Public Demons: Chronicle of a Raid
“Without justice, what would States really be
but giant bands of thieves?”
—St. Augustine, City of God
“For my friends, whatever they want. For my enemies, the law.”
This has to be recorded for your children, one of my captors says.
This is when they take me back to the room where my family’s been through the most terrible time of their lives: the illegal raid on my house by a gang of state terrorists, June 24, 2003.
You’re going to die, you son of a bitch. They throw me into the room. Ramón’s 11 years old. The rest of my family is blindfolded, but not him. He’s watching. I tell him: be cool, don’t worry. I even smile. And deep down I’m thinking: here’s where the shit ends. Ramón is dripping snot.
If my life were to pass before my eyes, like in the movies, I’d have the chance to relive scenes no less hellish than this one: when I was at Siglo XXI, they planted dynamite in my house; another time, they blew up my Nissan with a grenade; and another, they fired thirty shots at me near the Tio Juan hospice.
It’s journalism as portal to the apocalypse.
“Shut up, son of a bitch”
Before the bastards invaded my house like a pack of rhinoceroses, we were all just fine.
The day began. José, my oldest, was studying at the university in the afternoons, and had mornings free. My next youngest, Rodrigo, was also hanging around in those days, waiting for August, when he was heading to the U.S. on a scholarship. Both would get up early to work out at the Club Alemán, from six to eight. That morning, when they got back, they came to my room to hang out. My wife, who also normally went to the gym from six to nine, came back early that day because the exterminators were coming. My youngest son, Ramón Ignacio, came down to watch TV with us. We’re spending a few calm minutes together. Rodrigo leaves the room to ask for breakfast. All’s well.
The doorbell rings.
Petronila—Petra—has been helping us around the house since time immemorial. Every time the doorbell would ring, I’d tell her, Petra, don’t open the door. And she’d ask why. Because people can get in. And she’d answer, Well, they’re going to have to get through me.
And this day, they do.
It’s easy. On the intercom, they say they’re here to drop off a package. Petra tells them to leave it in the mailbox. It’s too big, they say. Petra goes to open the door.
They go from the front door to my room, a considerable distance, in the time it takes me to move just a few meters. Before I know it, like six of the assholes are at my side.
And they’re yelling:
—Where are the drugs?
—Where’s the money?
—The news crews are on the way.
—The cops are coming.
—They’re bringing dogs.
It’s clear they know their way around.
Later I’ll get to thinking about all the times that General Balconi asked to come to my house. He showed up every Thursday for six months, without fail. I’d have to come home from the paper at six to talk with him. I never knew what he wanted, if the visit was a friendly visit or business. But the truth is, these guys are always working. And his people asked for my number…getting to know the house…
José Junior’s next to me, and he starts demanding, Where’s the court order? Show me a court order! And I’m saying, José, be cool. And he keeps yelling at them until they hit him, and I’m saying, Easy, man, that’s not what this is about. So I say to them: We’re going to work this out. Shut up, you son of a bitch, they answer. And one of them, who has a face full of pockmarks and an accent that’s either from the west or El Salvador, raises his voice: Let’s stop wasting time and fucking kill these motherfuckers now. I’m trying to calm them down. Rodrigo, who’d gone to get breakfast, comes back with Gustavo Soc, a kid who works for us, both of them with pistols to their heads.
Of course this Gustavo ends up quitting after a second incident that happened like five days after the raid. These DINC guys come and say they want to talk to him. Petra lets them in. Investigators are coming and going all the time, so Petra lets them in. They sit Gustavo down and threaten him. When I get home, I say, give me your names, you’re got no court order, nobody warned me. No, we just wanted to check it out, they answer. Get out, I cut them off. Frightening guys, scare the shit out of you. Gustavo decides to quit. So much for that witness.
So they bring in Gustavo and Rodrigo, pushing them into the room. They throw everyone on the floor. Face down, motherfuckers. They talk this way to Margarita, Petronila’s sister, and Petronila, too. José’s down over there, and Rodrigo…They kick Ramoncito in the ribs. José Carlos objects, and they hit him in the eye and he’s hurt bad. I attempt to get up, and trying to stay cool, I say, We have to work something out, everyone’s cool, what do you want? Do you have money here? they ask. No, but I can get a bank draft, I just have to call the bank. What’s this shit, a bank draft? they ask.
The tension in the room rises exponentially. It’s a fucking mess.
The raid before the raid
I can definitely say that before the raid the atmosphere at the paper had become noticeably more tense. It was clear they wanted to corner us. As I’ve said elsewhere, this came against a backdrop of financial terrorism on the part of the SAT, the Superintendent of the Tax Administration; harassment by the Public Ministry; demonstrations outside El Periódico’s offices by employees whipped up by the Ministry of Communication, Infrastructure, and Housing; and an intense campaign of defamation and slander by high government officials on TV, among them Carlos de Léon, former Attorney General, Marco Tulio Abadío, former Superintendent of the SAT, and even the former President of the Republic, Alfonso Antonio Portillo Cabrera, who accused me, without batting an eye, of conspiring against his regime. All of this led up to the raid.
Although I wasn’t there, it’s easy to imagine how they planned it out.
The Quinta Real conversation
The meeting would have taken place at the beginning of May, 2003. The place: the presidential suite of the exclusive and elegant Quinta Real (now the Vista Real), at kilometer 10 on the highway from Guatemala City to El Salvador, residence—in the presidential suite, no less—of Carlos de León, then Attorney General. Time: around 7:30 in the evening.
De León, freshly showered and dressed, meditates over a whiskey and bottled water and anxiously awaits the arrival of the President of the Republic, Alfonso Portillo Cabrera, and the Superintendent of the Tax Administration, Marco Tulio Abadío.
