Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Guatemala rejects allegations of role in lawyer's death

(CNN) -- Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom has dismissed an allegation that he was behind the death of a lawyer who left a video blaming the president if anything happened to him.

The lawyer, Rodrigo Rosenberg, was shot and killed Sunday while riding a bicycle in Guatemala City.

On Monday, a video surfaced in which Rosenberg -- seated behind a desk and calmly speaking into a microphone -- linked Colom and an aide to his death.

"If you are watching this message," Rosenberg said on the video, "it is because I was assassinated by President Alvaro Colom, with help from Gustavo Alejos," the president's private secretary. Rosenberg mentions a third person who he believes would have been involved in his death and also mentions those three people as well as the president's wife in connection with two killings last month.

In a broadcast to the nation Monday night, Colom denied any connection.

"We categorically reject the accusations that pretend to tie the president, first lady and private secretary as those responsible for this assassination," Colom said.

A dated and signed transcript of the video's content indicates Rosenberg made the recording last week. It surfaced Monday after his funeral, and was posted on YouTube and distributed to other media outlets by the newspaper El Periodico de Guatemala.

Rosenberg's video said he was targeted for talking about the death of prominent businessman Khalil Musa and his daughter in April.

They were killed, Rosenberg said, because they had refused to participate in acts of corruption as the president wanted.

See the rest of the story here.

Death squads for hire as citizens tackle gang rule

At first it looked like a family day out, with crowds gathering by the banks of a river in Guatemala City. Mothers chatted to each other as their children pushed forward, trying to get a better view. But the entertainment on offer was not as it seemed.

Lying on the grass in front of them was a family of five, their hands tied behind their backs and their throats slashed. The youngest was 8 years old.

“Could be gangs, could be a personal vendetta,” said a policeman. “But who knows, here everybody is killing everybody.”

With more than 5,000 murders a year in this country of only 12 million — more than during the dark days of the civil war — violence in Guatemala is out of control. But now citizens are fighting back, hiring assassins to kill gang members and criminals.

They call it “social cleansing” and, according to a USAID opinion poll, nearly half of all Guatemalans support it. They say that they have been forced to take the law into their own hands because of police corruption and inefficiency. Yet there are claims of complicity with the security services.

“Thirty per cent of murders I see now are social cleansing killings,” Comisario Tomás Gómez, the head of a special army unit that patrols neighbourhoods run by gangs, said.

“People have had enough. Communities are being terrorised by gangs, they are extorted and even evicted from their houses. If you don’t pay, you’re killed.”

Communities are clubbing together to hire hit men. Gang members, who control huge swaths of the city, are disappearing, their bodies found dumped and mutilated. The killers leave messages pinned to bodies, or sometimes carved into flesh, warning other gang members that this is what will happen to them. For the first time, gangs are living in fear.

When violence started affecting business in the sprawling La Terminal market, the Merchants’ Association hired a group of 12 hit men known as the Avenging Angels. In a year they killed between 50 and 60 gang members and criminals. Now they patrol the market and anyone caught stealing or causing trouble gets a bullet in the back of the head — three to four people a week.

“The murder rate hasn’t changed, but the crime rate is down,” a local butcher said. ()

The gangs claim that members of the police and security services are involved. Even the country’s chief of police, Erwin Sperison, admits that members of his force may be acting as vigilante death squads.

“It is possible,” he said. “I kicked out 1,200 policemen last year. This year there’s already around 600 policemen that have been taken out of the institution.”

Mynor, a member of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, said that he knew scores of gang members who had been snatched from their homes in the middle of the night by men in police uniform.

“It’s always the same, homies [gang members] are taken in blacked-out, unmarked cars by armed men and their bodies turn up tortured,” he said.

As well as death squads, whole communities are handing out vigilante justice.

A year ago in the small town of Palin, just outside the city, three gang members were beaten and then burnt to death. More than a thousand people, including women and children, took part. After the lynching, the community formed its own protection group, which now patrols the streets every night, armed with guns and machetes.

“The community was forced to act. Crimes don’t get investigated here,” said José Dario López, head of the protection group. “The lynching sent out a pretty strong message.”

