A Video from the Grave Sends Guatemala into Crisis

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Emisoras Unidas / Reuters

A video that emerged on May 11 shows lawyer Rodrigo Rosenberg days before he was murdered in Guatemala City

When Rodrigo Rosenberg turned up dead on Mother's Day in an upscale neighborhood in Guatemala City, his murder was seen as little more than another execution-style shooting in one of Latin America's most dangerous countries. Now, after a video emerged in which Rosenberg accused Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom of orchestrating the murder, the killing has sparked civic unrest that threatens to topple the President of this fledgling democracy.

Thousands of protesters have demonstrated daily in front of the presidential palace, calling for Colom's resignation. And politicians have said Colom should step aside during the investigation into Rosenberg's death. "This is the most serious political crisis the country has faced since the signing of the peace accords" in 1996, said Anita Isaacs, a Haverford College political science professor who studies democratization in Guatemala. "The country is hanging on by a thread."

The video spread across the Internet after family members handed it out during Rosenberg's funeral on Monday. In the 18-minute tape, a seemingly calm Rosenberg, sitting behind a desk and microphone, alleges that Colom, the First Lady and two associates were involved in murder, corruption and money laundering. The group, he says, filtered public funds through a state-owned bank for personal gain and to finance drug traffickers. Rosenberg then claims that after Khalil Musa, a prominent businessman and bank board member, had learned of the Coloms' scheme, Musa and his daughter were shot to death in front of a shopping center in April. Rosenberg says the President signed off on the killings.

On Sunday, Rosenberg was shot in the head while riding his bicycle. In the previously recorded video, he declares, "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 and told those who wanted and could hear it."

Colom has repeatedly denied the allegations and refused calls to temporarily step down. "There is no proof, aside from the recording, which I discredit completely," he said. Colom also asked for assistance from international bodies, including a U.N.-backed investigatory body and the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigations. Embassy officials said an FBI agent arrived in Guatemala on Wednesday to help the government.

Colom won the presidency in 2007 with strong support from the country's impoverished indigenous Mayans. He ran on a leftist platform that included confronting government corruption and violent crime, legacies of the country's 36-year civil war. That war ended in 1996, giving way to rampant street crime and drug trafficking. An average of 18 people are killed daily in Guatemala, making it one of the most dangerous countries in the Americas. (Read about the Guatemalan village that cocaine built.)

For Guatemalans and political observers, the implication of Colom's involvement in Rosenberg's murder has recalled the days in which tens of thousands of political dissidents were abducted and killed by the government. Colom's own uncle, a former mayor of Guatemala City, was "disappeared" in 1979. "Rosenberg's death mirrors the tactics the military government used during the 1970s and 1980s when they wanted someone silenced," says Isaacs.

Colom has said the Rosenberg video is part of a right-wing conspiracy designed to destabilize the government and ultimately bring him down. In a broadcast interview, he suggested that Rosenberg was coerced into making the video. Colom pointed to a radio journalist, Mario David Garcia, as the key link to the conspiracy. Garcia, a presidential candidate for an ultra-right-wing party in the 1980s, told TIME he helped Rosenberg record the video in his office the week before the murder. "It's outrageous. There was never any coercion," Garcia says. "I even left the office while he was recording the video." Garcia says Rosenberg came to him for help and to appear on Garcia's radio show but changed his mind and decided to record the video. (Read a story about the turmoil in Guatemala in the 1980s.)

Nevertheless, Colom supporters have seized the conspiracy theory to defend the President. "We're here in support of our President and against these lies trying to bring him down," said Anita Lopez, 32, as she rallied in front of the presidential palace on Wednesday. Students of the left-leaning public university and indigenous Mayans joined her. Many said the government bused them to the city from the suburbs.

Steps away, thousands of protesters, including students from right-leaning private universities, marched in front of the presidential palace, carrying signs calling Colom an "assassin" and demanding his resignation. The competing protests are the most visible sign of a politically charged environment that has the potential to cause Colom to resign, Isaacs says. "This country has for so long been paralyzed by the pervasive violence and the potent mix of gangs and narcotraffickers," she says. "Now that paralysis has turned into rage. And if these demonstrations pick up momentum, they could have a snowball effect."

Organizers are planning to continue the demonstrations and anti-government activists are collecting signatures on a petition against Colom. Says Javier Ogarrio, a leader of the group opposed to the President: "We plan to keep the protests going and collect signatures until we put enough pressure on him."