De León privately rejoices over his luck, his dazzling social ascent. Originally from a middle class family from the Guatemalan highlands, in under a decade, this provincial lawyer, 40 years old, has harvested a gigantic fortune at such speed it causes vertigo: all those dealings he’s had with the state, through his chain of businesses—all registered to the same address, with the same legal representatives, tended by the same secretary, with the same phone number—have allowed him to amass an average of 550 million quetzals a year in his coffers. And so he has transformed himself into a multimillionaire with absolute political power and one of the unchallenged new leaders of the mafia.
Sitting on this very same sofa, de León planned and organized the assassination attempt on Rafael Castillo, ex-husband of his new presidential suitemate, Ana Lucía Alejos Botrán, who also served as spokesperson for the Public Ministry on de León’s orders.
Rafael Castillo, insolently and against all logic, as de León would say, had survived the attempt like a nine-lived cat after enduring more than two weeksteetering between life and death in the intensive care unit of Guatemala City’s best hospital.
All de León had to do was to order the Servicio de Administración de Información Antinarcóticos—the SAIA—to execute Castillo, a son of one of the oldest and most illustrious families in the country, and less than 72 hours later, state security agents manning an illegal checkpoint targeted him, firing indiscriminately from above.
And orders from de León to the Criminal Investigation Services—SIC—and the department of criminal investigations of the Public Ministry were all it took to sidetrack and later paralyze the Castillo case investigation.
De León is deep in such ruminations when there’s a knock on the door of his suite. Spryly, nimbly, he gets to his feet and opens it confidently.
Abadío laughs, hugs his dear friend, and together they enter the vaulted quarters, crossing the living room with its strange, lit fireplace, and walk to the enormous window of the suite where, moved, they agree that they are facing the best view in Guatemala City.
They immediately serve themselves a pair of premium cocktails and converse animatedly while waiting for the third guest. Abadío says to de León, we have to have the patience of saints: the President is famous for arriving late. They say that on occasion he’s arrived, unfazed, as much as two months late for his appointments.
An hour and fifty-five minutes late, Portillo, euphoric, shows up accompanied by Salam, his controversial and dubious chief of security. The latter carries a wooden box, which notwithstanding its unpolished and rustic appearance can’t hide its fine and distinguished origins. Twelve bottles of exquisite Italian wine rest inside the box, waiting to entertain the incipient sophistication of the presidential palate.
Portillo and his companion sit while their host lifts and uncorks a bottle of wine, pours and hands a full glass to the head of state. Portillo drinks with pride and satisfaction, enjoying the full-bodied Tuscan wine, and exalts that friends of theirs have said that this very wine is the favorite of the fanciest Italian aristocrats, Agnelli among them.
There, indeed, is Salam: hard line soldier during Guatemala’s Dirty War and state terrorist, but above all a man of illicit businesses: drugs, car theft, contraband, among other unorthodox professions. And now, nothing less than the de facto head of the Estado Mayor Presidencial, the Presidential Guard. De León pours him a double whiskey with purified water.
Everyone sits conversing excitedly, surrounded by fine foods and abundant liquor, though Portillo, between jokes, complains about the lack of women and remarks pointedly: I hope the next time we meet there’s neither too few nor too many women, all of them proud and delighted with their figures.
De León abruptly interrupts the friends’ banal conversation and in a bitter tone and metallic voice says: Everything we’ve built these past years seems rosy, and I say seems, because there is always a fly in the soup: one of those repugnant flies has a first name and last name: I’m talking about that son of a thousand bitches Chepe Zamora. The moment has arrived to apply a firm hand.
Alfonso, de León says to the President, you accused him publicly of conspiracy and sedition and sent him the clear message that he’d go to jail for that. His answer was to accuse you of abuse of power, coercion, defamation, and slander.
Rabbé sent people from his Ministry—the MICIVI—to stage a violent demonstration in front of his office, and he sued Rabbé.
Abadío has gone after him for taxes, without results.
Marco Tulio, Luis Rabbé, and I have discredited, insulted, and threatened him personally and through front men on the open airwaves, accusing him of drug trafficking, trading in contraband, money laundering, and it’s all the same to him.
Between Salam, Estuardo del Pinal, and other state functionaries we’ve stuck the fucker with more than 50 lawsuits and he goes on as if nothing happened.
And there are all those columns that that piece of shit Zamora has written about us.
Allow me to read something he wrote about us (and he opens an edition of El Periódico that he’s had with him the whole time):
Portillo is a man without scruples, full of perverse pragmatism, who in his drive to acquire power delivered his soul to the devil and his minions, with the understanding that in the event of a successful election, his role would be limited during the subsequent four years to that of a luxurious puppet, a sumptuous marionette of the Masters of Hell’s Secret Society.
But Portillo, though he seems to agree with the necessity of doing something forceful, thinks they need to be more prudent.
—Chepe’s really connected with the international press, with the international community, and most of all with the American embassy. If we kill him, it may backfire. We have to scare him and nothing more.
—We’ll show Zamora that it’s not just his life but the lives of his entire family that hang by a thread and depend on us. I can organize a clandestine group of armed men to invade the Zamora house. We can do it all without leaving a trace, so if he reports it nobody will believe him. We’ll put Eduviges Funes in charge of the group, so there’ll be no fuck-ups. Belter Álvarez can go with him.
—Carlos—Salam addresses the Attorney General—you send an expert to review the crime scene to make sure they left no traces and to fuck up the investigation, in the unlikely case Zamora has the balls to sing.
Marco Tulio Abadío interrupts Salam and declares irritably:
—I want one of my men to go with the group. I want to hear firsthand what a coward and crybaby this son of a bitch Zamora is when the shit comes down.
They all howl and agree to Abadio’s proposition. They down a couple more swallows and glasses and say goodnight to Carlos de León in the doorway of the presidential suite of the Hotel Quinta Real.
The material authors
In May 2003, Salam and Napo Rojas take charge of recruiting the gang that would invade my home. The group spends two months learning the details of the Zamora family’s movements, routines, and patterns, basically to determine the times when we would all be together in the house.
