How a Shootout on a Guatemalan Highway Opened Window to Corruption

(ProPublica) – In 2013, ProPublica reporter Sebastian Rotella got a tip on an assassination attempt against Enrique Degenhart Asturias, a 44-year-old Guatemala native who had been working as a consultant to the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala City. Rotella, a veteran Latin America correspondent, knew such violence was common in that part of the world, but this event felt distinctive.

For one thing, Degenhart was shot nine times, but he lived to tell the story. Second, Degenhart had recently been fired from a post in the country’s notoriously corrupt immigration service after trying to reform it. Third, the Guatemalan government had removed Degenhart’s security detail ten months before gunmen tried to take his life.

Enrique Degenhart (Lexey Swall)

Rotella flew to Guatemala to investigate. Today he joins our podcast to tell us what he found:

You’ve been covering terrorism, crime, and various scandals in Latin America and throughout the world for much of your career. How did you come across this particular story?

Rotella: It really was just fortuitous, in that I knew a law enforcement official in Washington who had been at a presentation done by Enrique Degenhart … a tactical presentation … about being involved in a shootout, and how to survive what is the worst nightmare for law enforcement officials in Latin America, which is a car-to-car ambush. I’ve been covering, as you said, Latin America for a long time, and I’ve covered many cases of people who got killed or ambushed car-to-car, and things related to the mafias and law enforcement. In fact, I knew a police chief in Tijuana, a source of mine, who died that way.

When I heard this story this law enforcement official told me, I heard this incredible story. This guy got shot nine times, he had the presence of mind to survive, he was armed. Then he told me a bit about Degenhart’s work, and his odyssey, and what had happened, and how he had come to the States and was in hiding and all that, so I got fascinated by it and said, “Boy, that would be a great story to tell.”

Let’s back up a step. Who is Enrique Degenhart?

Rotella:Enrique Degenhart was the Immigration Service Director in Guatemala who, for two years, was brought in to try to clean up what had been a woefully corrupt and troubled agency — as many border agencies are in Latin America, with all kinds of corruption and dysfunction and lack of resources. … He was brought in from the private sector. He had never really been in law enforcement, but he knew people in the administration of President Colom in Guatemala … which was a reasonably reformist administration … which was trying to, at least in some areas, clean things up. So he was brought in to try to do this. By doing things that seem rather simple to an American point of view, like modernizing technology, and organizing, and upgrading, and creating more screening and whatnot, he created all these problems for these mafias that were entrenched in this service. Quickly it became a very dangerous situation for him that culminated in this shootout in which he almost died.

Describe that ambush for us.

Rotella: I could very vividly imagine his mindset for those 10 months that he is driving around by himself without the bodyguards and the armored car he’s accustomed to. He had his Glock with his high-powered ammunition just ready for this to happen. You also have to remember, the roads of Guatemala are very dangerous, and they’re full of all kinds of crime. The week I was down there, I kept meeting people who had been victims of crime in their vehicles. I was struck by the mindset. He was ready for this.

Listen to this podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud or Stitcher. For more, read Rotella’s story A Gunfight in Guatemala.

This report prepared by Joaquin Sapien for ProPublica.