security Organizations (Comisión de Investigación de Cuerpos Ilegales y Aparatos Clandestinos de Seguridad - CICIACS).
Gutiérrez said he obtained the final signatures for the commission from the presidency and the UN just days before the end of the Portillo administration, but the proposal immediately ran into problems. Critics said that the agreement gave the commission the power to investigate criminal wrongdoing independently of the Guatemalan authorities, something that is against the country’s constitution. Gutiérrez disputed this claim, saying the opposition to the proposal was political, not legal.22 However, after the Constitutional Court rejected the proposal, it was a moot point. The CICIACS proposal had stalled.
CICIG: The “Reset Button”?
The person who picked up the CICIACS mantle following the Constitutional Court’s decision was newly elected Vice President Eduardo Stein. Like Gutiérrez, Stein’s allegiances are tough to untangle. Although he hails from a wealthy, elite family, Stein is seen as politically independent and forward thinking. To this day, he is still tapped to head up difficult national arbitration processes, such as a truth commission following the 2009 coup in neighboring Honduras. Stein was, in some ways, the personification of the Oscar Berger presidency (2004-2008). Berger said his government was a “business” administration, which may have been an understatement.
The imprint of business association CACIF on Berger’s government was unmistakable. Where the FRG party filled positions with ex-military officials, Berger filled them with businessmen. Among his most important appointments was naming Carlos Vielman as interior minister. Vielman is the son of a military colonel, from well-heeled, traditional elite stock. These traditional elites saw themselves as a modern, inclusive group that could reestablish order following the FRG debacle. What that meant in practice is still up for debate, and the question lies at the heart of this case study. Vielman, for instance, coordinated security matters closely with scions of wealthy families who sometimes employed foreign mercenaries to do their dirty work. Among those mercenaries was Victor Rivera Azuaje, a Venezuelan who would eventually play a key role in some of the Interior Ministry’s most infamous extrajudicial activities.
Stein and Vielman had known each other for years, and when Berger named Vielman to his cabinet, the vice president became a key ally in the establishment of what would eventually become the CICIG.23 Stein consulted with the Constitutional Court and the Attorney General’s Office (known as the Minsterio Público - MP, in Guatemala). Stein and Vielman also met with members of Congress and traveled together to Washington to drum up support for the commission from the US government. In addition, Stein brought in advisors from civil society, such as Helen Mack of the Fundación Myrna Mack, to help him reformulate the proposal so that it centered more on impunity and had a wider purview than just cases involving attacks on human rights defenders, journalists and prosecutors.24
The proposal had its opponents. The FRG and many other parties were wary of the commission’s mandate, which gave its objective as the CIACS. They felt, rightly so, that they were main targets. Members of CACIF were also fearful of the commission. The foreign minister, Jorge Briz, was openly against it, according to Stein25; so was the then-attorney general, who saw it as a potential threat to his power. Nonetheless, most likened it to MINUGUA, an experiment that proved relatively harmless in their eyes. Stein told InSight Crime that few in the elites really understood the implications of the commission.26
If the traditional economic elites had reservations, they were placated by the presence of Vielman in the process. There is some dispute about whether they saw the CICIG as a possible tool to use against their bureaucratic and emerging elite rivals. Renzo Rosal, who worked as a presidential adviser with the Berger government, said the administration saw it as a chance to hit “the reset button … change the cassette.”27 They thought the CICIG, in other words, could help them return to a time when the traditional economic elites ran the country and used the military as their guardians. “It wasn’t an elephant,” he said referring to the CIACS and the previous governments, “This was a heard of elephants.”28
Stein, however, disputed this assertion. He said the elites close to the government took a more hands-off approach. They may not have thought the proposal was good, but they did not think it would affect them in any significant way. And in the best-case scenario, they thought that they might benefit. In either case, the presence of Vielman in the process calmed their nerves. “My principal ally was Carlos Vielman,” Stein told InSight Crime.29
Opponents of the measure got what they wanted when the commission’s mandate was limited to two years. The entity was watered down further when the UN decided that it would not be a formal part of the multilateral body. Still, it had teeth. The commission would help “promote prosecution” and provide “technical assistance” to cases in Guatemala. It would help fashion laws and provide “thematic reports” on matters of judicial and legal interest. It would also have the power to “initiate judicial proceedings” with “absolute functional independence.”30
For elites like Vielman and his cohorts in the CACIF business association, the most important aspect was that the CIACS remained the stated objective of the commission. While the definition was broad, the bureaucratic and emerging elites were clearly the CICIG’s stated targets.
The fundamental objectives of this agreement are: To support, strengthen and assist institutions of the State of Guatemala responsible for investigating and prosecuting crimes allegedly committed in connection with the activities of illegal security forces and clandestine security organizations and any other criminal conduct related to these entities operating in the country, as well as identifying their structures, activities, modes of operation and sources of financing and promoting the dismantling of these organizations and the prosecution of individuals involved in their activities.31
The UN and the government signed the agreement in December 2006, but over the next several months, the government had a hard time getting Congress to act. Not surprisingly, Ríos Montt’s party, the FRG, which still held the reins of Congress, led efforts against the proposal. The effort to establish CICIG gained some momentum in February 2007, following the Parlacen murders and subsequent killings of the chief suspects. President Berger called on Congress to put the proposal on a fast track and, in a televised address to the country, said Guatemala’s enemy is the “crime that feeds off drug trafficking.”32 Other supporters included Otto Pérez Molina, a former general turned congressman and founder of the Patriotic Party (Partido Patriota - PP), a political movement on the rise.
But other members of Congress stonewalled Berger’s and subsequent proposals. Congressional leaders called for numerous extraordinary sessions to debate the matter, but they could not get a quorum.33 Furious at the unwillingness to put it on the agenda, at one point a pro-CICIG legislator threw a plastic water bottle at the president of Congress.34 Even after proponents managed to get it on the docket, things did not look good. Just weeks prior to the vote, the foreign relations commission, under the leadership of Ríos Montt’s daughter, Zury, recommended Congress reject the commission.35
On August 1, 2007, the day of the vote, pressure continued. Police told the president of Congress that there was a bomb threat and that he should evacuate the building.36 The president decided to hold the vote anyway, so Ríos Montt’s FRG party and other opponents stormed out of the session. European, UN and US diplomats also openly lobbied for the accord. The US even threatened to suspend some economic cooperation with Guatemala should Congress reject the agreement.37 (CICIG brinksmanship and US pressure would become an enduring pattern for the commission.) And with 110 votes in its favor, only just above the minimum it needed, the CICIG was finally born.
Round 1: Targeting the ‘Tennis Shoe King’
CICIG began functioning in September 2007, and dug into its various tasks. Among them were modernizing the laws on cooperating witnesses and putting a wiretapping law in place; helping the government to purge useless and possibly corrupt functionaries as well as police. However, what the Guatemalan people expected from the commission -- perhaps unfairly -- was for the CICIG to prosecute high profile cases, and on that aspect, it took several years for the commission to find its way.
The commission’s problems could be broken into two major categories. The first was actually selecting the cases that it would help the Attorney General’s Office to pursue; the second was getting convictions and making these convictions stick in Guatemala’s corrupt courts.
With regards to the first problem, CICIG had little trouble finding leads. Information arrived in abundance, as well as informants. However, sorting through this information and checking out the informants was an enormous job, and selecting priority cases from them was even more difficult. According to its 2009 annual report, the commission used “a process of inductive reasoning to determine, if it could or not, reach the parallel structures.”38 But what this meant in practice was not clear. The cases the commission highlighted in the 2009 report, for example, involved everything from murder to embezzlement. They included cases against drug traffickers, police, and common criminals. Two cases were tied to the presidency, and two were closely linked to the CIACS. However, there was little to tie the cases together.
The man tasked with sorting through this morass of information and determining the CICIG’s priorities was the body’s first commissioner, Spanish magistrate Carlos Castresana (pictured). With vast experience in politically sensitive international prosecutions, Castresana cut a formidable figure. Before becoming the CICIG’s first commissioner, he crafted the case to go after Chile’s one-time dictator, Augusto Pinochet, as well as former Argentine military personnel for alleged human rights violations. In his own country, Castresana had targeted the popular soccer club, Atlético de Madrid, for corruption.
For many, he was perfect for the job. In addition to his experience going after corruption and military figures, he understood the CICIG, in part because he had visited Guatemala and participated in the first efforts to create the CICIACS proposal. Hard working, confident -- often to a fault -- and tenacious, he imbued his staff with a sense of purpose and belief. “He had a tremendous capacity to work,” one of his former prosecutors told InSight Crime. “He had enormous clarity in what he was doing.”39
But he also had his shortcomings. While he had worked on numerous high profile cases during his career, his stature often fell short of his ego. Perhaps the case that irked him the most was that of Pinochet. Three people who worked with Castresana said he spoke openly about not getting more credit for his role in the case. One former colleague said he also sought a higher post, such as the head of the prestigious International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague, and saw CICIG as a stepping stone.