To do this, they have the help of personnel and vehicles from the prosecutors’ office and the SIC and the eavesdropping and phone tapping services of military intelligence.
Among others, they send Eduviges Funes, head of counterintelligence of the Presidential Guard, and Belter Álvarez.
The two always work as a team. Funes, Álvarez, and Obdulio Villanueva, without question the material author of the Gerardi assassination and who at the moment has been put out to pasture, have been the operative stars of military intelligence.
Like Álvarez, Funes works seasonal ‘social cleansing’ jobs.
As for Belter Álvarez, we know that he was hired nights to drive the Suburban that reports to the basement of the Crédito Hipotecario Nactional to the ferry the cash of the high command and Generals Ríos and Ortega. In exchange for his loyalty and special services performed, they gave Álvarez protection in his car theft ring in Zones 9 and 10 and on the Avenida de la Reforma, where this little thief stole 20 cars a day. He’s also known to be involved in drug trafficking.
Funes for his part is the best marksman from moving vehicles. I can almost swear that it was he that the Estado Mayor used in the attempted assassination of Chinchilla Vega.
They also sent an experienced woman so the Public Ministry would be involved: Iris Soto, aka “the puppy,” a military counterintelligence agent.
Erick Alexander Johnston (who was head of Crime Scene department of the Public Ministry) is deployed to make the raid invisible, erase fingerprints, and screw up the investigation.
Of all those who raided the house, we only managed to identify these four.
The rest of the gang is recruited from SIC and SAIA.
I also understand so-called Rooster Skull, Luis Alberto Gonzáles Pérez (who was in G2 and often worked with Ortega in military intelligence) directs the operation from afar.
Here it’s worth emphasizing that the first move Abadío makes, after the conversation in the Quinta Real, is to call his driver and trusted bodyguard, Rafael Ruano Jiménez. Abadío wants to involve Ruano in the operation, but Ruano doesn’t accept. Which doesn’t save him from falling into disgrace along with Abadío. He finds himself obliged to leave the SAT through the back door and ends up very poorly paid, hiding under a rock, working for a security company that provides protection services to a mining operation in Huehuetenango, in northwest Guatemala.
Rafael Ruano Jiménez, originally from the Secretaria de Asuntos Administrativos Seguridad (SAAS), has come to be working alongside Abadío thanks to Portillo. Alfonso Portillo Cabrera never trusted the SAAS and in violation of the mandates laid out in the peace accords, kept it away from his presidency. His security and protection remained in the care of the Presidential Guard up until the day he turned over power at the National Theater.
The peace accords, signed in 1995, committed Guatemala to dissolve the Presidential Guard, the EMP, and replace it with the SAAS, an elite institutional, civil, and professional security and protection unit with deep democratic roots, without the bosses, customs, and questionable habits of the praetorian military guard that have traditionally surrounded Guatemalan presidents.
Neither Arzú nor Portillo paid any attention to this.
Despite their reservations and lack of trust, they ask the engineer Ricardo Marroquín, Secretary of SAAS, for a professional security agent to guard Abadío. Marroquín proposes a former agent of the SAAS named Rafael Ruano Jimenez, who had been recommended in turn to Abadío by Portillo himself.
When Portillo Cabrera turned over power to Oscar Berger, in January 2004, he wanted to enter the National Theater with his Presidential Guard, headed by Eduviges Funes Velázquez. SAAS agents prevented members of the Guard from entering the theater with the outgoing president. There were serious skirmishes and exchanges of blows between the two groups when the SAAS stepped in. Angry at what had happened, Portillo broke with Marroquín, who he considered a traitor for failing to carry out his duty.
But returning to Ruano. As I’ve said, he gets sent to a mine in Huehuetenango. He later goes to Ricardo Marroquín to ask for another chance, and Marroquín asks, What happened to you? Ruano tells him everything. Afterwards Marroquín calls me and tells me.
After that we kept Ruano hidden for 11 months. The idea was to involve him in the trial (to get what’s known in legal jargon prueba anticipada, or evidence produced before trial). Of course the judge who admitted this prueba anticipada had to wear a bulletproof vest to court, and two weeks later died in a car accident. A suspicious death, on his way to Quetzaltenango.
As for Ruano, they completely fuck him and he ends up leaving the country. Like five days later the trial begins. But no more witness.
Right before the raid
The Carmen neighborhood is a pretty quiet place. I moved there with my family in around ’63. In those days there were maybe six, seven houses, and we were like 20 kids. We all knew each other. We had a soccer field, a baseball field. We knew each other.
Of course, Carmen’s not what it was then. Nowadays a drug lord lives there, and on another block there’s a gang that strips cars, with cameras watching the street and everything. It’s a form of crime that’s common throughout the country—which leads, for example, to those $30 million they uncovered in La Cañada.
Before the raid, the neighbors were worried because over the last couple of weeks they’d seen extended-cab vehicles. The guys would knock, they’d look around. They said they were cars from the MP, doing a job.
What they didn’t say is that is that they were a surveillance team there to establish the routines, patterns, hours, and habits of my family and carry out meticulous and intense rehearsals for the raid.
Later we even learned they’d gone so far as to hold a witchcraft ritual. They circled rocks and made a little fire. It’s a common practice among kidnappers and assassins.
The day of June 23, 2003, at 8 in the morning, three vehicles stop in front of the guardhouse and fountain that protect the entrance to El Carmen, in Zone 12, at 3rd Avenue and 29th Street. The first vehicle, a Suburban, is driven by Belter and carries Eduviges as copilot. They identify themselves as members of the Public Ministry, show their badges and a supposed court order, and explain their mission is to conduct a raid with the full force of the law on the home of a drug trafficker. The guard at the gate, one of 60,000 private security guards in Guatemala City, an alumnus of the Guatemalan special forces, is naturally impressed the imposing figures of Belter and Eduviges, perhaps because of the extraordinary shine on the pairs’ black shoes.
The three vehicles pass the fountain, the guardhouse, and the monument and park strategically near the Zamora house, taking up their positions.
