Álvaro Colom, Guatemalan President Who Fought for the Indigenous, Dies at 71

MEXICO CITY — Álvaro Colom, who as president of Guatemala from 2008 to 2012 put the country’s forgotten Indigenous communities at the center of his government but faced fierce opposition from the elites, died on Monday at his home in Guatemala City. He was 71.

His death was confirmed by his niece Alejandra Colom, who said he had been treated for esophageal cancer.

Mr. Colom expanded access to education and health care in a country scarred by deep inequalities and decades of civil war. But his time in office was shadowed by a bizarre scandal in which he was accused of assassination and eventually exonerated by a United Nations-backed anti-corruption commission.

He also faced the growing reach of Mexican drug cartels, particularly the Zetas, that had allied with local criminal gangs to traffic cocaine. He supported a crusading attorney general who worked with the anti-corruption commission to arrest some of the country’s most violent criminals.

But it was his commitment to giving a voice to Guatemala’s Indigenous peoples that set him apart from the country’s old-guard political power brokers. Mr. Colom had spent most of the 1990s heading a government fund set up to invest in villages that had been abandoned by the government during the 36-year civil war between military regimes and leftist guerrillas.

“I saw the faces of poverty, the faces of abandonment and the wealth of the Indigenous culture that we didn’t appreciate and that we didn’t value,” he told CNN in 2011.

Carlos Menocal, who served as interior minister in Mr. Colom’s government, said Mr. Colom was one of the few white Guatemalans who was considered an ally by the Mayan elders. He used the Mayan calendar in his daily life and as president flew a flag over the National Palace celebrating the country’s Indigenous peoples.

His bid for elective office was an effort to scale up the work he had done with the investment fund, the National Fund for Peace, said Ms. Colom, his niece. He ran for president three times before winning under the banner of the party he founded, National Unity for Hope, known by its Spanish initials U.N.E.

Mr. Colom campaigning for president in 2007. “I will be one of the presidents, if not the president, who is most independent of economic power,” he said.Credit…Orlando Sierra Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

But 17 months into Mr. Colom’s presidency, a lawyer named Rodrigo Rosenberg was fatally shot while riding his bicycle. In a video released posthumously, Mr. Rosenberg said that if he were killed, it would be because the president had ordered his murder.

Conservative leaders seized on the case to demand Mr. Colom’s resignation. In response, he asked the United Nations panel, the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, known by the Spanish acronym CICIG, to investigate the Rosenberg killing.

The investigators’ conclusion, eight months later, could have been the plot of a film noir. The commission found that Mr. Rosenberg, suicidal over the murders of a woman with whom he had been having an affair and her father, had arranged for his own killing in a manner intended to inflict political damage on Mr. Colom.

Mr. Colom called the case the biggest challenge of his presidency. He argued that the calls to remove him had emanated from interests opposed to his policies. “I will be one of the presidents, if not the president, who is most independent of economic power,” he said in the CNN interview.

Anita Isaacs, a Guatemala expert at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, said that in retrospect, the Rosenberg case demonstrated the power of interests aligned against any effort to end the privileges of Guatemala’s white ruling classes.

“I really see him as a fundamentally decent, well-intentioned man, committed to peace and rectifying the wrongs of the past,” she said. “Anybody who dared promote peace and justice and democracy was going to meet a fate similar to what they foisted on Colom.”

Álvaro Colom Caballeros was born on June 15, 1951, in Guatemala City, the fourth of five children. His father, Antonio Colom Argueta, was a lawyer with a background in liberal politics. His mother, Yolanda Caballeros Ferraté, worked as a secretary before raising their children.

Mr. Colom was educated at Roman Catholic schools and earned a degree in industrial engineering at the University of San Carlos of Guatemala, the country’s main public university. He built a successful career in the garment industry, manufacturing clothing for export.

But politics were never far away. In 1979, his uncle Manuel Colom Argueta, a former mayor of Guatemala City, was assassinated shortly after he had registered a new political party opposed to military rule. Mr. Colom frequently cited his uncle’s legacy as a factor in his political career.

In 1991, as the government and the guerrillas were engaged in peace talks, Mr. Colom was tapped to lead the National Fund for Peace, and he began to travel the countryside to meet with Indigenous people.

Ms. Colom recalled taking trips with her uncle during school holidays to remote mountain villages. He was so committed to the task at hand, she said, that he would forget to eat, although he chain-smoked constantly.

“I am convinced that his commitment to the country came from spiritual, emotional, moral conviction — and then the engineer kicked in,” Ms. Colom said.

Mr. Colom’s popular social programs as president, chiefly one that provided conditional cash transfers to the poorest Guatemalans, were the first of their kind in Guatemala, but they led to charges of electoral manipulation.

Stephen G. McFarland, a retired diplomat who was the United States ambassador during Mr. Colom’s presidency, said that the main aid program “seemed to be reasonably run” and “seemed to be contributing to the welfare of poorer people.”

Mr. Colom’s first wife, Patricia Szarata, died in a car crash when they were both 25, leaving him to raise two small children, Patricia and Antonio. He had a third child, Diego, with his second wife, Karen Steele. That marriage ended in divorce.

His third wife, Sandra Torres, served as first lady during his presidency, but the couple divorced in 2011 so that she could get around a constitutional prohibition on a president’s relatives running for the same office. The country’s top court blocked her candidacy, however. The couple never reconciled.

Mr. Colom’s three children survive him, as do two grandchildren.

In 2018, Mr. Colom and several former members of his cabinet were arrested as a result of a CICIG investigation into inflated contracts to a shell company for a new bus system in the capital during his presidency. Mr. Colom had signed off on the contracts arranged by his private secretary, but prosecutors presented no evidence that he had personally received kickbacks.

He declared his innocence, adding, “I have all patience and tranquillity in the world for the process to continue.”

He spent three months in jail before being released on bail. The case stalled and never went to trial.

The arrest came as a surprise to many who knew him. “Álvaro Colom was a good guy, but he got badly treated in politics toward the end,” Mr. McFarland said. “But he’ll be better treated by history.”

Jody García contributed reporting from Guatemala City.

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