In Guatemala, Castresana struggled to find solid ground, and his ego often rubbed people the wrong way both inside and outside of CICIG. The commissioner had little patience for incompetence and even less for bureaucracy. He compartmentalized information and streamlined cases through his office. When strong, competent prosecutors challenged him, he sidelined them. He refused to have a deputy, someone who might assist him in managing his relations with diplomats, politicians and elites alike.40
Castresana also had problems with the UN. Since the CICIG was not technically a UN agency, anyone who worked for the commission would lose UN benefits and pension, making it nearly impossible to recruit personnel from within the UN. Once in the country, Castresana had to fundraise, hire security and find an office. To be sure, Castresana used this independence to his advantage as well, shunning multiple UN attempts to evaluate the commission’s progress and adherence to its mandate, among other matters.
It was in this regard that Castresana faced some of his most formidable difficulties. Although the CICIG’s mandate centered on CIACS -- and boogeymen like former Gen. Ortega Menaldo were easily identifiable -- prosecuting these hidden powers was very difficult in practice. The task was made even harder by Guatemala’s antiquated laws, poorly educated administrative personnel, and poorly trained police and prosecutors. Castresana also had a hard time establishing working relationships with other judicial and security forces, who were not necessarily willing partners. And he had to figure out how Guatemala worked beneath the surface, where the Ortega Menaldos were doing their dirty work.
For this last task, Castresana relied on an inner circle of confidants that he developed early in his time in Guatemala. Castresana interviewed over 300 people when he arrived in the country, but only a few of them would become regular sources. These included local human rights investigators and foreign diplomats, former and current government officials, and, of course, members of the elite. These elites ran the gamut. One of the most important of them was Helen Mack, the founder of the Myrna Mack Foundation. Although Mack is from a well-to-do landed family, she operates more as a member of the social and intellectual elite, helping to set the security and human rights agenda in the country due to her access to and influence on a wide variety of actors.41
An equally powerful voice with the commission was former Vice President Eduardo Stein, who remains an important member of the political elite. Stein ran interference for the commission as it tried to make inroads with government and diplomats, including US Ambassador Stephen McFarland.
The traditional economic elite’s key representative was a lawyer named Alfonso Carrillo (pictured). Carrillo does not consider himself a member of the elite, but his firm, Carrillo y Asociados, is one of Guatemala’s oldest and has long represented one of the leading families of the traditional elite.42 For his part, Carrillo has been an important political and business interlocutor for business association CACIF for decades.43
Carrillo and Castresana developed a close relationship and eventually shared information as well as contacts. Carrillo, for instance, said that he introduced Castresana to traditional economic elites such as Dionisio Gutiérrez Mayorga of the chicken empire that includes the Pollo Campero fast food chain and food import business. In an interview with InSight Crime, Carrillo played down this networking,44 but one former Carrillo y Asociados employee reported having attended dinners with Castresana, the company’s boss and members of these elites.45 It was, according to this former employee, a way for the elites to influence Castresana’s agenda. “They were contextualizing him in accordance with their own interests,” the former employee said.46
Critics of Castresana say his relationship with Carrillo and his law firm went further than it should have and illustrated the commissioner’s bias towards traditional economic elites. To be sure, Carrillo directly assisted with the commission’s work. Despite the fact that Carrillo’s law firm specializes in mergers and acquisitions, some of its members were assigned to assist CICIG. For instance, the former Carrillo y Asociados employee said he and others from the firm investigated a government embezzlement case. (He said Castresana became furious when, after months of work, the investigators had not gathered the necessary proof to prosecute the case.)
Carrillo also helped CICIG with its second major problem: that of prosecuting the cases it helped bring to the courts. In its annual report in 2009, CICIG said it had opened 39 cases, but there were few convictions.47 This was in part because of corruption in the courts. Even if the commission could successfully prosecute a case and win a conviction, appellate courts would overturn it. In order to get results, the commission decided it had to change the judges.
For that, the CICIG turned its attention to the little known -- and often ignored -- process of selecting Guatemala’s high court judges. First, what are known as postulation commissions select the final candidates for the supreme and appellate courts, and then Congress selects the magistrates from those lists. The postulation commissions were designed to minimize political intrusion in the process. They were made up of law school deans, high court judges and bar association members. However, politics, and the corruption that often accompanied it, inevitably took over.48 For example, law schools were founded just to gain votes in the commissions. The selection of the bar association representatives to the commissions became like political campaigns, complete with posters, T-shirts and flag-waving rallies. And judges named to the commissions got showered with consulting work and other perks.
Like other cases the CICIG would eventually tackle, the battle for the courts was as much about class warfare as it was about the criminal penetration of the state. The traditional economic elites had long controlled the high courts. But beginning in the early 2000s, Ríos Montt’s FRG party and its judicial operator, Roberto López Villatoro, aka the “Tennis Shoe King,” had begun manipulating the courts in their favor. They did this by investing in campaigns to elect their candidates to the bar association committees as well as recruiting law school deans into their fold, so they could use the deans’ votes in the postulation commissions and get their judge candidates on the lists sent to Congress. By 2009, López Villatoro had become an independent broker working for emerging and bureaucratic elites, which included members of the Álvaro Colom administration (2008-2012) as well as members of the FRG.
With the help of Carrillo and others, the CICIG targeted the upstart lawyer. They had several investigators scour through López Villatoro’s life, searching for suspicious or illicit transactions with judges, lawyers and prosecutors. They studied his tax records, his bills of lading and the government contracts that he had won, and looked at his travel records and his extracurricular activities. They also investigated the postulation commissions and the judges that these commissions recommended to Congress to be selected as Supreme Court magistrates and appellate court judges. Carrillo was present throughout, in the CICIG’s offices.
“I was never sure what his role was,” Anibal Gutiérrez, the long-time political officer at the CICIG, said of Carrillo. “What I do know is that every day, or nearly every day, he was in the commission meeting with Castresana.” Three former CICIG investigators confirmed the regular presence of Carrillo during this period.
To be fair, Carrillo was waging his own battle to clean the high courts, which included filing injunctions. He was also not the only outsider working with the CICIG. Others, such as Helen Mack, worked closely with the CICIG as it filtered candidates for the postulation commissions, and their subsequent recommendations for high court positions. But Anibal Gutierrez said that Mack’s presence was distinct.
“Obviously no one can deny the importance of Helen [Mack] in Guatemala, and the weight that her word has in Guatemala is also clear,” Gutiérrez explained. “In contrast to Carrillo, though, it seems to me that Helen’s role was much more open, much more public, more direct because that’s the way Helen is. So she did it in a way that was much more transparent, if you know what I mean.”
Still, like Carrillo, Mack represented interests that went beyond her own or her organization’s.
“When we think of Helen’s role or her influence, we think of it as influence of Guatemalan NGOs (non-governmental organizations) in general, above all because they moved in a bloc,” he said.
Some suggested that Castresana himself was unsure of whether the commission should even be engaged in the fight over the courts. This may have been related to the fact that the information the commission found on López Villatoro and the judges was neither criminal nor against the postulation commissions’ policies. Much of it centered on incompetence and nepotism rather than criminal wrongdoing. But it was enough for Castresana, a master showman as well as judge, to organize a press conference to vilify six judges who had just been named to the Supreme Court, and to undercut López Villatoro and his upstart allies in the process.
“There is an investigation that is attempting to establish criminal responsibility of at least one person,” Castresana said, a PowerPoint presentation glowing behind him.49 “The businessman, Sergio Roberto López Villatoro.”
Castresana then accused López Villatoro (pictured) of pulling the necessary strings to ensure that 26 of his picks -- out of a total of 54 -- sat on the postulation commissions that selected the final candidates for Guatemala’s highest courts. “"We don't think these are the isolated actions of this person,” Castresana added. “These actions are coordinated with the interests of parallel structures.”
Castresana said these “parallel structures” were illegal adoption rings, drug trafficking networks, military officials connected to human rights abuses, and corrupt politicians. López Villatoro, the Spanish judge insinuated, was engineering the courts for these criminal interests. Castresana said López Villatoro bought the favor of at least 11 judges and lawyers by paying for them to do post-graduate studies in Spain prior to the 2009 postulation commissions that selected the high court judges. Of these, three became members of the commissions, Castresana said; others became candidates for high-court posts.
Castresana also made references to “Terna X,” a mysterious three-person coalition within the postulation commission for the Supreme Court. This coalition had engineered the voting to ensure the election of four of the six judges that the CICIG now accused of being “unsuitable,” according to the commissioner. Castresana added that these Supreme Court judges were “tainted” by conflicts of interest and had issued questionable decisions regarding criminal and corruption cases; they lacked the “honor” that the posts required. Castresana offered nothing more, but the headlines -- and pressure from international as well as local civil society groups and elites -- proved powerful: a few days later, Congress removed three judges from their posts, in some cases without any investigative follow-up.