Description of the nightmare
The raid, which lasts around two and a half hours, can be divided into three parts:
The first, when we’re all sure we’re going to die;
The second, when we’re all sure the one who’s going to die is me;
And the third part, when we’re sure the invaders are going to kidnap and carry off my wife Minayú and my son Ramón.
The first 40 minutes of the raid are nonstop chaos. It’s the most nerve-wracking phase, because as I say they manage to convince us they’re going to kill everyone.
All of a sudden they’re saying to me, Why are you making trouble? Stop fucking with the higher-ups. Chill out, you son of a bitch. And later they ask, Where are the drugs, where are the guns? Every so often they say they’re going to kill us.
They’re like an unruly mob—imagine 12 or 14 guys who can’t stop moving, all of them in a state of hyperactivity. Shouts, threats, pistols. One of them closes the curtains and climbs on the bed. He starts jumping around with a shotgun like a true psycho. Later he grabs the quilt and throws it over all of us. We’re shitting bricks. Iris Soto—a vicious hysteric, a demon—deals Gustavo Soc a kick. She takes him down with the blow, and goes around attacking whoever she can. Her nickname’s The Crazy Bitch. From military intelligence. Brawny.
It’s an interagency group, and they’re not a tight unit. Only two of them have ever worked together, which explains the chaos.
Minayú tells them: Take the TV. We don’t want TV! they exclaimed. Then Minayú offers them jewels. She goes running to the bathroom to show them where they are. I almost lose it, because we’re supposed to stay together. But she wants to give them shit and get them out of there. So I follow her and put myself in a position so if they try to lock her in the bathroom they won’t be able to. Get back in there, I order Minayú.
The gang seems to be negotiating among themselves over our fate. There’s one who really has my nerves on edge (we don’t have his name). They say he’s part of Rios Sosa’s security team, but I’m never able to identify him. He’s the one with the pockmarked face who speaks in the Salvadoran accent. Another one, the one who talks the most, says, Let’s slow down here. It’s Eduviges Funes, who I think the president has sent to make sure nothing gets out of control, so that they don’t go firing shots. He stays in the doorway as though taking it all in. He’s like the epicenter of the whole operation. Iris Soto goes around smacking whoever she can.
Both my family members (my sons José, Rodrigo, and Ramón and my wife Minayú) and the staff (Petronila, her sister Margarita, and Gustavo Soc) are all shitting. Rodrigo cries silently, probably thinking it’s all going to end right here, his life, his studies, everything. Margarita starts vehemently praying, practically screaming. Everyone’s nervous. Shut that bitch up, they yell at me. Calm down, mija, please, I beg her. Pray silently. She settles down.
Petronila had gone out at 7:45 to drop her son off at the little school near the highway bridge. And she says, What a mistake that was, dropping off my son, because if I’m going to die I want him to die with me. Which is really a surprising way of thinking. The normal thing would be to think: How lucky that my son’s not here, so nothing will happen to him. Her anguish is that he’ll be left alone, and so she’d rather that he died with her.
There’s a really tense moment when the doorbell rings. The exterminators, my wife and I think. Today’s the day they’re supposed to come and fumigate the house. But in fact, the exterminators never come. It’s not them who ring the doorbell, but some cops. It’s part of the operation. The idea is that once the invaders leave, some cops will arrive and we’ll tell them what happened, and they’ll look around the house and reply, there’s no invaders here, you made it all up. Something like that. But the problem is they arrive early. So the invaders start to panic.
—What’s that, they shout.
—Shit, everything was coordinated.
—Now there’s going to be bodies for sure.
—Is there a way out down the ravine?
It’s another moment of crisis.
One thing the raiders do is search the whole house, in a huge uproar. In my son José Carlos’s closet then find a collection of guns, among them two machine guns my grandfather was given when he was Vice President, and a shotgun and two handguns registered to my name in DECAM.
That’s when they go crazy.
Though the harassment of the invaders is incessant, their physical and verbal aggressions, I try to stay calm. I tell myself: These shits are useless. The best thing would be to find something to say that refers somehow to their universe. I attempt a dialogue, a connection: Look, these guns belonged to the Presidential Guard assigned to my grandfather. Presidential Guard? How’s that? they shoot back. I explain that he’d been Provisional President. And I add: Four colonels have lived in this house. The invaders seem disconcerted. The truth is they’re not very well informed. But of course none of this helps.
The minute they found the guns, they drag me out of the room. They say they’re going to kill me. I’ve now lost my bathrobe, I’m completely naked. Look, guys, I’m not making trouble, I tell them. Whatever you say, we’ll do. Just fucking kill me in the garage, so the kids aren’t brought into it.
They keep me outside for 15 minutes with a shotgun and the two handguns in my chest. Twice they pretend they’re going to shoot me. But I’m calm. I’ve accepted my fate.
When I lose it is when they put me back in the room, naked, and tie me up with some neckties.
Tell your children to watch, they say.
And to them:
You’re going to witness your father’s death.
Ramón’s in a green pool. He’s not sick or anything; I have no idea where so much snot came from.
Everyone is crying.
It’s one moment of horror after another. At one point, they threaten:
We’re going to carry off the little one and your wife.
And they leave the room. A little later they come back:
You have a lovely family. What are they worth to you?
There’s no calculating their worth, I tell them.
So if you want to keep them, they say, you have to keep quiet. If you go to the police, if you make a public statement, if you tell anyone you work with, if you complain to an ambassador, if what happened here leaks out in any way… we know your family’s routines, we’ll fucking kill them all.
Before the invaders leave, Erick Alexander Johnston comes up to me and says, I was the good one. Did you notice? I was the one who kept them from killing everyone. And as thanks for the fact that everything came out all right, you’re going to give me 250,000 pesos. Tomorrow or the next day. I’ll call you and tell you where and when. You’ll get in your gray Volvo and we’ll meet up, you and me. I’ll be on a motorcycle. It’s a small price I’m asking. I’ve seen your house. You’ve got dough.
