Justice in Guatemala: Stranger Than Fiction

David Grann’s gripping article in the The New Yorker, “A Murder Foretold,” about the high-wire act of an international investigating commission trying to solve an unfathomably labyrinthine Guatemalan murder case while the fate of a government hangs in the balance, is a reminder that truth is much stranger than fiction.

Particularly in Guatemala, which produces so many convoluted tragedies that the master of magical fiction, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose 1982 novella inspired the title of Grann's piece might have hung up his Underwood had he been born in Chimaltenango rather than Colombia.  (Or maybe he would had written for The New Yorker, which has drawn several times in recent years from the Guatemalan well of danger  and deception for spellbinding articles.)

The story of Rodrigo Rosenberg—a widely respected corporate lawyer whose spectre  rises from his own funeral via a prerecorded video, in which he accuses the Guatemalan president Àlvaro Colom of having murdered him in order to cover up his government’s corruption, followed then by the televised revelation by a UN prosecutor that Rosenberg had carefully planned, financed, and facilitated his own hit squad murder as a form of political suicide cum coup d’état—is, for but all of most jaded denizens of the deep Internet, bizarre enough.

But for followers of Guatemala, where it seems that every martyred bishop, rights advocate, or crusading journalist is assassinated twice—once by military death squads, and then by disinformation units not unlike the “love office” that Grann describes (a military intelligence bureau dedicated to dishing about opponent’s private lives) so that their executions could be rebranded as “love triangles” or black market dealings gone awry—the real kicker is that the nation heard the tangled tale and actually believed.

The government, reprieved, went back to work. Cases were brought against a dozen of Rosenberg’s consensual murder cabal, with ten convicted.  The UN’s man in Guatemala, Spanish prosecutor Carlos Castresana, who headed a special investigatory commission—known as the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG)—to root out organized criminal gangs, was lionized.

Fresh off his victory, Castresana participated in an Open Society panel last year to talk about his work with the commission.

But Guatemala lets few heroes linger. Not surprisingly Rosenberg, by Grann’s account a lawyer of rare integrity anguished by a deeply corrupted system, descended rather quickly from hero-martyr to a quirky footnote in a country’s tortured history—the answer to some future Jeopardy question in the “Infamous Hoaxes” category.

A bitter next act also awaited Castresana, whose investigators spared the country from a massive political crisis and credibly resolved a case so strange that even they feared that revealing its facts would further roil the troubled waters, not calm them. The “love office” tactics of an enraged right wing, combined with some self-inflicted wounds, soon put Castresana on the defensive, and when President Colom named an attorney general who, Castresana felt, was purging trustworthy staff, he abruptly resigned.

When created by the UN, CICIG was given a twofold mandate. In addition to taking on tough cases involving clandestine criminal networks, it was to carefully nurture and strengthen institutions. The Rosenberg case is a powerful example of how even in Guatemala solid investigative technique (plus a crucial bit of luck) could solve the type of case that would never—never—have been unraveled otherwise.

Yet the spectacularly journalistic narrative also points to CICIG’s unfinished business. Reliable institutions should aspire to competent results that raise few eyebrows among a public that should come to expect no less. Lawyers like Rodrigo Rosenberg should not be driven to conclude that the way to rescue the rule of law is through self destructive abuse of legal process.

CICIG’s challenge is not to be the savior of Guatemalan law enforcement but to support it. Its leadership should be less the headliners than role players in the humdrum of public safety. There will undoubtedly be more dramatics before Guatemalans are able to count on that, but when they do, even the editors of The New Yorker will surely applaud.

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