Investigative Classics is a weekly feature on noteworthy past examples of the reporting craft.
Stories about the U.S.-bound Central American migrant caravan routinely mention the poverty and murderous crime that have led thousands of Guatemalans to leave their homeland. But to get a deeper sense of how dangerous and unstable their homeland is – while being entranced by terrific writing and several murder mysteries – look no further than David Grann’s spellbinding 2011 New Yorker article, “A Murder Foretold: Unravelling the Ultimate Political Conspiracy.”
The story begins with the murder of a wealthy businessman and his daughter while their car was stopped at a light in Guatemala City in 2009. Grann reports that this was not unusual in a country that had the third highest murder rate in the world, and where more civilians “were shot, stabbed or beaten than in the war zone of Iraq.”
Grann then provides a concise summary of how and why Guatemala has come apart:
The violence can be traced to a civil war between the state and leftist rebels, a three-decade struggle that, from 1960 to 1996, was the dirtiest of Latin America’s dirty wars. More than two hundred thousand people were killed or “disappeared.” [Top photo: a post-civil war exhumation in 2012.] According to a U.N.-sponsored commission, at least ninety per cent of the killings were carried out by the state’s military forces or by paramilitary death squads with names like Eye for an Eye. One witness said, “What we have seen has been terrible: burned corpses; women impaled and buried, as if they were animals ready for the spit, all doubled up; and children massacred and carved up with machetes.” The state’s counter-insurgency strategy, known as “drain the sea to kill the fish,” culminated in what the commission deemed acts of genocide.Ill-fated Bishop Juan Gerardi ...
In 1996, the government reached a peace accord with the rebels, and it was supposed to mark a new era of democracy and rule of law. But amnesty was granted for even the worst crimes, leaving no one accountable. (Critics called the policy “the piñata of self-forgiveness.”) In 1998, the Guatemalan Archdiocese’s Office of Human Rights, led by Bishop Juan Gerardi, released a four-volume report, “Guatemala: Never Again,” which documented hundreds of crimes against humanity, identifying some perpetrators by name. Two days later, Gerardi was bludgeoned to death, a murder that was eventually revealed to be part of a conspiracy involving military officers.
After the peace accord, the state’s security apparatus—death squads, intelligence units, police officers, military.. and the bishop's damning report.
counter-insurgency forces—did not disappear but, rather, mutated into criminal organizations. Amounting to a parallel state, these illicit networks engage in arms trafficking, money laundering, extortion, human smuggling, black-market adoptions, and kidnapping for ransom. The networks also control an exploding drug trade. Latin America’s cartels, squeezed by the governments of Colombia and Mexico, have found an ideal sanctuary in Guatemala, and most of the cocaine entering America now passes through the country. Criminal networks have infiltrated virtually every government and law-enforcement agency, and more than half the country is no longer believed to be under the control of any government at all. Citizens, deprived of justice, often form lynch mobs, or they resolve disputes, even trivial ones, by hiring assassins.
Some authorities have revived the darkest counter-insurgency tactics, rounding up undesirables and executing them. Incredibly, the death rate in Guatemala is now higher than it was for much of the civil war. And there is almost absolute impunity: ninety-seven per cent of homicides remain unsolved, the killers free to kill again. In 2007, a U.N. official declared, “Guatemala is a good place to commit a murder, because you will almost certainly get away with it.”
Against that backdrop, one might expect the murder of the father and daughter to become just another statistic. But the daughter was loved by a man named Rodrigo Rosenberg, who was committed to finding the killers.
Part of a connected family, Rosenberg enlisted the aid of a longtime friend, Luis Mendizábal, who was also “Guatemala’s most notorious spy,” Grann writes. “Relying on an extensive network of orejas, or 'ears,' he regularly compiled intelligence dossiers, vacuuming up even the most vaporous rumors and searching for patterns in the chaos of information.”
As Grann unfolds the story, Rosenberg’s investigation seems to move ever closer to the nation’s corridors of power. But then he, too, is murdered, shot point blank in the head on a road where he had been biking. Now the story pivots to focus on that second murder, which also might have turned cold quickly but for a surprising revelation Mendizábal announced at the funeral: Just before he died, Rosenberg filmed a video naming his murderers.
Álvaro Colom: President and accused assassin.
“Good afternoon,” Rosenberg said. “My name is Rodrigo Rosenberg Marzano and, alas, if you are hearing or seeing this message it means that I’ve been murdered by President Álvaro Colom, with the help of Gustavo Alejos.” Rosenberg went on, “The reason I’m dead, and you’re therefore watching this message, is only and exclusively because during my final moments I was the lawyer to Mr. Khalil Musa and his daughter Marjorie Musa, who, in cowardly fashion, were assassinated by President Álvaro Colom, with the consent of his wife, Sandra de Colom, and with the help of . . . Gustavo Alejos.”
And this occurs just a third of the way into Grann’s article, which has more twists and turns than the best "Dateline NBC" mysteries. They include an elaborate effort orchestrated by President Colom and/or his associate to pin Rosenberg’s murders on their political enemies – which is not as wacky as it sounds - and strong suggestions that Rosenberg’s relatives might have been involved in the plot.
And like those "Dateline" mysteries, just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, Grann expertly throws another curve, leading to a surprise ending that comes from beyond nowhere.
Ultimately, the one thing you end up knowing for sure is that you’re glad you don’t live in Guatemala.