After two and one-half horrible hours, the invaders leave at last. They take my grandfather’s guns, cell phones, credit cards, a computer, a watch, Minayú’s jewels, and even a pair of running shoes.
They leave us in a state of shock. So much so that at first I actually think of keeping quiet. I’m not going to say shit, I tell myself. But I end up calling Gonzálo Marroquín; he’s the first person I call. I say, Look, man, and when I get those words out I break down, I start to sob. What the fuck happened? he asks. Call María del Carmen (my personal assistant) and have her cancel my credit card. They stole them. In case anything gets out, prepare my mom and my Aunt Marina, because she’ll be scared, remember her heart. What the fuck is going to get out? he asks me, not understanding a thing. And I finally let it all out.
What are you going to do? he asked me.
You know what? I’m going to report this.
Soon there are like 4,000 people in the house.
Of course people from the Public Ministry come. And Minayú says, pointing to an officer: This guy is one of the ones who was here. I think: She’s crazy. But in fact he’s erasing fingerprints.
In the days that follow, both José and I became targets while we were driving.
The only thing left is to get my family out of the country.
They go into exile.
Me, I decide to stay.
The house is empty.
The reaction of the press is unequivocal in the case of Prensa Libre, El Periódico, and Nuestro Diario, the papers that still have anything to do with us. Siglo XXI ignores it. The TV stations don’t cover it. Or that is to say, they reported Abadío’s and Carlos De León’s statements. But they ignore everything related to the trial, the aftermath. They don’t report the facts. At El Periódico, I generally feel a lot of solidarity on the part of the majority of the people. And also worry whether the paper will go on or not. As for the Central American press, I can say there’s tremendous coverage in Costa Rica and El Salvador. And the global press and human rights networks definitely pay attention.
I get many supportive phone calls. Columbia University, Amnesty International… the Knight Foundation invites me to give talks about Guatemala, in which I argue that we had a restricted democracy, a democracy merely in the sense we have elections, where a dictatorship is born and dies every four years and co-governs with crime. I go to Austin, Chicago, and Columbia.
From the people as a whole, great shows of support. There was a lot of frustration with the Portillo government, especially in the city. I become a kind of spokesperson for the general frustration. But my case quickly passes, because Black Thursday arrives and the four journalists are kidnapped in Huehuetenango. It’s one thing after another.
As a journalist, I’ve had contacts with people in the mafia world. I helped one of these get out of Guatemala in exchange for information: Ruano Tejeda.
I manage to contact him. It’s been three years since he left. He confirms who raided my house, the ones he knows. He brings me photos. He doesn’t ask me for money. I imagine his motivation is to avenge himself on those who’d tried to kill him.
This is one line of investigation. There’s another: through Giovanni Pacay and Detective Víctor Rivera, both since murdered.
Víctor Rivera helps us in the sense of making police sketches, and later he sends me a database of a thousand photos, the only one of its kind in Guatemala (the authorities don’t have a comparable one), a personal archive that he’d assembled with great care.
Portillo told me: you pick a person for the investigation, whoever you want. Giovanni Picay, I answered. I knew that this guy talked to all worlds, from the highest to the lowest: he was one of the few sources of information from the parallel worlds that exist in Guatemala. He was the best there is in intelligence.
Portillo went to Giovanni Pacay and gave him orders in front of me to help me. And because Portillo was lazy, the next day he forgot to tell him that what he’d said was a smokescreen and not to investigate anything. So Giovanni ended up helping me for real.
He set about filming the invaders. He climbed the roofs of their neighbors’ houses and recorded them. We watched the films with my family, and we recognized the malefactors. He got me pictures of members of the Presidential Guard. Belter. Eduviges.
As for the Public Ministry, Carlos De León named an official named Cortéz—Marco Antonio Cortéz—to attend to my case.
So what happens is, five days after the raid, a car follows my son José, and José takes down the license plates.
I consult with Edgar Gutiérrez, and he tells me the vehicles are Public Ministry, driven by police investigators.
This is strange, you’d better not go out, he warns me.
So I talk to Cortéz, and he confirms what we already knew: that the plates belong to MP.
I’ll help you, he tells me.
This is at like two in the afternoon; by six the story has changed. Alejos Botrán comes out to say that I’d invented the whole thing, that the MP is under control. I call Cortéz again, and he says to me: Look, it’s my call, and what you’re saying is a lie. Though we’d taped him saying the opposite. So the MP drops the investigation there.
We start to complain that there’s no prosecutor for the case. De León has left me without a prosecutor for six months. Under international law, six months constitutes a failure of justice.
Berger, when he became President, asked Carlos de León eight questions, and he couldn’t answer one of them. All of them were about my case. That’s why it ended there.
The raid after the raid
Every week, a helicopter hovers suspiciously above my house, shaking the windows. After inquiries, I’m told it’s part of a military operation: the helicopter is dispatched every Thursday from the airport en route to my house. The basic idea is to make me paranoid.
In fact, I’m the object of a chase on La Reformita. Four cars follow me, and I’m thinking: Now they really are going to kill me. I arrive at the newspaper even more frightened than the day they invaded my house. Walter Eickhoff, the German Ambassador, is waiting for me there. I say, Give me a moment, Walter. I call Edgar Gutierrez: I tell him, This is what the cars look like, I’ve got two of the plates. I’ll call you in an hour, he says. He later calls me and tells me one of the cars is from MP, driven, strangely enough, by DINC people. I ask him: Are they protecting me or trying to kill me?
Get some buddies to take you in an armored car, he tells me, and get your ass home and don’t go out, they’re trying to kill you.
Walter says, I want to resign, I don’t understand this country.
I go home, I call Helen Mack, the prosecutor, and Nineth to come with Walter at eight in the morning and come with me to take my family to the airport.
