Lawyer had hitmen kill him – and framed the president


10 February 2013

The Sunday Times

A LAWYER named Rodrigo Rosenberg, who had been educated at Cambridge and Harvard, was gunned down one Sunday morning in May 2009 while he was cycling along a quiet street in Guatemala City. He could easily have become just another statistic among his 6,498 fellow citizens who were murdered that year.

In a country where six in 10 murders are carried out by hired assassins, there was nothing unusual about Rosenberg’s death. Five bullets from a 9mm pistol killed him instantly. But Rosenberg had known he was going to be murdered and spoke from beyond the grave to name the killer.

In an 18-minute video handed out by a friend at his funeral, Rosenberg, 48, who had four children from two failed marriages, said his investigation into the murder of one of his clients, a businessman, had made him fear for his life.

“The reason I am dead when you see this is simply because I was the lawyer of Khalil Musa,” he said in the recording.

He went on to accuse Guatemala’s then president of being behind Musa’s murder, concluding: “Unfortunately, ladies and gentlemen, if you are watching this message it’s because I’ve been murdered by President Colom.”

Rosenberg claimed Musa had been killed because his appointment (later withdrawn) to the board of the state-owned Banrural bank would have led him to expose a money-laundering scam allegedly linked to the president.

One of the bullets that struck Musa as he waited in his car at a red traffic light had passed through his body and killed his daughter Marjorie, a married mother of two. This was a devastating blow to Rosenberg. He and Marjorie had been having a secret affair. Text messages between them suggested they were in love and would have married. He referred to her as “my Marjorie de Rosenberg” and to himself as “your prince for ever”.

The video-taped allegations against the president soon provoked a political crisis in Guatemala. Were they true or could the strange sequence of events be explained by Rosenberg’s grief at Marjorie’s death? Justin Webster, a British film-maker who investigated the case for a documentary, I Will Be Murdered, described Rosenberg as “a tortured soul” who had grown up amid a civil war between the state and leftist rebels. “He was on the brink of a new life and then his lover was murdered,” Webster said.

Demonstrations prompted by his video swept the country and Colom’s government came close to collapse. It had to call in Carlos Castresana, a Spanish prosecutor and judge, who was put in charge of the investigation by a crime-busting agency sponsored by the United Nations. “An investigation is broken into two parts,” said Castresana. “The investigation of the crime scene and that of the victim’s social circle.”

At the scene of the murder Castresana noticed something odd about Rosenberg’s bike. It had fallen forward while Rosenberg had fallen backward, suggesting he had not been riding it when he was killed.

Then Castresana looked at images caught on security cameras. These showed that a black Mazda with tinted windows had been following Rosenberg. Castresana identified the owner of the car as William Santos. From mobile phone records he deduced that Santos had been in the area on the day of the killing. His phone was tapped and his conversations led Castresana to nine other men, all suspected of involvement in the hit. After their arrests they revealed that they had been hired by Jose and Francisco Paiz, brothers related to Rosenberg by marriage.

Castresana’s team also traced a phone used to make death threats to Rosenberg to the shop where it had been bought and the signature of Rosenberg’s driver was on the payment slip. The driver was caught on CCTV in a second shop buying another phone that had come to Castresana’s attention.

Having gathered the evidence, Castresana was ready to reveal all at a press conference. “I felt it could be the end of my career because I was sure no one would believe me,” he said.

In a televised address on January 12, 2010, Castresana made his astounding disclosure.

“Who planned the act? We have to conclude that it was Rodrigo Rosenberg himself. Nobody else but him is responsible for his own death.” He explained that Rosenberg had paid $40,000 (£25,000) to the Paiz brothers, who had hired a gang of killers to commit the crime. It was Rosenberg who had instructed his driver to purchase the two mobile phones. He had used one to communicate with the killers and the other to send death threats to his own phone. On the day of his murder he sat down on a verge and waited to be killed. “He was desperate. He wanted to die. He had lost the woman he loved,” said Castresana.

He added that Rosenberg had sincerely but mistakenly believed the president was responsible for Musa’s death.

“He had no evidence at all.

He had spent a month looking desperately for evidence but he didn’t find anything. [The president was] probably involved in corruption but this was not the reason Marjorie was killed. I think he hoped to bring the government down and believed he would succeed.”

The truth seemed stranger than fiction. Claudia Mendez, a Guatemalan journalist, recalled her reaction: “It was unbelievable to hear that someone could arrange their own death, having left a message blaming someone else, and for that someone else to be the president.

It was shock after shock.”

Four years later the country has a new president and Castresana has returned to Spain. The Paiz brothers are in prison awaiting trial and although the killers of Musa and his daughter were caught, there is still uncertainty over who had ordered the hit.

At the spot where Rosenberg died, a plaque erected in his honour shortly after his death lies cracked on the grass, a broken tribute to a fallen hero.

Storyville: I Will Be Murdered will be on BBC4 on February 25