The investigation into the February killings of three Salvadoran legislators here has stumbled because of obstacles and poor police work, observers say, leaving them to doubt whether authorities will uncover the masterminds of a crime that shook Central America's political establishment.
Eduardo Jose D'Aubuisson, the 32-year-old son of the founder of El Salvador's ruling party, was kidnapped, tortured and killed along with two fellow legislators and their driver while on their way to a meeting of the Central American Parliament, a regional lawmaking body.
Guatemalan officials say the principal suspects are local drug traffickers and mid-level rogue police officers.
But a U.S. official said FBI agents from Los Angeles, sent in response to a request for help by Guatemalan officials, were "appalled" by the conduct of their counterparts here.
And a Central American intelligence official said he believed Guatemalan authorities were deliberately impeding the investigation.
D'Aubuisson, his colleagues William Pichinte and Jose Ramon Gonzalez, and driver Gerardo Ramirez were killed Feb. 19. Four Guatemalan police officers were arrested and charged in the case on Feb. 22. Investigators used a satellite positioning device attached to the officers' patrol car to place them at the scene of the crime.
But the officers were killed Feb. 25 while being held in a maximum-security prison. The dramatic slaying of the chief suspects was widely seen as evidence of a larger conspiracy.
Guatemalan investigators "simply and intentionally refused to pass on information to the FBI," said the Central American intelligence official who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
"Based on our analysis, an investigation into the killings would reveal the high level of organized crime's involvement in the circles of the [Guatemalan] state," the source said.
U.S. officials stopped short of saying Guatemalan investigators had declined to cooperate with the FBI. And Guatemalan officials strongly disputed the charge.
"We have nothing to hide," said Guatemalan Interior Minister Adela de Torrebiarte, who took office in March after her predecessor resigned in the wake of the killings. "We want to clear this case and have never acted in bad faith."
At first, some Guatemalan officials suggested drug traffickers had killed the legislators as part of a settling of accounts. But Salvadoran officials bristled at the notion that D'Aubuisson may have had ties to traffickers.
Under pressure from Salvadoran President Tony Saca, Guatemalan President Oscar Berger requested help from the United States.
The FBI agents who arrived here included several crime-scene specialists and a case manager.
"The handling of the evidence was sloppy," said the U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "There was no sense of urgency. Obvious leads were not being followed," including phone records that may have linked the dead police officers suspected in the killing to confederates.
The FBI agents think they may never know the full truth of the case, the U.S. official said.
But De Torrebiarte said in an interview that important progress was being made. "A case has been presented to the court," she said.
Guatemalan officials have arrested five additional suspects they say are members of an organized crime group in the eastern Guatemalan department of Jutiapa. Prosecutor Alvaro Matus said the men were highway bandits who also doubled as enforcers for drug traffickers.
Intelligence officials in the region have said they believe the Jutiapa group was allied with a Mexican drug trafficking organization.
The Central American intelligence source said he believed a group of retired Guatemalan military officers known as "La Cofradia," or The Brotherhood, may be linked to the killings.
"Who else in Guatemala would have the nerve and the strategic capability to break into a prison with AK-47s and kill off the witnesses before the FBI got there to talk to them?" the source said.
Retired Gen. Otto Perez Molina, a center-right presidential candidate, said the official investigation had lost credibility because of the deep involvement of Victor Rivera, an expert in kidnapping cases who works for the Interior Ministry. In March, congressional deputies from Perez Molina's Patriot Party accused Rivera of being linked to extra-judicial executions.
"We have serious doubts about any investigation that takes place with this man still working in the Interior Ministry," Perez Molina said.
A U.S. official also expressed concerns about Rivera's participation in the case, but noted that he was a veteran investigator respected by many members of the Guatemalan business community.
Salvadoran President Saca said last month he was disappointed by the Guatemalan investigation. "Guatemala should do more," he said. "We expect Guatemala to get to the bottom of these killings."
A European diplomat said the Guatemalan government's theory that the crime was carried out by local gang members and mid-level police was not credible. The diplomat said Guatemalan police had failed to question Javier Figueroa, second in command at the national police and supervisor of the officers suspected of killing the legislators.
Figueroa fled Guatemala after the police were killed and stayed for several days on a beach in Costa Rica. He refused to return for questioning and has since disappeared. Guatemalan prosecutors say he is not a suspect.
"If you don't manage to interrogate the high-ranking officials [of the police], you're going to leave a huge doubt," the diplomat said. "As long as there isn't a serious, professional and impartial investigation, this crime will remain unpunished."
The diplomat expressed frustration that Guatemalan leaders failed to appreciate that leaving such a high-profile case unsolved "could have serious repercussions for the rule of law and democracy."
Times staff writer Tobar reported from Guatemala City and special correspondent Renderos from San Salvador.