Portillo shows up at my house. He sees Ramoncito and goes to hug him. Ramoncito doesn’t let him, but Portillo pulls him close: No, Ramoncito, don’t be like that. Ramón leaves the room, and I ask Portillo, Man, what went on that day? It’s the army, he answers, the army, fucking sons of bitches, it’s that criminal Rios Montt and that criminal Carlos de León and that criminal de Abadío. He assures me of this. The next day El Periódico and Prensa Libre interview me, and I tell them: I spoke with the President and the President accused those three. How could you say that shit? Portillo yells at me after. You didn’t tell me not to, I answered simply.
Five days later, at an official event, Carlos de León gives Portillo a vest from the Public Ministry, a vest like the one they wore during the raid. Portillo tells me in my house that Carlos de León is a criminal, and five days later he’s on TV officially applauding the prosecutor’s work. I should add here that in January 2004, Eduviges Funes was working in SAT, though he remained at Portillo’s disposal as the person responsible for his security. Funes and another 125 specialists from EMP had been laid off from their positions—and compensated handsomely—in November 2003 and given high, hidden positions under Abadío in the SAT. This in spite of the fact Portillo knew from my own mouth that we had managed to identify Funes as one of the paramilitary guys who invaded my home.
The day Portillo came to my house he offered me $600,000 not to send my family out of the country because this—in his words—would affect his image.
When they asked him about the raid, Abadío said, speaking of me, that I’m a deadbeat and that surely they’d entered my house to collect a debt. And Carlos de León had the brazenness to say: If Zamora is not accusing me, then my enemies are the ones who did it; if he does accuse me, it’s all made up.
It’s enough to make you laugh or cry.
We go to court. The accused: Eduviges Funes Velásquez, and Belter Álvarez Castillo, on charges of home invasion, illegal detention, threats, coercion, aggravated robbery, torture, and kidnapping.
During the trial, I address the gentlemen of the court. It’s impossible to reproduce here my entire testimony; I limit myself to a paragraph:
“Impunity walks the corridors of the State. Impunity reigns in our streets and forces itself into our homes. That’s why we’re here. To establish firm precedents. To say one more time: No more abuses, neither violence nor impunity. This is the hour of justice, or there will never be justice.”
As I explained earlier, I was in court six months. Then a Costa Rican NGO named CEJIL, which helps Central Americans who can’t find justice through their own countries’ legal systems, calls me; so we take the case to the InterAmerican court. They advise me. They get protective measures for me, which means the court orders the State to protect me; they make me into a responsibility of the State. Portillo finds himself obliged to assign men of my own choosing; I choose Ricardo Marroquín’s men from the SAAS. Six men guard me for several years, me and my family. But when Colom is elected, Quintanilla removes my security detail. Mine and Helen Mack’s. Helen Mack alleges, and it seems to me, too, that they’re not providing security to anyone anymore. So the State is violating court orders that are in effect and that have legal implications. I allege nothing; I don’t want anyone anymore.
The thing is that CEJIL helps me with this and with preparing the case. Suddenly Frank LaRue appears and calls me, Look, I’m Guatemalan, my NGO does this kind of work, we want to help you. The CEJIL folks are really good, as good as we are, frankly, but it just seems to us that if you’re Guatemalan, it’s better if you let us bring your case.
What’s going on? Five months ago Berger wins and offers the position of head of COPREDEH, the Presidential Human Rights Commission, to him. But the head of COPREDEH is also the person who represents Guatemala in the International courts. So there’s a conflict of interest. Juridically speaking, what they’ve done is to send me back to national territory.
Just two months after the change of government, and knowing he’s on shaky ground, Carlos de León assigns Mynor Melgar as prosecutor in my case, together with Mario Castañeda. To these people he adds people from ODHA as co-plaintiffs; they call me and I agree.
I had published the names of those who carried out the raid in the paper, four of them anyway. From then on, we had a strategy, and we say: Let two go down first, Belter and Eduviges. They carried out the raid; let them be hauled in for it. Belter can’t believe it. He laughs: Don’t fuck with me, they can’t haul me in. He calls the Public Ministry, his important buddies in MP, and he asks this guy: Get me Melgar and the other guy. They tell him: Stop fucking around, that guy has protection. Who are you? they asked. He gives them his name, and I publish it, and he ends up getting fired. Belter truly can’t believe that they’re arresting him.
With both Belter and Eduviges in jail, they schedule the trial, which lasts 21 weekdays, during which everything else comes to a halt, during which I have to be there from nine in the morning until four in the afternoon every day.
A repugnant, hostile atmosphere, as you can imagine: the majority of those attending the trial are officials and former officials, including some who participated in the raid, sitting there, taking pictures, watching who comes.
And we come to testify.
Belter brings with him eight witnesses; the court declares that they gave false testimony, that they’re perjurers. They basically can’t prove that they weren’t at the house. Nevertheless, they declare him innocent. It’s because he’s well connected. But the other guy, on the other hand, he gets fucked: 15 years in the can, of which he’s now completed five. They fuck him because he doesn’t have the same kind of connections Belter has. And the charges were the same. Eduviges, who has no resources, is abandoned. But Belter—who has in vehicles registered to his name alone like 12 million quetzals, this fucker, with the same evidence, is declared innocent.
Belter and Funes are two very different people. Belter is brilliant, sophisticated, astute. Funes, on the other hand, was always a robot, who confused loyalty to his boss with loyalty to the State. He invaded my house to serve the nation, and curiously he feels really depressed, but at the same time proud of the penalty he’s paying. Blame aside, I would criticize the army for abandoning, as they did, this element who had served it since ’78.
Though Belter was declared innocent, I appealed and appealed and he’s now serving five years in prison. In the final appeal something unexpected happened: he pled guilty. He thought this would ingratiate himself to the court and to me. His lawyer calls me; we have lunch at Altuna. He says, We’d like you not to appeal; you have the satisfaction now of the acknowledgement that he was in your house. Tell the judge this. I answer, I’m not the one who convicted him. But you can drop the appeal, he replies. And what do I gain by that? I ask. Well, peace. He’ll thank you for this.