López Villatoro -- and some in President Álvaro Colom’s government -- were devastated. López Villatoro filed a formal complaint to the human rights ombudsman’s office (Procuraduría de Derechos Humanos - PDH), and attacked Castresana for working for the traditional elites. He went to the Attorney General’s Office and offered to testify in any and all cases against him. Regarding the courses in Spain, he told the ombudsman that he, and several others, had pooled money to pay for the judges and lawyers because they were having trouble moving money into euros, a story he repeated to InSight Crime a few years later.50
When InSight Crime asked López Villatoro about his coalition’s alleged connection to criminal interests -- including illegal adoption rings, drug trafficking, those involved in human rights abuses during the war and corrupt politicians -- he said that he had dealings with a lot of people, and that he could not control his coalition’s interactions.51 Indeed, only one of the three judges removed had been linked to criminal interests; the other two were removed more for their lack of credentials and experience.
López Villatoro’s analysis of the situation was that the traditional elites used Castresana to vilify him, and won. In the end, he said, the three “unsuitable” judges that were removed were replaced with pro-traditional elite judges cut from the same cloth as Alfonso Carrillo. Some supporters and critics of the CICIG agreed, including Carrillo and Mack.
“He was talked into it,” López Villatoro said of Castresana. “His job was to take us out of the picture.”
Still, others defended the results. In a cable from the US Embassy, Ambassador McFarland lauded the CICIG, and Castresana in particular, for his work. Ten of the thirteen magistrates that ended up on the court, the cable said, had not raised any red flags for either the commission or the embassy. “Getting a relatively clean court is of paramount importance for the rule of law in part because Guatemala’s Supreme Court administers the entire court system, in addition to being the final judicial arbiter,” Ambassador McFarland wrote. “Their [sic] appears to be little backlash against CICIG or the Embassy for their roles.”52
Carrillo also defended his role and the results of the commission’s work.
“We didn’t want to purge it,” he said of the judicial system. “We wanted to improve it.”53
Round 2: ‘The Provisional Truth’
On the morning of May 10, 2009, Rodrigo Rosenberg, a prominent, Harvard-educated lawyer, whose law firm represented traditional economic and emerging elites alike, got on his bicycle and took a slow Sunday ride in Guatemala’s capital.54 Rosenberg was distraught. His girlfriend, Marjorie Musa, who was the daughter of one of Rosenberg’s clients, Khalil Musa, a prominent businessman, had been killed along with Khalil a month earlier in a grizzly gangland-style hit. After doing some digging, Rosenberg was sure that high-level officials in the Álvaro Colom administration had ordered the assassination, but he could not prove it.
Rosenberg (pictured) contemplated going public with his accusations, and some of his friends, including Jorge Briz, the former foreign minister and a leading member of the powerful CACIF business association, tried to dissuade him. Rosenberg also complained to a friend and client that he was a victim of extortion. He even gave the client, Luis Mendizábal, the phone number of those who he said were threatening him.
Sunday mornings are quiet in Guatemala City, and as Rosenberg pedaled through the empty streets, at least five vehicles subtly tracked his movements. After about five minutes, he stopped his bike, and sat on a grassy knoll by the side of the road. A couple of minutes later, a man walked up behind him and shot him in the head, neck and thorax, killing him.
News of Rosenberg’s death reached the CICIG quickly, and commission investigators were on the scene within hours. The next day, while investigators continued to pore over the initial clues, Rosenberg’s family and friends gathered for his funeral, where Luis Mendizábal, the friend who had taken the phone number of the alleged extortionists, began handing out a DVD to those in attendance, including the press. On the DVD was an explosive declaration from a solemn, formally dressed Rosenberg himself. Looking straight into the camera, he said “If you are listening or seeing this message, it is because I was killed by President Álvaro Colom.”
In the 18-minute recording, Rosenberg also went on to accuse Colom, first lady Sandra Torres, and the president’s chief of staff of murdering his girlfriend Marjorie and her father Khalil Musa, and of being part of a scheme to launder and embezzle money from various government entities such as Banco de Desarrollo Rural (Banrural), a cooperative bank for small farmers.55
“At the end of the day, the story is the same we have lived through too much in Guatemala,” he said, his sad eyes staring into the camera. “It’s the same story that we have heard and repeated these last few years. And we Guatemalans, we don’t do anything because there is nothing to do.”
Just days after the assassination, President Colom asked the CICIG to take the case.56 It was an act of desperation. The video had gone viral, and Colom knew protests would quickly follow. Within a week, thousands of marchers dressed in white -- a symbol, they said, of “purity” -- were calling the president a “murderer” and demanding his resignation.57 Members of the traditional economic elites were helping to organize the marches. Some even called on Colom’s vice president to join them, but he refused.58
Rosenberg, on the other hand, was called a “hero” and a “martyr.” His haunting video was played over and over on local and international TV. His accusations were instantly considered credible, especially given the source: a respected lawyer to the elites who had been educated abroad. Even investigators at the CICIG at first accepted his version at face value.
The struggle between Colom and Rosenberg’s supporters was a form of class warfare. Colom was from a prominent family and had been part of the CACIF before becoming the head of a government agency, formed after the war, that sought to alleviate poverty in rural areas. But he was never close to the powerful core of the traditional, economic elites, and his relations were particularly tense with the group known as the “G8.”
The G8 was kind of an elite within the traditional economic elite. It included Juan Luis Bosch and Dionisio Gutiérrez Mayorga of the Gutiérrez-Bosch chicken empire; Juan Miguel Torrebiarte of the Banco Industrial; Rodrigo Tejada of the Castillo family’s beer conglomerate; and Fraterno Vila of one of the top sugar-producing families. It exerted incredible influence on political and economic policy. The G8 had direct access to the president, and, according to Colom’s former finance minister,59 bullied him when he tried to modernize the antiquated and grossly unfair tax system that had favored the G8 and their cohorts in the CACIF for decades.60
But the G8’s issues with Colom went beyond tax policy. After he was elected, Colom selected his own people to run the finance ministry, the tax collection agency, and the banking regulator, three government posts traditionally controlled by the CACIF. For her part, first lady Sandra Torres, with the help of her sister, began maneuvering to influence the selection of Supreme Court and appellate court magistrates, using similar methods to the Tennis Shoe King. The Colom administration, under the leadership of Torres, also shifted resources to fight rural poverty.
To be fair, the traditional economic elites had some valid grounds for griping about the administration. One of Colom’s top political operators was connected to organized crime.61 Torres’ sister allegedly had ties to long-time organized crime figures.62 And, as outlined by Rosenberg in his video, there were accusations of money laundering and embezzlement, especially as it related to Banrural.
The CICIG accepted Colom’s request for it to take the case, in the full understanding that it was both an opportunity and a huge risk. As noted, the commission was having trouble prosecuting cases, and even those it did prosecute often did not impress. One person working with the government on police reform pointed out that the criminal networks exposed through the commission’s work in those early days were already known and well documented. This person was more worried about the “parts that we don’t see or hear about,” those CIACS members entrenched in mid-level government positions that are harder to detect and extract.63 Another top-level security official echoed these sentiments.64 The CICIG’s job seemed to be as much about public relations as it was about crime fighting and structural reform. As its own representatives said at the time, their job was more about creating hope than bringing about real change.65
The Rosenberg case offered the CICIG a chance to change this narrative, and Castresana knew it. He also understood that it threatened the legitimacy of the presidency. He assigned dozens of investigators to pore over hundreds of phone records, track car registration and license numbers, view surveillance video, triangulate phone calls and locate witnesses. The investigators assessed the crime scene, chased down leads in remote provinces, and soon began listening to the main suspects’ phone conversations.
After a few months, a uniquely Guatemalan picture emerged revealing what looked like a conspiracy within a conspiracy. The CICIG kept these preliminary results restricted to a small circle of investigators until September 2009, when the authorities arrested ten suspects, who they said were members of a hit squad for hire that had perpetrated the crime. Several tense months passed, until the CICIG and the Attorney General’s Office announced in January 2010 that they would hold a press conference to reveal who killed Rodrigo Rosenberg.
As Castresana took the stage on January 12, his ever-present PowerPoint presentation glowing behind him, the country stood still. The investigation into Rosenberg’s death, he began, was “una verdad interina,” or “a provisional truth,” but one involving dozens of investigators from 11 countries, who had spent day and night unraveling this incredible tale. It hinged on Rosenberg’s state of mind in the period after his girlfriend, Marjorie Musa, was killed along with her father, Castresana explained. Between that moment and the moment the assassin shot him dead, Rosenberg was distraught to the point of suicidal: he revised his will, started giving away valuable heirlooms, and readied a gravesite so he could lay in eternity next to his slain lover. Castresana also said Rosenberg made cryptic statements to friends in public and via email hinting that he could not continue his life without her.
Rosenberg was not just sad, but extremely frustrated, Castresana continued. Against the recommendations of his close friend Jorge Briz, the president of CACIF, Rosenberg prepared to make a public accusation against President Colom. Castresana said that Rosenberg’s client, Luis Mendizábal, who had his own grievances with the government, helped put him in touch with a longtime journalist, Mario David García. García filmed Rosenberg’s statement at the radio station where he was a popular right-wing host. They copied the recording onto DVDs and got them ready for distribution in case something terrible happened to the lawyer.
