GUATEMALA CITY — In a country known for coups d’etats and military dictatorships, Javier Ogarrio is an unlikely revolutionary.
The blue-eyed, fair-haired 21-year-old who recently spent a year working as a computer programmer in Sweden admittedly paid only passing attention to politics — until last week.
That’s when a videotape surfaced in which a murdered lawyer, Rodrigo Rosenberg, said before he died that his death would come at the hands of Guatemala's president and his inner circle.
“If you are watching this message, it is because I was assassinated by President Alvaro Colom with help from [the president’s secretary] Gustavo Alejos,” Rosenberg said in the video, which appears on YouTube and was posted by Guatemalan and foreign news sites. He said he would be killed because he had documentation that allegedly proved Colom, the first lady and two associates participated in a money laundering scheme that diverted public money into dummy corporations and “nonexistent” social programs.
Rosenberg was found Sunday a few yards from his house in an upscale Guatemala City neighborhood, shot in the head. Police said he was attacked while riding his bicycle for exercise.
In the aftermath of the death, Ogarrio has become one of the leading organizers of ongoing demonstrations calling for President Alvaro Colom’s resignation. And he’s doing it through Facebook. (Colom told Reuters on Friday that he believes his enemies are behind the scandal.)
Thousands of young adults, mostly university students, have gathered every day in front of the presidential palace to demand that Colom step down. It’s all been organized via social networking websites.
The case showcases the Web’s power for political organizing, said Michael Cornfield, who studies the intersection between the Web and politics as an adjunct professor at George Washington University and vice president at 702 Strategies, a K Street firm.
“Video is a much more powerful tool than text for motivating people … and then Facebook provides a fixed platform where everyone can go to, from around the world, to contribute content,” Cornfield said. “In the last two or three years, we’ve seen that super-national quality of the Web be combined with the group communications quality. It’s powerful.”
Colom and the others involved have repeatedly denied the allegations Rosenberg made in the video, but the killing and the claims have created an uproar.
A United Nations-backed investigatory body has pledged to investigate the crime. U.S. Ambassador Stephen McFarland said the FBI’s regional representative, who is based in El Salvador, was sent to Guatemala to assist in the probe.
“The government said it wants a rapid and objective investigation,” McFarland said. “We, along with [the U.N. investigators], want to do everything possible to support this.”
While some opposition party politicians have suggested Colom step aside during the investigation, the loudest calls for the president’s resignation have come from students contacting each other through Facebook, Hi-5 and Twitter.
Late this week, the groups said they had collected more than 5,000 signatures in a petition calling for Colom to step down. They planned to present the petition to the Guatemalan congress.
“I think everyone was so shocked by this video and by his words, which were so powerful,” Ogarrio said. “It feels so good to be a part of something that can change the system. I was never really involved in these types of demonstrations before. I guess it’s kind of unlikely that I would be the one helping to organize it.”
If Ogarrio is an improbable choice to lead the demonstrations, the case of the 27-year-old banker who goes by the Facebook handle “Justicia Rodrigo Rosenberg” is incredible. For starters, he doesn’t even live in Guatemala.
From his apartment in New York City, this individual — who's first name is Rodrigo, and who asked that his last name not be used for fear of retaliation against friends in Guatemala — organized a Facebook group that drew more than 25,000 members in three days and has been a critical link in organizing the demonstrations.
“I watched the video on Monday with my girlfriend. We were so outraged that we decided to start a Facebook group,” Rodrigo said. “At first, it was just a forum for people to express themselves. But after thousands started joining, I realized it was upon me to materialize their will for change.”
Rodrigo graduated six years ago with a political science degree from University of Pennsylvania, where he wrote papers on the use of social media for political organizing.
“It was a bit surprising. I didn’t expect it to grow this quickly,” he said. “But now that I have this platform of power, I know I have to do something with it.”
The power of the Web in organizing social and political movements is not new to the U.S., where political candidates have turned to sites such as Facebook to court the youth vote. But trying to topple a foreign president from a New York City apartment is a different matter, particularly when it comes to Guatemala.
During the country’s 36-year civil war, in which military dictators regularly overthrew each other, the youth movement was suppressed. A U.N.-sponsored truth commission found that an estimated 40,000 political dissidents were abducted and murdered by government forces. Many of them were student leaders.
The websites give youth long excluded from political process a powerful tool for organizing.
“I am amazed at the courage of these 28,000 people on Facebook who are not using aliases and making their identities known,” Cornfield said. “In the past during demonstrations, there was some safety and anonymity provided by sheer numbers. But here you have people using their names and posting their photos.”
On Tuesday, a Twitter user who went by “Jeanfer” weighed in on the political situation, posting tweets that called for people to withdraw money from Banrural, one of Guatemala’s largest banks. Rosenberg had implicated the bank in the president’s alleged money laundering scheme.
The person making the posts, an IT worker named Jean Ramses Anleu Fernandez, said, “remove your cash from Banrural. Break the bank of the corrupt.” Police arrested him Wednesday and charged him with inciting financial panic.
Banrural, which has pledged to investigate the allegations of money laundering, started running radio spots to assure the public it was in sound financial shape.
In the circle of demonstration organizers, many had originally called for a coup during planning meetings, without realizing its significance, Ogarrio said.
“I think we’re over that,” he said. “Nobody wants to violently destabilize the government.”
The demonstrations are a powerful symbol of the people’s will that have the potential to force action in the government, said Haverford College political science professor and Guatemala specialist Anita Isaacs.
“For the youth of Guatemala, who have never really known a country that is not pervasively violent, this could be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back,” she said. “They’ve been living in fear of the violence. This might conquer fear.”
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