If that’s not a veiled threat, may the earth swallow me.
So one never stops worrying.
I’m no admirer of fanatics, because I think fanatics aren’t worth much: in the end, it’s not about living without fear—coldly, inhumanely—but living in spite of fear.
I’m afraid. When I open my front door and go out in the morning, it’s not exactly a happy thing. For all of us on this earth, it’s gravity that keeps our feet on the ground; when I go out, it feels like 15 gravities. It’s heavy leaving the house. And this has been going on for years. There’s the fear that they’ll fuck me up, and added to that, the fear they’ll fuck with the newspaper. Because at the same time it’s impossible to separate yourself from the challenge the newspaper poses, which above all is how to make unattainable quantities of money flow each week, as if by some miracle. Financial theology…
The judicial process is limited to Belter and Eduviges. We have evidence on the rest, but they aren’t brought to justice because it’s so physically and emotionally draining, not just for me, but for my family as well. A judge generally assigns the days when you have to appear to testify arbitrarily. So, for example, one of my sons has to come at a moment’s notice from New York and the other from Texas; they leave their classes, which means postponing exams. On top of that, you have to relive the whole experience, which is really hard.
Add to this the faults of the system itself—things like, they assign a witness a bodyguard and that same bodyguard tells the accused where the witness is so they can go and approach him and manage to buy his testimony. It’s really amazing.
And even if it’s true that there’s a kind of solidarity on the part of the people, hour by hour during the trial there are only three people from the newspaper in the courtroom. Where was the Attorney General’s office, or the President, or the friends from various agencies? Nobody. Nothing. Forgotten. Abandoned.
It’s no surprise that people would rather shut up than seek justice. Many people have said to me: Just imagine: you have a newspaper and you can’t win. Now imagine us, what do you think we’ll expose ourselves to?
In my case, we at least succeeded in punishing two people; that’s a precedent. Of course, I had to push the investigation myself, force them to assign an investigator, and practically pressure the judges so they could bring the case to a close.
In other words, I think the case was a success from the point of view that I managed to prevail over the formal and informal rumors that I’d staged a show and lied about the raid.
It is possible to challenge the power behind the power.
The fates of the victimizers
The day Portillo came to see me, he promised me, I’m going to publicly denounce Eduviges. But what does Portillo do instead? He pays him for two weeks, he gives him 200,000 pesos (I got ahold of a photocopy of the check). Which means President Portillo is automatically guilty of Failing to Prosecute. You can get 10 years in the can for that.
Which is a really important point. The day Portillo left Guatemala was a Monday. I’d given my declaration by then, and Edgar Gutiérrez, too. Portillo had to speak at three in the afternoon. But what happens is at six in the morning Salam Sánchez and Napoleón Rojas show up to warn him: Look man, they’re going to lock you up. So they took him to the Salvadoran border and he went into exile. He’s in Mexico now, but now he’s without legal resources. He could go back to Guatemala, but more than likely he’ll be picked up by the gringos, who opened an investigation of him and Salam and Napoleón Rojas—who for the moment are keeping a low profile.
Abadío, meanwhile, is in jail. And he’s going to be there at least five or six more years. Everything he stole, he lost. His final account of 6 million quetzals is frozen, and I have the feeling the SAT is going to seize it.
Carlos de León has fallen off the map. He was building a career, and now he’s forced to hide under a rock.
Iris Soto remains in the police clinic. That’s because I asked Berger to leave her quietly there, so we’d know where she is.
Who else? Johnston, Erick Alexander Johnston, the boss at the scene of the crime, was on the verge of giving me more information in the meeting with the ODHA. He kept denying his role in the raid, but he hinted to me, Why not look in the archives of the DINH?
Something on the victims
After the raid, we had to live the crude reality of exile and its grim consequence: geographic, family, and spiritual fragmentation.
I always thought my children and I were going to live in Guate to build a better country. But now the safest thing for my second son is never to return. When he came back the first Christmas after the raid, he went to sleep in his room. At around two-thirty in the morning he heard sounds in the ceiling, exaggerated them in his imagination, and crawled under the bed and was there from three-thirty until six in the morning, thinking he was a coward, that they were out there murdering his family and he didn’t have the courage to go and defend them.
The day I went to drop them at the airport was really dramatic. My kids cried with rage against life and against me. That’s because exile in Miami (which ended up lasting seven months) wasn’t exactly a family decision.
My children were pissed as hell. The second oldest said to me, Look, I want to tell you something, I’ve respected what you do, but I think it’s unfair that because of your responsibilities and your decisions we now have to flee Guatemala like thieves. You’re the cause of this.
My oldest son is fighting with me, too, because he never finished his last semester of college. Out of nowhere he got a girlfriend. Three months later they were married.
Yes, our lives change abruptly. When I decided to send them abroad, we didn’t even have passports. The American embassy opened at night to issue us emergency visas. At first I thought of sending them to a hotel (with my precarious credit cards). But then a close friend from El Salvador, José Alfredo, called me. He says, Chepe, what’s happening, I heard something’s up. I bring him up to date. I tell him I’m thinking of sending my family to Miami. Where? He asks. To a hotel. Fuck, you’re going to end up in the street. Look, Chepe, I’ve got an apartment, I’m sending my secretary right now by bus to the Guatemala City Holiday Inn to bring you the keys.
A month later some people from a foundation come to see me, and they offer to rent us an apartment in Miami.
I always believed that guests are like fish: after three days they start to go bad. So I leave my friend’s place (who later yells at me for leaving, but I’m embarrassed to stay) and we migrate elsewhere. Besides an apartment—which costs $1,800—the foundation people pay for school for my youngest and give us like $600 for food. I’d never have been able to pay anything like that.
Every two months I go to see them for five days. I got Taca to give me tickets in exchange for advertising.