In early May, Rosenberg had sent his driver to buy four cell phones, two of which he kept, and two of which he sent to the cousins of his first wife, the brothers Francisco and José Valdés Paiz. As owners of a large pharmaceutical company, the Valdés Paiz brothers are part of the traditional economic elite. They were also close friends with Rosenberg. Unwittingly, Castresana said, the Valdés Paiz brothers put into motion the last part of what he called Rosenberg’s plan. Rosenberg told the Valdés Paiz brothers that he was receiving extortion threats and that he needed their help to kill the person behind the threats. The brothers asked their bodyguard to find someone to do the job, which he did.
On the morning of May 10, just before he began peddling down the quiet streets of Guatemala City, Rosenberg called the leader of the hit squad and said that the extortionist was leaving his home. The leader of the hit squad -- which Castresana called “professional” and “businesslike” -- communicated with his team, who were already patrolling the area in multiple vehicles. The vehicles tracked the target, and a lone gunman made his way to the grassy knoll where he shot and killed Rosenberg.
In other words, Castresana concluded, Rosenberg had engineered his own assassination -- a kind of Guatemalan-style political suicide -- in order to destroy President Colom.
“Who planned this deed?” Castresana asked the hushed audience. “Well, we have to conclude that it was Rodrigo Rosenberg himself.” The impressive investigation -- and Castresana’s riveting performance -- saved the Colom government.
“You have gone above and beyond,” Colom later told the Spanish magistrate, “because your mandate was not to save democracy.”66
However, the complicated case also revealed just how difficult it was for the CICIG to avoid becoming another pawn in Guatemala’s dangerous game of thrones. There were numerous interests in play -- those of the traditional, emerging, and bureaucratic elites among them -- and mountains of money at stake.
For starters, Khalil Musa, the father of Rosenberg’s girlfriend, Marjorie, was from a prominent family in the emerging elite. Rosenberg believed that Khalil’s assassination was related to an invitation he had received to join Banrural’s board of directors. The bank had become an extremely lucrative and powerful entity, perhaps even important enough to attract the attention of traditional moneyed elites, whose fortunes were diving with the US stock market at the time, and who were promulgating rumors about the bank’s alleged nefarious activities, according to several accounts.67
In his video, Rosenberg ignored this issue. Instead, he argued that Musa’s “clean” approach came in conflict with the alleged corrupt Banrural schemes engineered by the emerging elites. But when the CICIG investigated the Musa case, they did not find any evidence of Banrural’s connection to the murder of the Musas, or enough evidence to bring a case against the bank for corruption or money laundering. They did find, however, that Musa’s connections to a dangerous contraband network may have been behind the attack.68 In every scenario, Musa’s daughter, Marjorie, appeared to be collateral damage.
Unpacking other layers of this case also revealed how CICIG may have missed an opportunity to upend a powerful CIACS. Luis Mendizábal, the man who handed out DVDs at Rosenberg’s funeral, was a key CICIG informant in the case, and many of those interviewed by InSight Crime said that Mendizábal was manipulating the commission. This would not be out of character. Mendizábal was a classic Machiavellian in the Guatemalan style -- part tailor, part coup-plotter and part crime fighter. Intelligence documents that InSight Crime obtained from Salvadoran officials connect Mendizábal to clandestine right-wing political networks across the region dating back to the 1980s. He was also connected to a mysterious CIACS group, which called itself the “Los Oficiales de la Montaña,” (Officials of the Mountain) or La Montaña, which had participated in two attempts to overthrow Guatemala’s civilian government in the late 1980s.
In the late 1990s, Mendizábal used the office behind his boutique clothing store to meet with political officials, and former and current military officers. Dubbed -- appropriately -- “La Oficinita,” he and several cohorts, some of them ex-military intelligence officials, did everything from resolving kidnapping cases to undermining judicial investigations against active and retired military personnel. Rosenberg was Mendizábal’s lawyer, and was helping him fight the decision by the Colom administration to give a lucrative government contract to a rival bidder. For his part, Mendizábal was acting as Rosenberg’s handler in his personal investigation of the murder of his lover and was feeding Rosenberg information about the supposed conspiracy fostered at Banrural.
The CICIG, and Castresana in particular, were criticized for not pursuing these lines of investigation, which many believed led to the real source of the destabilization plot at the heart of the Rosenberg case: bureaucratic elites -- possibly remnants of the La Montaña -- who sought to unseat President Colom. During the press conference, Castresana said that Mendizábal was a key witness in the reconstruction of the events leading up to Rosenberg’s death, but insisted that the shadowy Mendizábal “is not a friend of the commission or the Attorney General’s Office.”
When asked about the existence of a plot to overthrow Colom, Castresana was emphatic. “From what we know, the answer is a resounding no,” he said. “We believe the evidence shows that Rodrigo Rosenberg was acting alone. Let me reiterate: he was not part of a conspiracy.”
For their part, the traditional economic elites were furious at the results of the Rosenberg investigation. Not only did Colom remain in power -- and was arguably strengthened by the results -- the case left some members of the elite exposed as employers of assassins.
“An objective study of the crime scene takes us from Rodrigo Rosenberg to the Valdés Paiz brothers,” Castresana declared. “An objective study of the circumstances surrounding the victim takes us from Rodrigo Rosenberg to the Valdés Paiz brothers. And when we asked the ten people who have been arrested, they all confirmed that the people who requested the job be carried out were the Valdés Paiz brothers, and no one else. No politician. No minister. No police chief. No police lieutenant. No one. Only these brothers.”
But in the end, Castresana’s “verdad interina” remained just that: provisional. The Valdés Paiz brothers eventually turned themselves in to the authorities, but were released on bail, and the case remains mired in legal challenges from their lawyers. The other cases the Rosenberg investigation had set into motion also stalled, including the Banrural corruption case and the Musa double homicide. No one seemed satisfied, and Castresana’s list of detractors grew. And while the case saved the presidency, the wheels of the Guatemalan elite’s retribution against Castresana himself were beginning to turn.
Round 3: Chasing the Ghost of Ortega Menaldo
Just days after Castresana’s theatrical revelation about Rosenberg’s suicide-murder, the CICIG arrested former Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo on corruption charges. It was one of a series of arrests Guatemalan authorities would make during 2009 and early 2010 for a case the Attorney General’s Office had built against the ex-president and several of his top administrators for embezzling money from the Defense Ministry’s pension funds. Simultaneously, the US released an indictment against Portillo on money laundering charges, and requested his extradition.
The case further complicated Castresana’s life. On the surface, it seemed to involve the CIACS, specifically the country’s most powerful CIACS group, Cofradía, and its head, retired Gen. Francisco Ortega Menaldo. It also involved a former president, something that represented a particularly powerful feather in Castresana’s cap.
However, it was also what one UN official called “a garden-variety corruption case.”69 What’s more, the Portillo case was part of a longstanding vendetta between the various elites. The families who traditionally controlled the poultry, cement and beer industries -- the famous G8 -- were still seething about the Portillo administration’s moves to open those sectors to competition and to subject them to higher taxes. And numerous critics of Castresana told InSight Crime that the commissioner pushed the Portillo case because of his close connections to members of the elite such as Dionisio Gutiérrez Mayorga and his cousin, Juan Luis Bosch.
Of these two, it is Gutiérrez Mayorga (pictured) who is more frequently cited as trying to influence Castresana. Gutiérrez Mayorga is a symbol of the traditional elites and a public figure. In addition to his high profile relationship with the Pollo Campero chicken business, Gutiérrez Mayorga had a television program -- “Libre Encuentro” (Open Encounter) -- and many said that he aspired to be president. His high profile made him the face of the G8 and brought him into direct conflict with his enemies. In 2003, when Ríos Montt’s supporters flooded Guatemala City to protest a court decision to exclude the former general from the presidential elections, close to a thousand supporters of Ríos Montt’s FRG party forcibly occupied one of Gutiérrez Mayorga’s office buildings.70 Gutiérrez Mayorga told InSight Crime that he was personally audited 16 times during the Portillo presidency.71 “They even looked under my rug,” he said of the government auditors.72
Castresana’s supposed relationship with Gutiérrez Mayorga is the subject of wild speculation and rumors. Some -- such as a former CICIG prosecutor named Giséle Rivera -- told InSight Crime that Castresana traveled in a Gutiérrez Mayorga-owned helicopter to a remote island to vacation.73 She claimed that Castresana also took special care to make sure the traditional elites were informed of the progress in the Portillo case and to seek their counsel; she told InSight Crime that the commissioner gave at least one private presentation about the case at Gutiérrez Mayorga’s residence for a group of members of the elite.
However, in an interview with InSight Crime, Gutiérrez Mayorga said he had met Castresana only twice in private settings, and twice to interview him for his television program. Neither meeting involved helicopters or vacation islands, he said. Others, such as Alfonso Carrillo, who said he had introduced the two men, also played down any friendship they may have had, saying that Castresana’s interactions with Gutiérrez Mayorga were about securing long-term support for the CICIG.
To be sure, numerous ex-commission members scoffed at the idea that Castresana could be manipulated, much less succumb to undo influence. Castresana, who declined to speak publicly about any of these matters, was astute enough to understand the political implications of any relationship he had with elites, politicians or members of civil society, according to these former colleagues. What’s more, Castresana was keenly aware of the political implications of the Portillo case -- and others -- and sought to publicly distance himself from these elites for fear he would be accused of tampering.