Original story here.

Heavy rains leave 3,850 people homeless in Guatemala

Heavy rains have left 3,850 people homeless in two Guatemalan provinces, according to news reaching here on Monday.

The worst hit area was Chisec in the province of Alta Verapaz, where 2,300 people have been affected and 404 houses have been destroyed, according to the National Disaster Reduction Coordination.

In Dolores in the neighboring Peten province, 1,550 people have been forced to leave their homes and 288 houses have been damaged.

The disaster reduction coordination said it had set up committees to coordinate with regional authorities in coping with the situation.

The rains over the weekend were caused by humid air that could also trigger downpours across the country in the coming days, according to weather forecast.

Guatemalan President under pressure after video alleges he ordered murders

He came to power promising to rid Guatemala of corruption, violence and narcotrafficking. Now, Alvaro Colom, the country's first left-wing leader in 50 years, is fighting for his political life after a video surfaced of a dead lawyer claiming that he was killed on the orders of the President.

"If you are watching this message, it is because I was assassinated by Gustavo Alejos, the President's private secretary, and his business partner Gregorio Valdez, with the approval of President Alvaro Colom," says Rodrigo Rosenberg, who was shot dead in Guatemala City on Sunday, in a taped message distributed to the country's media.

The lawyer claims that he will be killed for trying to expose a vast conspiracy reaching to the top of Guatemalan politics, involving the murders of a prominent figure and his daughter in April.

Mr Rosenberg, 47, says that Khalil Musa, a businessman, and his daughter Marjorie were assassinated because Mr Musa refused to collude with corruption at a state-owned bank.

See the rest of the story on Times Americas

Guatemala asks for UN probe into lawyer killing

GUATEMALA CITY—A slain man's videotaped and posthumously broadcast accusation that President Alvaro Colom ordered his murder threw Guatemala into an uproar and prompted government calls Tuesday for a U.N. agency and the FBI to investigate the killing.

Colom vehemently denied the allegations made in a videotape left by lawyer Rodrigo Rosenberg, who was shot to death by unidentified assailants while riding his bicycle Sunday. Opposition leaders and protesters called for Colom to step aside.

"If you are watching this message, it is because I was assassinated by President Alvaro Colom with help from Gustavo Alejos," the president's secretary, Rosenberg said in the video distributed at his funeral on Monday.

Rosenberg said on the tape that officials might want to kill him because he represented businessman Khalil Musa, who was slain in March. The lawyer alleged that Musa was killed because he refused to engage in acts of corruption that Colom purportedly invited him to participate in.

The Guatemala City newspaper Prensa Libre said the recording "has created the greatest political crisis for this democracy, because never before has a democratically elected president been accused of murder."

Television stations repeatedly broadcast the video and so many people watched it on Guatemalan Internet sites that some temporarily collapsed under the load.

Read the rest of the story here.

Project launched to fight frog-killing fungus

WASHINGTON - Zoos in the U.S., Panama and Mexico are deploying researchers in Central America to develop new ways to fight a fungus blamed for wiping out dozens of frog and amphibian species as part of a project announced Monday.

The Smithsonian Institution is leading six other zoos and institutes in the Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project, which aims to raise $1.5 million to fight the fast-spreading chytrid fungus.

Their protection efforts will focus on a small slice of Panama that is the only area in Central America that appears to be untouched by the disease, said Dr. Karen Lips, a University of Maryland researcher. Lips said it's only a matter of time, though, before even that area is hit with the fungus - perhaps five years.

The speed at which the fungus has spread is "absolutely incredible," she said. "It's probably much worse than we even appreciate."

Scientists say the chytrid fungus threatens to wipe out a vast number of the approximately 6,000 known amphibian species and is spreading quickly. Already, 122 amphibian species are believed to have gone extinct in the last 30 years, primarily because of the fungus, conservationists say.

"We're looking at losing half of all amphibians in our lifetime," said Brian Gratwicke, the Smithsonian's lead scientist on the project.

The fungus has been found in 87 countries, including the United States.

See the rest of the story here.