The first time I visit them we go to Cheesecake Factory to eat. We order, we start to talk, we laugh a little. And all of a sudden Rodrigo goes white in the eyes and collapses in his plate without catching his fall. He seems to be drowning. I freeze, I just can’t react. There are like 500 people in the place, everyone shitting. “The kid died,” they’re saying. My eldest has to take charge. He grabs his brother, lifts him up and carries him out. An Argentine doctor appears who attends to him. Finally Rodrigo regains consciousness. Paramedics arrive. I’m half-mad telling the story of everything that’s happened to us. They tell us, Don’t go back to Guatemala, we’ll get you a visa and residency, stay here.
Rodrigo has three bleeding ulcers in an advanced state, severe gastritis, and a hiatal hernia. We have to hospitalize him, and it’s another $20,000 for his recovery.
Rodrigo had won a scholarship for architecture—the Cooper scholarship, $250,000. They only admit 25 students a year, 21 gringos and 4 foreigners, and he’d gotten the full ride, and he lost it because of this illness.
Eventually, though, Rodrigo got better, applied to Columbia, and remains there today. He’s the most distinguished student in the class that graduates this May.
José Junior, meanwhile, went to Austin, where he got his degree in Public Policy. He’s still there working because of pressure from me, because the truth is he wants to work here. But I’ve tried to postpone his return to Guate because I think things are going to get worse. I have my reasons for thinking this.
Minayú, Ramón and I are still in Guatemala.
Minayú worries all day. Whenever I go out, she always thinks I’m not going to return. So she starts torturing me by phone. I shut the phone off. When I get home, it’s in an uproar. It happens often. But for all that, the marriage remains strong. It was incredible to see her like a lioness defending her cubs the day of the raid. An exceptional woman.
The youngest is the one who cried and cried and was in this pool of snot. He stopped crying. He went a year and two months without crying, until the day it was his turn to testify in the trial. The night before, we talked. Look, you have to go to the court tomorrow, simply tell them your experience. He exploded in tears, and cried for like two hours.
As for me, they came to interview me about Black Thursday or whatever and I cried in fear, in terror, in rage, in indignation, in impotence. I’m left with a huge feeling of guilt. And I feel like a coward, knowing who did this harm to me and not doing anything. I want to find the intellectual authors to punish them. It’s something that’s with me every day since it happened. As for Eduviges and Belter, on the other hand, in the end I can forgive them, because one way or another they’ve paid. The thing that always used to scare me is that they’ll be freed. But I’ve overcome that. For sure, I’m going to pursue the other material authors. Just because I haven’t done it so far doesn’t mean I’m not going to do it. The thing is there’s a big cost: 21 days of trial, and at least 40 of preparation.
In the United States they offered my family and me psychological help. We didn’t take it. We probably should. I probably should. Instead, I took a step that affected my family a lot: I’d stay at the newspaper, after everyone left, without doing anything, having a few drinks, and afterwards I’d go to a bar and continue drinking, getting home after dawn. It was as though I wanted to stay awake for when death came looking for me.
A few weeks ago I was kidnapped. It was a Wednesday. I went to the Hacienda Real to meet someone. I ran into my cousin there by chance, and we decided to go and have a drink. We went to a nearby bar, and were there a little while. Then he left. I stayed there throwing back another drink. The only people in the bar were the guy serving drinks, a gray-haired guy doing the accounts, and two other people. Later some people came in, I didn’t pay attention. Then I disappeared: they’d put something in my drink. I managed to open my eyes halfway: I was in the back of a vehicle: I saw they were drawing a substance from a bottle: they injected me. And after that I don’t remember a thing: 18 hours unconscious. They tossed me out me around Tejar, on an unpaved, secondary street. I was there from three until eight in the morning, on top of an anthill, with hypothermia. I ended up unconscious at the Chimaltenango hospital thanks to a woman who saw me and called the fire department. They gave me a probe, and that probe broke the walls of the urethra and left me with antibiotic resistant germs and an infection of the blood. But those firemen saved my life. They attached a respirator, they ran a tube in me, they put me under lights to warm me up. When I didn’t regain consciousness, they sent me to the city to a place where they did a tomogram to see if I had a clot or internal hemorrhage. I seem to recall like five serious faces riding with me in the ambulance, one of them with his relative, who I managed to make out as the director of El Periódico. They’d called him. They rounded up around 10 of my friends and one of my cousins. I was in the hospital unconscious for three hours in the emergency room, and I recuperated afterwards in intensive care. As a result of this whole experience, I have no feeling in my leg. I had a meeting with prosecutors; they had like eight videos with faces and everything, but they’re super frustrated: despite having identified the vehicles, the SAT wouldn’t give them access to the archives of licenses and registrations. It’s as though they’ve been investigating for one 120 years. The kidnappers felt so secure they even used my cell phone after kidnapping me. They called and said, Look, as of last night it’s not his, it’s mine, if you want to see him he’s thrown in a dumpster in Zone 3. Colom sent people to look for me in Zone 3. My children and my wife thought I was dead.
But that’s another story.
Epilogue: Why write this?
Five years after the raid, I still have an enormous need for catharsis. The act of talking about my case gives me a little dose of relief.
But above all I need a moral judgment. I should say that the intellectual authors have always preoccupied me more than the material authors. The material authors did the dirty work, but the others are truly responsible for what we suffered and the consequences my family has paid. Since we haven’t been able to bring them before a court or any tribunal, what’s left to me is to put this out there, so that people know their names, and at the very least they’re shamed.
My grandfather got 14 years in exile for trying to improve his country. Fourteen years in which he had no communication with his family or his family with him. His newspaper was more than a traditional newspaper; it was created to push political ideas and to generate change. I, too, want to be an agent of change. The name hasn’t mattered to me: La Hora,Siglo XXI, El Periódico.
We have a culture of transgressing the law. If this doesn’t change, we’re never going to grow or modernize or be decent or civilized. The biggest violator of the law is the State.
We can’t go on living at the mercy of the public demons.