“This isn’t a pure corruption case. Nor is it political persecution,” Castresana told Gutiérrez Mayorga on his television program Libre Encuentro in July 2009. “It’s a case about criminal conduct committed by a clandestine structure that needs to be dismantled.”
But Gutiérrez Mayorga was also an adept operator, who understands that anything he does can be interpreted as influence peddling, or worse. He prefers to work through intermediaries, often lawyers like Alfonso Carrillo, the CACIF’s unofficial interlocutor with Castresana. To be sure, one former Attorney General’s Office official said that it was Carrillo who pushed the Portillo case and possibly a Carrillo-related law firm in the US that helped US prosecutors build their case in that country. For his part, Carrillo denied he had any such influence on Castresana.
“He was very prudent,” Carrillo told InSight Crime. “Carlos never aligned himself with anyone.”
Yet the criticism persisted, in part because of how flawed the Portillo case itself was. In addition to the doubts expressed by the UN official about it being a “garden-variety corruption case,” three former CICIG investigators told InSight Crime the case was very “weak” in judicial terms, leaving it open to manipulation from the deeply corrupt judicial system that was wary of prosecuting a former president in the first place. In these former CICIG investigators’ estimation, the commission should never have assumed the case nor pushed for it. The results seemed to confirm these sentiments.
In 2008, after a four-year battle that finally secured Portillo’s extradition from Mexico back to Guatemala, a judge released him on bail. In 2009, another judge ruled that the CICIG could not assist the Attorney General’s Office. Castresana appealed the decision and won, but the problems continued. The commission had trouble securing cooperating witnesses for the case and getting proof of the CIACS participation in the scheme, particularly that of Ortega Menaldo.
By mid-2010, although the CICIG had arrested Portillo’s finance and defense ministers, Ortega Menaldo seemed to have escaped yet again. And in early 2011, the court found Portillo and his two former ministers not guilty.74 Portillo walked out of the court with a huge smile. Portillo was later extradited to the United States where he was tried on money laundering charges and served but two years in jail. He has since returned and remains a prominent political figure in Guatemala.
In the interim, a nefarious campaign had begun to force Castresana from his post. At the UN and in public forums, rumors swirled about an extramarital affair. The smear campaign smelled of military intelligence, but it may have also involved the traditional economic elites, who had by then completely turned on Castresana when they found out that one of their own -- Carlos Vielman -- was the target of a CICIG investigation.
Round 4: The Case of Carlos Vielman
On April 1, 2008, a Costa Rican prosecutor named Giséle Rivera arrived in Guatemala to work with the CICIG. Rivera had studied in France, and had prosecuted numerous corruption and organized crime cases in her native land under the watchful eye of Costa Rican Attorney General Francisco Dall’Anese, who recommended she take the job in Guatemala. Her work had gotten her in trouble: she had received death threats, she would later tell a newspaper; she was tired of having police escorts in Costa Rica and was feeling “very alone.”75 But Rivera was not one to slow down. Her gumption would be an asset as well as a liability at the CICIG.
A week after Rivera took the job, gunmen intercepted Victor Rivera Azuaje -- the Venezuelan security consultant who, until a week earlier, worked at the Interior Ministry -- and his assistant, María del Rosario Melgar, after they had left a restaurant. The assassins pumped 12 bullets into his car, eight of which hit Rivera Azuaje, killing him on the spot. Melgar was hit in the shoulder with an errant shot but was otherwise unharmed. Castresana put Giséle Rivera on the case. It would be her first chance to peek into the dark underworld of elite-criminal networks in Guatemala. Rivera Azuaje, his work at the ministry, and his former boss, Carlos Vielman, would become her obsession and lead to trouble on both a personal and a professional level.
Rivera’s doggedness immediately clashed with Guatemalan prosecutors’ obstructionism. At first, the local investigators denied Rivera access to the case file and refused her request to re-enact the crime. They edited out sections of security camera video of the murder, and showed up unexpectedly when she went to search Rivera Azuaje’s private office. When the CICIG finally got access to the key witness of the crime, Rivera Azuaje’s assistant, Melgar, Guatemalan investigators were there, cutting parts of the interrogation short and permitting the witness to evade tough questions after she gave seemingly contradictory answers. When CICIG sought Melgar for further questioning, they were surprised to find that the head of the homicide unit, Álvaro Matus, had arranged for her to leave the country.76 Even more surprising, Matus had permitted Melgar to clean out her murdered boss’ filing cabinets.
The Rivera murder case was the beginning of three-year long odyssey for Giséle Rivera that brought her into the belly of the Guatemalan beast. The CICIG later picked up the Parlacen case -- the murders of Salvadoran members of the Central American Parliament -- and the case of the subsequent murders of the suspects in the Boquerón prison. The CICIG also started investigating the 2005 murders of six men who had escaped a prison known as the Infiernito, and the 2006 murder of seven men inside a prison known as Pavón.
At first, the CICIG investigators did not realize these cases were connected. This was due to the way that Castresana had compartmentalized the information and the cases the commission was managing. But with time, and more than a few lunches together, the investigators realized that all of these cases were linked to Victor Rivera Azuaje and his boss at the Interior Ministry, Carlos Vielman.
Rivera Azuaje had a long history of working in shadowy, partially sanctioned operations like the one he was operating under the Interior Ministry’s umbrella at the time of his assassination. In the 1980s, at the behest of the Christian Democratic Party in Venezuela, he went to help work with Christian Democratic Party presidents who were then in power in Guatemala and El Salvador. There are some77 who suggest that, at the time, he worked alongside Cuban and US operatives who were supporting right-wing efforts to fight leftist guerrillas in El Salvador and beyond. Rivera Azuaje left Central America after a short time but returned to El Salvador in the 1990s and again worked in an unofficial capacity, this time helping the government to resolve kidnapping cases.78
In the late 1990s, after Rivera Azuaje was implicated in the death of a kidnapping victim in El Salvador, he moved to Guatemala. There, he again worked with the government in an unofficial capacity and with the financial support of business association CACIF.79 Rivera also supported other elites, such as Adela de Torrebiarte,80 who had established “Madres Angustiadas,” an organization dedicated to fighting kidnapping in Guatemala. She was from a prominent and politically-connected business family that had suffered at the hands of kidnappers. Her brother-in-law is Juan Miguel Torrebiarte, the head of the Banco Industrial and a member of the G8, the elite-within-the-elite. She would later become minister of the interior.81
When Carlos Vielman (pictured) was named interior minister under President Berger in 2004, the ministry hired Rivera Azuaje as a special consultant. In the ministry, Rivera Azuaje formed his own team of investigators -- most of them policemen -- whose job it was to resolve kidnappings and bank robberies. This team got access to all the resources and intelligence it needed. It was schooled in the telecommunications system and given exclusive information about where things such as pay phones and cellular antennas were.82 The team became known as the “Riveritas.” Rivera Azuaje and his Riveritas were highly effective, and Vielman praised him for his work after he came under some scrutiny for possible involvement in extrajudicial executions.
“The advisor … has resolved more than 500 kidnapping cases, more than 90 robberies of banks and other financial operations, has testified as an investigator in 800 court cases … They are trying to destroy a [security] structure that has broken up kidnapping and bank robbery rings,” Vielman told journalists in 2007.83
However, by November 2008, Giséle Rivera and other investigators believed that Victor Rivera Azuaje and his team did much more than resolve kidnappings and bank robberies. In the Infiernito case, CICIG investigators discovered that the Riveritas had summarily executed the escaped convicts. In the Pavón case, investigators found that the police and military had entered the prison, where police had again executed the prisoners. And in Boquerón, witnesses told the commission that Rivera and his team had entered the prison and again executed the suspects, perhaps to cover up the fact that they had stolen $5 million in cash from the Parlacen representatives who were killed in February 2007.
The testimonies, analysis of telephone calls, videos, photographs, official documents and other evidence painted a picture of something that began as an experiment in social cleansing with the Infiernito case; evolved into an attempt to take advantage of criminal operations with the Pavón case; and culminated in a full-fledged criminal organization with the Parlacen and Boquerón cases. That organization, Giséle Rivera and others in the CICIG said, included police chief Erwin Sperisen, deputy director of investigations Javier Figueroa, director of investigations Victor Soto Diéguez, and, of course, Victor Rivera Azuaje. Some of the witnesses and police who had worked with Victor Rivera Azuaje said these operations were carried out with the knowledge of then-Minister Carlos Vielman. As Giséle Rivera wrote in a January 13, 2009, memo addressed to Castresana:
The investigative group believes that the CICIG should move to establish that Carlos Vielman, Javier Figueroa, Erwin Sperisen, Victor Rivera and Victor Soto Diéguez, acted as an organized crime group; that, using the powers they had, they could camouflage their criminal activities, which included social cleansing; assassinations; drug trafficking; money laundering; kidnapping; extortion; theft of illegal drugs; among others -- all with the goal of economic benefit for themselves. These activities all took place during the Oscar Berger administration, between 2004 and 2008.84
The implications for CICIG were tremendous. Vielman, a member of the traditional elite who had been director of the Chamber of Industry, an affiliate of CACIF, and who had lobbied for the creation of the commission, was suddenly a prime suspect in a series of explosive cases that involved extrajudicial executions, kidnapping, drug trafficking, money laundering and more.
