Rodrigo Rosenberg became a household name in Guatemala after he posthumously accused the President and First Lady of ordering his Mother's Day murder last year. His words, left behind in a video taped days before he was shot to death on a tree-lined boulevard, sent tens of thousands of protesters into the streets and sparked youth-led reform movements. But the case that once seemed powerful enough to topple a presidency came to a bizarre end on Jan. 12 as investigators concluded that Rosenberg, distraught over the murder of his girlfriend and her father, ordered his own death.
An eight-month investigation found that Rosenberg asked two cousins of his ex-wife to arrange the killing of a man who was extorting and threatening him. The extortionist was fictitious, though, and Rosenberg was actually planning his own assassination. Unaware that the target was Rosenberg, the cousins contracted 11 hit men, more than half of whom are former or current military or police officers, to carry out the killing, investigators said.
The investigation cleared President Alvaro Colom and his accused accomplices of any involvement. "This was the most serious crisis of my political career," Colom tells TIME. "Fortunately, I'm patient. My government has emerged strengthened."
In the days before his death, Rosenberg, a divorced corporate attorney, was depressed over the killings of one of his clients and his client's daughter, with whom he was in a long-term relationship, a family member said. A Harvard- and Oxford-educated lawyer, Rosenberg represented coffee baron Khalil Musa. Musa and his daughter Marjorie were shot to death in front of a Guatemala City shopping center in April.
"It was Rodrigo Rosenberg himself that requested the help of his ex-wife's cousins ... to whom he said, 'I have an extortionist who is threatening me, and I want to kill him,' " said Carlos Castresana, the Spanish lawyer who heads the Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a U.N.-backed investigatory body. CICIG, which conducted the investigation with the help of the FBI and Guatemalan investigators, presented its conclusions in a televised press conference. Investigators said arrest warrants have been issued for the cousins, pharmaceutical-company owners and brothers José Estuardo and José Ramon Valdez Paiz. They are reportedly in hiding. The hit men, three of whom cooperated with the investigation, were arrested last year and are awaiting trial.
Rosenberg believed that Colom was involved in the Musa killings, which remain unsolved. In the video, recorded the week before his death, Rosenberg alleged that Colom, his wife and two associates were using the state-owned development bank for money laundering. The group then ordered the Musa killings to conceal the scheme, Rosenberg alleged.
"If you are watching this message, it is because I was assassinated by President Alvaro Colom, with help from [presidential secretary] Gustavo Alejos ... I knew exactly how [they] were responsible for that cowardly murder [of Musa], and I told them so," he said calmly in the video, dressed in a suit and tie. In leaving the recording, "he wanted to change the system, to change the culture of corruption and impunity that we live with in Guatemala," says his nephew Rodrigo Rodas.
But if Rosenberg's intent was to challenge Colom's legitimacy, he appears to have done the opposite. "Colom's position has been enormously strengthened. He comes out not only vindicated but looking like a statesman," says Anita Isaacs, a Guatemala expert at Haverford College who has testified before the U.S. Congress on peace building in the country. Colom, the first left-of-center President to be elected in more than 50 years, won office with the support of indigenous, rural Mayans and vowed to help alleviate widespread poverty in the countryside with programs that have angered the nation's oligarchy, including cash rewards to poor parents who send their children to school regularly.
Colom says his vindication will enable him to restart stalled initiatives, like a tax-reform package and fighting violent crime. "The issue of security is one of the most important reforms for my government," he says. "It's the issue that affects Guatemalans more than any other." Indeed, the country has a murder rate more than 8 times that of the U.S. Only 3.5% of last year's 6,451 slayings were solved, CICIG said. Rosenberg's videotaped calls for justice, which became an Internet sensation, resonated with tens of thousands of protesters many of them students from the country's conservative private universities and children of the country's élite, who rallied in front of the presidential palace demanding Colom's resignation.
Using that momentum, protesters organized reform-minded groups pushing for more government transparency and accountability. The groups have vowed to continue even after learning that their martyr effectively killed himself. "We are not disappointed because of the case," says Alejandro Quinteros, who founded Movimiento Civico Nacional, the most prominent new reform group. "We are disappointed because our government is not doing anything to reduce crime in Guatemala."
On May 10, 2009, Rosenberg went for his weekly bike ride, receiving a phone call from the killers during which he gave them final instructions. He waited five minutes on a grassy patch near a gangly group of bougainvilleas for the hit men to come and kill him. In the days leading up to his death, Rosenberg bought a grave site for himself and one for Marjorie Musa. He left his law firm, turning over control to his law-student son. And he purchased a beach house on Guatemala's Pacific coast for his family, according to investigators and family members. "For someone like my uncle to be driven to this extreme, he must have been incredibly frustrated," Rodas says. "He must have been devastated."