Fact is often stranger than fiction, but if the real life story of Rodrigo Rosenberg, a successful Guatemalan lawyer gunned down by hit men in 2009, exceeds that of even Hollywood's wildest imaginations. If it's not currently being made into a Hollywood blockbuster, it certainly will be.
Whilst we wait for the airbrushed version, director Justin Webster's documentary I Will Be Murdered (part of the excellent Storyville series on BBC4) unravels the complex nature of his death and lifts the murky lid of Guatemalan society. A mix of interviews and CCTV footage it views like a real life CSI Guatemala whose Machiavellian cast feel like extras from a John Le Carré novel.
Guatemala is a country with a murderous past whose decades long civil war only finished in 1996. 36 years of abuse and wide scale brutality has indoctrinated the population into adopting the "life is cheap" maxim as the country's official motto. Violence is deep rooted in Guatemalan society and seen as a viable solution for the poorest subsistence farmer to powerful heads of government.
The country is now riddled with corruption, cover ups, conspiracy, propaganda, assassinations and coups. Mexico may be considered by some to be a no-go zone following waves of narco killings but in 2009 the Guatemalan murder rate was four times higher. Statistically you would be safer going on holiday to Baghdad.
In 2007 the UN even went as far as saying:
“Guatemala is a good place to commit a murder, because you will almost certainly get away with it.”
In the UK we complain about our politicians fiddling their expenses but Guatemalan politics take it to another level. Public life seems to be polluted by a malevolent criminal oligarchy. As a nation Guatemala is about as stable as a three legged table.
I was there in 2005 and warned about travelling at night or hanging around too long in Guatemala City such were the levels of violence and car jacking. Despite the warnings I foolishly did both and ended up on the red eye from the northern town of Flores ending up in the capital in the early hours of the morning. I distinctly remember the squalor and degradation of the capital and the fact the bus company locked their customers in their compound whilst they waited for their connections. Standing in the street would be "unwise" I was told
Rodrigo Rosenberg would have been nothing more than another forgotten crime statistic, one more unsolved murder, had his dramatic prophecy not emerged from the ashes. Soon after his death a video emerged that appeared to show Rosenberg foretelling his own murder.
"If you are watching this message, it is because I was assassinated by President Ãlvaro Colom, with help from Gustavo Alejos."
In the video Rosenberg claims the reason he had been killed was because he had "direct knowledge" of a conspiracy involving a multi-million dollar money laundering operation through the national Banrural bank perpetrated by the Colom administration. He had come across this evidence after investigating the assassinations of Khalil and Marjorie Musa who he believed had been murdered because the incorruptible Khalil was going to accept a position on Banrural's board thus scuppering the government’s embezzling operation.
The video went viral and crashed the servers on YouTube. Rosenberg's revelations were dynamite and caused an explosion of anger with normal Guatemalans who took to the streets in vast numbers accusing the elite of being "asesinos" .
With the government on the verge of collapse, and in desperation, Colom agreed to allow an independent UN backed investigation unit called CICIG into the country to try and restore the government’s tattered reputation. Chief prosecutor Carlos Castresana only agreed to the position after demanding:
“To take the case, I need complete independence.”
Castresana had to overcome the usual obstacles to justice in Guatemala: informants, moles, counter surveillance and personal smears but his team quickly uncovered the first piece of the puzzle; hit man and former policeman Willian Divas. CICIG used wiretaps to piece together his gang's network through clandestine conversations and simultaneously swooped on dozens of locations around the country.
The gang quickly gave up the people who had ordered the hit; the Valdez Pais brothers: two of Rosenberg's close cousins. The target had been described to the killers as simply an extortionist who was blackmailing Rosenberg. Divas was given extremely detailed instructions as to where the mark would be and exactly at what time. But why would the Valdez Pais brothers, who supposed were very close to Rosenberg order his death?
Investigators then obtained a mobile number from which Rosenberg had reported receiving threats. They traced it back to Rosenberg's driver. He had been ordered to buy two anonymous mobiles and gave one of them to his boss and the other to the Valdes Pais brothers. Rosenberg was using the anonymous mobile phone to call his home number thus creating the illusion of receiving death threats.
Once Castrasena tracked down the phone other tell tale evidence started to appear. A cheque for $40.000, the amount Divas received for the contract killing, was issued from Rosenberg office via a 3rd party bank account so not to attract suspicion. Rosenberg used the Valdez Pais brothers as go-betweens who were completely in the dark about Rosenberg’s real intentions to distance himself from the hit.
It was becoming clear to Castresena that the unbelievable scenario could be the only explanation for the convoluted turn of events: Rosenberg had ordered his own killing.
"This is the end of our careers as no one will believe it"
Meticulously planned and painstakingly executed Rosenberg would have succeeded in bringing down the entire government if only the his driver had remembered not put his name on the receipt for one of the phones.
But what had brought Rosenberg to such an extreme course of action?
It turns out that Rosenberg was having a secret affair with Majorie Musa and was about to propose the day after her murder. In his depressed and agitated state he took the responsibility of investigating her deaths and believed the government was responsible for her inadvertent killing (the real target was her father). He lacked concrete evidence to pursue the matter in court and felt desperate and powerless.
His friend and fellow investigator Luis Mendizabal said
"His impotency to do something dismantled him"
Rosenberg felt the only way he could avenge his lover’s death and politically destroy the corrupt Colom government was to frame them by physically destroying himself.
Since the truth emerged, and despite all the corroborating evidence, there are those who refuse to believe Rosenberg killed himself, believing the verdict another in a long line of political white washes.
"Carlos Castresena, are you trying to sell us mirrors?"
No one seems to have come out of this episode with any particular credit. Rosenberg is seen by some as a hero and by other as a coward. Evidence has emerged, not included in the documentary perhaps to preserve its narrative, indicating that Khalil Musa was not the victim of state sponsored murder but was killed because of his dealings with a criminal network from whom he had bought contraband for his textile factory.
Once the dust died down on the Rosenberg case, Castrasena suffered a backlash from powers that be resentful that a “foreign” body was meddling in internal affairs. A concerted smear campaign attacking his private life forced his hand. He discovered, much like Rosenberg, that in Guatemala the only way to fight impunity was to “blow himself up.” His marriage suffered and now, having been hounded out of the country, admits that the case took its toll.
“I have nothing, I lost my family while in Guatemala. It almost took my life.”
At the end of the day it is hard to know what to believe in the curious case of Rodrigo. Guatemala is a country of counterfeit realities and misdirection is a way of life.
The ephemeral nature of Guatemalan truth is best summed up by scholar Susan Jonas
“Guatemala mocks me. Just as you think you understand, we’ll show you that you understand nothing at all”
You can catch it on iPlayer until Mon 4th March
For further reading I suggest this excellent article in the The New Yorker