Over the next several months, the Costa Rican prosecutor wrote seven more memos to Castresana mentioning one or more of these cases. In a July 2009 memo, she recommended that the CICIG present the Parlacen and Pavón cases to the courts.85 In an August 2009 memo, she reiterated this recommendation.86 In other memos, she simply stated the hypotheses of the cases and recommended next steps for the commission to take. In numerous memos, she complained that the CICIG was not providing enough protection to the witnesses -- which included police deputy director of investigations Javier Figueroa and others who had participated directly as part of, or with, the Riveritas -- and exhorted the commission to make use of their evidence, especially as they appeared to be getting assassinated.87 In all these memos, the underlying message was the same: the CICIG needs to take action.
“To comply with the mandate of the CICIG, which requires it to identify criminal groups that are enmeshed in the state, we are obliged to look at the modality of this group, how it was structured -- from the moment it appears like a structure and how these individuals can be connected to a criminal group,” Rivera wrote in her January 2009 memo.
However, Castresana refused, and by November that year Rivera was exasperated, and starting to complain publicly that Castresana and the other CICIG higher-ups were not listening to her. Rivera said that they were also breaking agreements with potential witnesses and collaborators in the case, including Figueroa, and putting them in danger. Simply put, she believed Castresana was obstructing justice.
“Having identified the members of this structure … would generate a huge problem for Castresana because he did not want these cases presented to the courts,” she would say in a written statement in 2012. “He started to obstruct the investigation; to say that we didn’t have proof and to say that we would not do any deals with those who had provided vital testimony because they were part of the structure. He even wanted to use their testimonies against them, in spite of the fact they were ready to comply with the deals. But Castresana was not.”88
The Pavón prison raid was the case that most clearly implicated Vielman directly. The minister was at the prison when authorities retook it and seven prisoners were killed. The evidence indicated that the authorities had extrajudicially executed the inmates. But the CICIG, under Castresana, did not present the Pavón case. They also stayed away from the Parlacen and Infiernito cases during Castresana’s period.
Why Castresana refrained from making a formal accusation against the Vielman network in all these cases is not clear. He has never spoken about it publicly, leaving his motives open to interpretation. Most Castresana critics, like Giséle Rivera, clung to the rumors about Castresana’s relationship with Gutiérrez Mayorga, and, to a lesser extent, Castresana’s relationship with Gutiérrez Mayorga’s cousin, Juan Luis Bosch. The exact nature of these relationships is hard to characterize, much less corroborate.
Giséle Rivera says it was a “pact,” something to allow for Vielman to obtain Spanish citizenship and flee the country before his prosecution in the Pavón case. There is no evidence to support this claim, and the case was presented shortly after Castresana left the CICIG, leaving the impression that he left it prepared and ready to go. By then, Vielman was in Spain, Castresana critics point out.
Giséle Rivera added that Gutiérrez Mayorga’s connection to the case was more than mere loyalty to class interests and his elite friend, Vielman. It was operational. Specifically, she said that Gutiérrez Mayorga employed Rivera Azuaje. Rivera Azuaje did work with CACIF members for years, and he had an office in the same building as Gutiérrez Mayorga's company. However, no investigation or government document that InSight Crime found establishes any connection between Rivera Azuaje’s alleged criminal activities and Gutiérrez Mayorga or his businesses. In the interview with InSight Crime, Gutiérrez Mayorga said he barely knew Rivera, and even said he did not recall his nationality.
Castresana’s critics also ignore the numerous other logical reasons to refrain from launching these cases during 2009, the period in which Giséle Rivera was furiously writing her memos. For one, CICIG was tied up with the Rosenberg and the Portillo cases. The investigations depleted the commission’s resources and required it to expend huge amounts of political capital obtaining evidence and cooperation from authorities. There were political considerations as well. The CICIG, already battling various elite groups including the bureaucratic and emerging elites from the FRG party, could ill afford to open up another front.
Finally, Castresana’s defenders say the case simply may not have been ready. As opposed to the Rosenberg case, which relied on telephone records and other forensic evidence, the Vielman-related cases relied heavily on witness accounts. Securing witnesses was difficult, especially since the government was still struggling to set up its witness protection program and key sources like Rivera Azuaje were getting killed. Relying on witness testimony was not a sound strategy when going after an ex-minister from the country’s elite.
But here again, there is a dispute, especially as it relates to the Pavón case. The key piece of forensic evidence investigators obtained to make the Pavón case was a video, from which they could extract photographs of the seven victims who had supposedly taken part in a riot and shot at police before getting killed themselves in what the police said was a gun fight. However, the pictures showed at least one of the prisoners who was later assassinated exiting the prison into a courtyard -- not battling with police at the end of a gun, as the police had testified. This prisoner, who was a leader of the group that had taken control of the jail, was later found shot dead in another part of the prison with a gun next to him.
Castresana defenders say CICIG got the video in early 2010, after Giséle Rivera had left the CICIG. Giséle Rivera says she obtained the video in March 2009, during a visit to Colombia. There she met with family members of one of the victims who passed her the video. Internal records obtained by InSight Crime do show that Rivera requested to travel to Colombia in early 2009, as part of this investigation.
The she-said-he-said nature of this case became even more complicated after Giséle Rivera had legal problems of her own, giving rise to strong doubts about her recounting of the facts in the case, her interpretation of Castresana’s motives and her own motives for speaking out publicly. In December 2009, unbeknownst to the CICIG, she and another commission investigator met with Stefano Figueroa -- the brother of former police deputy director of investigations Javier Figueroa -- to discuss his defense strategy. Following the Parlacen and Boquerón murders, Figueroa fled to Austria, where Rivera and another investigator interviewed him. In Austria, Figueroa painted himself as an innocent bystander to a series of murders and other crimes committed by his police colleagues.
Back in Guatemala City, Giséle Rivera and the CICIG investigator who accompanied her talked with the Figueroa family about how to protect Javier. She had allegedly withheld the Austria interview from CICIG on the grounds that the commission had not honored its agreement with him to be a collaborating witness; she also allegedly ignored evidence that pointed to him as one of the culprits of the Pavón killings. Days later, Rivera resigned from the CICIG, but she kept in touch with Javier Figueroa. In June 2010, the two talked on the phone. (The Figueroas taped the December 2009 meeting and the June 2010 phone conversation). During the phone conversation, Rivera reiterated that she had withheld his testimony from the commission, which she said had made Castresana angry.
“[Castresana] used to go and talk to tons of people,” she told Figueroa. “He said that…I wanted to forgive you and not do anything.”
The Attorney General’s Office seized the recordings when its staff arrested Stefano for his participation in the alleged activities of his brother, Javier. Prosecutors used them as evidence in a case they eventually brought against Rivera and the CICIG investigator who accompanied her to the meeting with the Figueroa family for obstruction of justice. In November 2011, Rivera’s old boss, Francisco Dall’Anese, who eventually took over for Castresana as the head of the CICIG, withdrew her immunity. She told InSight Crime in 2013 that they had not spoken since. Her movements restricted due to the obstruction of justice case, Rivera was back in Costa Rica.
Round 5 – ‘You Have to Know When to Leave’
By the beginning of 2010, Castresana had a long list of enemies that read like a “Who’s Who” of Guatemalan power brokers: bureaucratic elites from the CIACS such as former Gen. Francisco Ortega Menaldo; emerging and political elites like lobbyist Roberto López Villatoro and ex-President Alfonso Portillo; and economic elites like the Valdés Paiz brothers and former Interior Minister Carlos Vielman. The commissioner was wearing out his welcome.
Some of these elites tried to apply direct pressure on the government to put the breaks on the commissioner. When word spread about the CICIG’s cases against Vielman and his former security teams, former President Colom told InSight Crime that Vielman himself visited him at his Guatemala City residence and demanded to know why he was under investigation. The former minister was accompanied by Juan Luis Bosch, cousin of Dionisio Gutiérrez Mayorga, and Fraterno Vila, of the powerful coffee, sugar and banking clan, Colom said. Colom told InSight Crime he responded by getting Castresana on the telephone. Castresana, according to Colom, told these elites that it was not Colom who was investigating Vielman, but the CICIG.
Others used the media to attack the CICIG. In an editorial published in elPeriódico, ex Foreign Minister Edgar Gutiérrez -- formerly one of the strongest advocates of the commission, but also a loyal backer of ex-President Portillo -- compared the CICIG to a mosquito that “flies above and makes annoying noises that those within its orbit can hear. Every once in a while it points (although extracts little blood), but at the half-way point of his mandate, most of the cases are only getting half-way (without sentences)”; he added that the commission was going after “sardines,” while leaving the “sharks” to feast on the Guatemalan state.89 This column, and others that he would write, were directed more at Castresana than the CICIG, which he says he has always supported.
Columnists and university professors joined the chorus. Among them was Pedro Trujillo, a former lieutenant colonel in the Spanish military who had worked with MINUGUA and is head of the political science department at the traditionally conservative (and closely connected to the economic elite) Francisco Marroquín University (Universidad Francisco Marroquín - UFM).90 In his columns, published in the most widely-read periodical, Prensa Libre, Trujillo argued that the CICIG under Castresana was superfluous, ineffective and hypocritical. “What does the CICIG do that local investigators can’t do?” he asked in an April 2010 column. “Absolutely nothing.”91
For her part, Marta Yolanda Díaz-Durán, a columnist at the Siglo 21 newspaper, a radio personality and also a professor at UFM, focused on what she called the “reasonable doubts” of the Rosenberg case. She argued that Castresana should have never made the case public while it was not resolved. “The truth is never provisional,” she wrote in an April 2010 column, referring to Castresana’s famous “verdad interina” comment in the Rosenberg press conference. “If the premise or the proposition presented does not have sufficient evidence (or is not proven beyond a reasonable doubt) it was, and will ALWAYS be false.”92
Later, she broadened her critique: “What many of the actions taken by the CICIG under Castresana’s leadership did was weaken the little institutional strength that was left in this country and almost destroyed the right to due process and its central premise: the presumption of innocence,” she wrote a few months later.93
Castresana’s critics were not limited to pundits and academics. In March 2010, several former CICIG investigators penned a formal letter to the UN denouncing the commissioner. “The commissioner of the CICIG, Carlos Castresana Fernández, has not complied with his obligation to promote, without any exceptions [their emphasis], the prosecution and sanctioning of illegal bodies and clandestine security apparatuses.”94
Their complaint focused almost exclusively on the lack of action against the Vielman network. They said Castresana had rebuffed prosecutors’ recommendations to bring the case to the Guatemalan courts on three occasions.95
“THERE IS NO JUSTIFICATION, NOR DOES THE COMMISSIONER HAVE ANY JUDICIAL OR POLITICAL REASONS FOR NOT PUTTING FORWARD THE CASES BECAUSE BY NOT DOING SO, HE WAS COMMITTING OMMISION AND SLOWING DOWN THE DISMANTLING OF SAID STRUCTURE,” they wrote in capital letters.96
The campaign against CICIG eventually got personal. Mario David García, the radio host who had made the famous Rosenberg video, began a near-weekly tirade against the commissioner on his radio show, Hablando Claro. García was more than a journalist. He studied at the UFM and later founded the communications department at the university. And he has been connected to right-wing political parties stretching back to the 1970s, including some with connections to the CIACS ghost Francisco Ortega Menaldo.97
Among the subjects García broached was that of an alleged affair between Castresana and a CICIG employee. By May 2010, Castresana was estranged from his wife, Sanjuana Martínez, a renowned Mexican journalist who had reportedly complained to the UN about Castresana’s behavior.98 During one transmission of his radio program, García pilloried Castresana for his alleged extracurricular activities and gave details of his breakup.
“Sanjuana Martínez Montemayor started to suspect something about the double life of her husband at the end of last year each time Castresana traveled to Monterrey to be with his family,” he said. “Sanjuana is a seasoned journalist who was able to confirm the adultery the first few days of May , which caused a huge emotional impact.”99
Numerous government and former CICIG investigators told InSight Crime that someone sent a package to Martínez in Mexico containing incriminating materials, which allegedly included photographs of Castresana with his mistress.100 Martínez did not answer InSight Crime’s requests to talk about the matter, and no such photographs have ever been made public. For Castresana’s critics, which included his estranged wife, the irony that Castresana’s own “honor” was being questioned made him an easy target. “She understands that her husband Carlos Castresana is a public persona who should offer honor and moral rectitude that he demands from others,” her spokesperson wrote in a statement to García’s radio program, which the host read aloud.101
The former commissioner’s personal life is germane to this case study because numerous people interviewed by InSight Crime speculated that Castresana was being blackmailed to keep the lid on certain investigations. However, there is no evidence that this was the case. Neither the CICIG nor the UN appeared to have investigated this theory, and the majority of those interviewed dismissed it outright. Most said that his enemies were simply trying to force him to resign and leave the country.
And on June 7, Castresana resigned. The reasons, he said in a press conference, were multiple and interrelated. To begin with, Castresana cited the smear campaign against him, which he said had been orchestrated by at least three different groups, and had begun following the arrest of ex-President Portillo in January 2010. However, Castresana and the CICIG could only formally accuse one of those groups: the Valdés Paiz brothers, who had been involved in the death of Rodrigo Rosenberg. Specifically, Castresana said that the Valdés Paiz brothers had hired Rodolfo Ibarra, a public relations professional, to use his contacts in the media to undermine the CICIG’s investigation against the brothers and vilify Castresana.102
At the time, Ibarra was also positioning himself as the spokesman for the Patriotic Party (Partido Patriota - PP), the up and coming political coalition that included former military general Otto Pérez Molina. His connection to the party sparked rumors that he was coordinating the smear campaign with Mario David García -- who would later run for president as the PP’s candidate -- and possibly working with Luis Mendizábal, the master operator whose clothing boutique served as the headquarters for more than one conspiracy to undermine the justice authorities. Mendizábal and García were also still seething over the results of the Rosenberg investigation.
Journalists and academics were also implicated. In phone calls, Ibarra made references to meetings with eight “columnists.” Notes from the accused, confiscated by investigators, contained the names of several newspaper columnists, including Yolanda Díaz-Durán. Other notes mentioned Castresana by name and his weak flanks. “Girlfriend of castresana?” one note asked. “Castresana has other issues, try to verify smear his ass,” another read. “Start to attack in the media.”
Phone intercepts implicated others. The commission presented a series of wiretaps in which they recorded Ibarra speaking to Francisco Beltranena, also a professor at the UFM, and apparently scheming to undermine the CICIG. (The case against the columnists and academics languished in the Guatemalan courts, and Díaz-Durán, Trujillo and several others eventually sued a government investigator who did an analysis of the media campaign that he gave to the Attorney General's Office and the CICIG.)
“We aren’t talking about made-up stories,” Castresana said. “We are talking about smears that were ordered, organized, scheduled in some cases by marketing professionals, which attempted to destroy the image of this commissioner because they thought -- and they are mistaken -- that by getting rid of this commissioner, they could get rid of the CICIG.”
Castresana (pictured), clearly offended by the personal attacks, went further.
“We are talking about repeated attacks from January to now in which they have talked about my improper behavior in my personal life that are false and that I have to deny,” the commissioner said.
The commission also alleged that the Valdés Paiz brothers were using Ibarra, as well as their brother-in-law and an employee at their pharmaceutical company, to rig the selection of new attorney general, Conrado Reyes, who had taken office on May 25, 2010. In his first two weeks, according to Castresana, Reyes fired employees who had worked with the CICIG and replaced them with various functionaries who had been removed from their posts due to suspected ties to organized crime; Reyes also took over wiretapping operations and began taking over some of the CICIG’s most sensitive cases. “Conrado is not the person that the Attorney General’s Office needs,” Castresana declared.
Four days later, after Reyes offered a tepid defense, the Constitutional Court annulled his appointment.
However, Castresana was also finished. His final words in the June 7 press conference were representative of his entire period in Guatemala: a mixed bag of ego, martyrdom, defiance, and hope.
“The dark forces of Guatemala will be without one of their aces in the hole if this obstinate commissioner stayed in his post, in spite of his own realization that his day-to-day presence in his post was sucking the life from the commission and its efforts."
When a journalist asked him if he was frustrated, he scoffed.
“Not a single frustration,” he said. “I am very proud of the work that we did… In life, you have to know when to stay and you have to when to leave. Thank you very much.”
And then he walked away from the podium.
Conclusion: The Problem with Elites
The CICIG is one of the most important experiments in justice in the region, and, in addition to spearheading some of the most important investigations against elites in Guatemalan history, it has many lessons that can be applied well beyond the country. Perhaps the most of important of these is that there is no such thing as a truly independent justice system -- particularly in a country like Guatemala. This stems, in part, from the fundamentally human nature of justice, both at the micro level, where witnesses provide the core of cases, and at the macro level, where the system has become a highly politicized tool of elites, politicians and criminals alike. Judicial actors are subject to pressures that range from the personal to the political to the economic. Independence is impossible, in part because these judicial actors depend on the same networks, political and criminal. The networks might try to manipulate these judicial actors, but they also make their work possible.
Indeed, in Castresana’s case, this network was vital, as it would have been for anyone who became the first commissioner of an entity like the CICIG. Its members were his sources of information on the structure of the elites and the levers of power within government. They were his informants on major cases and often the path to the witnesses themselves. They were also a support network for him and for the CICIG. He needed them to be his cheerleaders and his interlocutors with the local power brokers in order to secure political and -- in the case of the diplomatic community -- economic capital, as the embassies were the source of the commission’s funding. CICIG might not have survived more than two years without this network.
Castresana built a broad and varied network, which included members of the traditional economic elites such as Alfonso Carrillo, the prominent lawyer with strong ties to the CACIF business association; political elites like former Vice President Eduardo Stein; social elites such as Helen Mack, the human rights stalwart; supra-elites like diplomats from the United States; and more nefarious characters, such as Luis Mendizábal, who operated primarily in the bureaucratic elite world. Depending on who you ask, Castresana managed this network with skill, was manipulated by this network, was co-opted by this network, or a combination of the three.
Castresana was in a difficult position. In a way, he was forced to play two roles at once: that of the canny political operator and that of the staunch prosecutor. As noted, it was his choice to play both roles at once, refusing to accept a deputy and shunning, at times, the efforts of strong prosecutors. But anyone would have a hard time managing these often conflicting tasks, especially in the face of such skilled political and criminal operators. The cases analyzed in this study clearly illustrate the challenge. For example, in the Vielman cases, Castresana had to constantly weigh how much political capital he possessed, and whether he could bring the case to a judicial system that remained weak and corrupt. In the Rosenberg and Portillo cases, he had to answer to political as well as judicial concerns. And he had to absorb the fallout that came with prosecuting, or not prosecuting, these cases.
If there is one clear recommendation to make from this experience, it is that the CICIG might always do better to have a deputy or a political officer at the top to run interference for the top prosecutor, shielding them from some of the compromises of Guatemala’s politics.
Castresana also had the unenviable task of establishing the commission’s judicial agenda, which was based on a malleable mandate. While the CIACS were its designated target, these groups were so broadly defined that it was easy to justify just about any case. This poses a problem, in that the commission -- and particularly the commissioner -- can select just about any investigation that he or she wants. The chaos this caused was evident in the CICIG during its initial phase. After two years, the range of cases being investigated by the commission lacked focus. Their targets ranged from drug traffickers to CIACS, in the purest sense.103
Some would argue that this variety is a good thing, illustrating that the commission was not simply targeting one type of organized crime -- or type of elites -- over another. But within the commission, this wide mandate, and the discretion and reliance on the commissioner’s judgment created tension, confusion and misunderstandings. The Vielman cases, for instance, caused broad rifts between Castresana and the Costa Rican investigator Giséle Rivera that eventually spilled into public view.
Part of Rivera's and others’ claims about the commissioner are true: Castresana did stall and failed to push forward the cases connected to former Interior Minister Vielman, especially the Pavón prison case. The CICIG also slowed its investigation into the Parlacen murders, and other related cases languished or saw progress slowing to a halt.
However, Castresana and the CICIG did not drop the cases, and the amount of work that the commission had done on the Pavón case would be evident in the months to come when the CICIG formally presented it.104 Giséle Rivera would have us believe that Castresana was corrupted by elites like Gutiérrez Mayorga. But the Spanish judge was not a nefarious or a corrupt person. He seemed trapped by his decision to depend too heavily on one set of elites -- the traditional power brokers from the G8. These elites set the rules, not just for Castresana, but for much of Guatemala. Castresana seemed to have missed the signs that perhaps he was just one of their pawns in a larger game. But while Castresana’s reliance on them undoubtedly corroded his ability to act independently, and may have delayed his decision to take action, it did not involve a quid pro quo or any pact.
Castresana also had a near impossible set of tasks as it related to its government interlocutors as well. He had to set the tone with the CICIG’s political counterparts and key interlocutors in the government -- the executive branch, the Attorney General’s Office and the Interior Ministry. Castresana’s office took years to find a balance with the Attorney General’s Office, and, as shown by the appointment of Conrado Reyes, this balance could be altered in a short span of time. The commission’s relationship with the presidency and the ministry were equally shaky. The CICIG saved the presidency of Álvaro Colom through the Rosenberg investigation and helped it purge its own staff and that of the Interior Ministry, but issues such as alleged corruption at the Banrural simmered throughout Castresana’s tenure. In the end, Castresana’s time in the post illustrated that the CICIG has to be both an advocate for and a watchdog over the government -- a complicated mix for any international body.
Finally, the commissioner can push certain parts of the mandate more than others. The CICIG’s work on the selection process for high-court judges, for example, was largely the decision of Castresana. (Subsequent commissioners have stayed away from this fight.) It was the correct decision at the time, because it allowed the commission to illustrate that core problems needed to be addressed in the selection process in order to make wholesale changes to the judicial system. However, this was a messy case, and the results represented the lesser of two evils. What’s more, its method -- which relied more on public shaming than on legal process -- resembled that of the forces that the CICIG was trying to eradicate, and relied on highly charged terms such as “honor,” something that would come back to haunt Castresana himself when his own honor came into question.
It was Castresana’s reliance on these somewhat antiquated, class-based notions, and his elite network’s subjective and biased evaluations of their enemies, that made him vulnerable to criticism in cases like these. This is because those same elites had their own interests -- and that of their cohorts -- in mind when they advised him. They also understood that the CICIG operated at the whim of its commissioner and that influence with the commissioner was critical for achieving their goals, which at times included undermining justice -- or worse. Some of this attempt to manipulate the commissioner may have been overt, but other strategies were much more subtle. The near-constant presence of elite-linked lawyer Alfonso Carrillo at the commission while the CICIG worked to investigate and ultimately influence the selection of high court judges speaks to a more understated and sophisticated approach. If Castresana sinned, it was due to hubris. Throughout his period, he thought he was in control of the situation. In reality, he might have been the one being used.
In the end, few decisions could placate all of these elite interests. The “provisional truth” of the Rosenberg case left many wondering why the CICIG never prosecuted what appeared to be remnants of the true CIACS group -- La Montaña -- for their bold attempts to destabilize and possibly overthrow the government. Meanwhile, the economic elites felt that the commission had failed to put more careful thought and consideration into Banrural’s alleged corrupt practices. The Portillo case angered the emerging elites and their bureaucratic elite allies, and while Portillo was eventually extradited and prosecuted in the US, he served a short prison sentence, making the CICIG’s case against him look even more like a political vendetta on the part of the economic elites even though the two prosecutions were based on two different charges. The Vielman cases are also playing out in foreign courts, leaving Guatemalans with the sense that justice in their country will always come in second place.
If there was anything that could grant the CICIG, and its commissioner, independence from these elite power brokers, it was empirical evidence. In this regard, the CICIG under Castresana excelled. During his tenure, the commission reformed the laws that allowed for wiretapping, and for plea bargain deals with cooperating witnesses, as well as improving protection for these witnesses. It oversaw the creation of a special investigative unit in the Attorney General’s Office, and began monitoring telephone calls and conversations, putting these tools to work.
The best example of this was the Rosenberg case. The technical aspects of the investigation, which was built on triangulating cellular phone signals, phone records and other forensic investigative techniques, made an impression on Guatemalans. The tradition in the country is to incarcerate only those who are caught in the act or to rely on witnesses to build the case.105 Conspiracy trials are played out in the media rather than the courtrooms. In the Rosenberg case, CICIG and its Guatemalan counterparts followed the phones and the money, rather than the conspiracies that Rosenberg himself had handed to the press via his video. In the end, the annals of Guatemalan judicial history will be divided into “before the Rosenberg case” and “after the Rosenberg case.”
But even at its most forensic, justice is not a science. It requires a complicated mix of human relationships that stretch from the crime scene to the courtroom, from the military barracks to Congress, from the police station to the ballistics lab, from the mansions of Guatemala City to the halls of the Attorney General’s Office. Rule of law requires more than just good forensic scientists, trustworthy police, honest judges and persistent prosecutors. It requires political will from the top -- from those that control the means of production, the levers of government power, and the social and intellectual construction of the society. In a word, it requires the elites.*Dudley is Co-director of InSight Crime and directed the project on elites and organized crime. Map by Jorge Mejía Galindo. Graphics by Andrew J Higgens. Correction: September 3, 2016 An earlier version of this story mistakenly said that Adela de Torrebiarte was a vice minister under Carlos Vielman before becoming interior minister in 2007. She was the first woman to ever hold the job and led an effort to purge the police during her ten months in office. InSight Crime regrets the error. (See Torrebiarte's letter - pdf) Correction: September 5, 2016 An earlier version of this story said that Pedro Trujillo was mentioned in the phone intercepts related to the smear campaign case against Carlos Castresana. Castresana, in a press conference on June 14, 2010, hinted that Trujillo was mentioned (see press conference clip -- minute 5:18 -- here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1WAo5o9GHaM), but Castresana never mentioned Trujillo by name. The earlier version also incorrectly stated that Trujillo and others sued the CICIG. They did not sue the CICIG, but rather sued a government investigator who had realized an analysis of the press coverage related to the alleged smear campaign that he gave to the Attorney General's Office and the CICIG. (See a copy of his investigation here:https://www.libertopolis.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/Dictamen-Pericial-I.pdf) InSight Crime regrets the error. (See Trujillo's letter - pdf) Correction: September 7, 2016 An earlier version of this story said that Dionisio Gutíerrez Mayorga and Juan Luis Bosch worked with Victor Rivera Azuaje, a Venezuelan national who helped the private sector in kidnapping cases. Although Rivera Azuaje did have an office in a building where the family company also has an office, there is nothing to establish any working relationship between them. (See Gutiérrez's first letter - pdf; second letter - pdf; third letter - pdf) For more information on these clarifications and corrections, see: /news/analysis/reactions-clarifications-corrections-elites-organized-crime-cicig