How one man tried to tackle deep-rooted corruption in Guatemala — and barely made it out alive.
Early on the morning of Oct. 31, 2012, Enrique Degenhart Asturias left his home in Guatemala City to drive to his gym for his daily workout.
Tall, bespectacled, and broad-shouldered, the 44-year-old Degenhart wore sweatpants and a T-shirt. Along with his exercise gear, he carried a .40-caliber Glock 22 pistol loaded with high-powered ammunition.
Degenhart had reason to be on guard. He had spent two years trying to clean up Guatemala’s immigration service. After taking the job of director of the notoriously corrupt agency in 2010, he had beefed up internal affairs, modernized technology, and battled criminal networks that sold fraudulent passports to African migrants, Russian fugitives, and Colombian drug traffickers. His reforms had won him a long list of powerful enemies — inside and outside the government — linked to mafias.
But despite his achievements, the new president, Otto Pérez Molina, had fired him in January, ignoring an appeal from the U.S. Embassy to keep him in his post. Pérez Molina’s aides had also taken away his armored car and bodyguards, breaking an agreement to provide security to the former immigration chief. Degenhart felt vulnerable and unsafe. In a land where roads swarm with robbers, carjackers, and hit men on wheels, even a trip to the gym was a potential ride into a kill zone.
At approximately 6:35 a.m., Degenhart’s Porsche Cayenne pulled to a stop behind two cars at an intersection. From there, the next stage in his morning route was to cross an overpass to the Pan-American Highway, which snakes through the verdant hills of Guatemala City. Suddenly, he spotted something in his rearview mirror: a green Mitsubishi Lancer. The four-door sedan approached fast. It swerved to the right past the Cayenne into the parking lot of a corner pharmacy and then swung back and stopped at a hard angle, ready to cut in front of him when traffic resumed.
The Lancer’s windows were polarized to a dark tint, like the windows of the Cayenne and many other vehicles navigating the anarchic streets of the capital. Degenhart could only see the thickset silhouette of the driver. But the aggressive maneuver had startled him. So did the fact that the left rear window lowered slightly and then slid back up quickly. His hand dropped to the Glock in the holster by his seat.
When a traffic officer signaled the stopped cars to advance, the Lancer forced its way into traffic ahead of Degenhart, turning left to precede him across the overpass. The Lancer turned left again and, instead of accelerating down the entry ramp, slowed and began flashing its hazard lights. As Degenhart followed warily toward the busy highway lanes, he saw two silhouettes in the back seat of the Lancer. One appeared to turn a baseball cap backward on his head, like a baseball catcher. Or a sniper.
Degenhart knew that gunmen in Guatemala’s underworld often wore brimmed caps to conceal their faces, reversing them when it was time to pull the trigger. Degenhart drew his gun.
In Latin American law enforcement, reformers are often outsiders: human rights activists, academics, women. Degenhart was a different breed of outsider. He was a private-sector technocrat who ventured into a predatory bureaucracy, an arena in which mafias have thrived with impunity.
Fair-haired, with the square-jawed looks of his German and Spanish ancestors, Degenhart has an intent, solemn air that is softened by his relaxed sense of humor. He was born in 1968 in Guatemala City to an engineer father and a mother who worked for the U.S. Peace Corps.
At the time, his country was embroiled in what would become a bloody civil war, sparked by a CIA-backed coup that toppled democratically elected President Jacobo Árbenz in 1954. A leftist guerrilla movement emerged, and the ensuing hostilities continued for more than three decades. Human rights inquiries by the United Nations and the Catholic Church later found Guatemala’s U.S.-backed military responsible for a campaign of deadly repression that reached genocidal levels in the 1980s.
Although Degenhart’s family was well-off, he did not have strong sympathies for the military or the guerrillas, he said during an interview with Foreign Policy and ProPublica conducted in the United States last year. Politically, he says, he considers himself a centrist.
“My generation grows up in the shadow of this concept of continuous war,” he explained. “I come from a family that was always very committed to the idea of social equality.… None of us got involved in politics until the return of democracy.”
Degenhart attended the prestigious American School of Guatemala and Francisco Marroquín University. In his final semester, he started a business with his brother (an Olympic swimmer) in the booming regional sector of maquiladoras, or textile-export assembly plants. Their company prospered and was later acquired by a U.S. firm.
While Degenhart’s business career progressed, in 1996 democracy returned to the country, heralded by free elections and the signing of a landmark peace accord to end the civil war, which had killed more than 200,000 people. But the long-entrenched oligarchy retained control, and profound inequality and violence persisted.
At that time, Degenhart was working as a Central American marketing manager at Bimbo, a Mexico-based food products group. During the 2000s, he changed jobs and dedicated himself to promoting Guatemala’s two biggest soccer teams. He also founded a management consulting company that helped businesses improve their information technology systems.
Degenhart was content in the private sector. But he had developed a political connection during his years in manufacturing that would prove fateful: his friendship with Alvaro Colom and Sandra Torres, fellow textile entrepreneurs who became a political power couple. In 2008, Colom took office as Guatemala’s first leftist president in decades. Like previous presidential administrations, Colom’s government was marred by scandal. But he also oversaw the passage of major justice reforms and appointed admired crime fighters and independent figures to powerful posts.
In 2010, Colom’s aides approached Degenhart with a surprising job offer: director of the immigration service. Colom offered Degenhart the role of interventor, which translates roughly as “inspector” or “comptroller,” a director for the troubled agency with special emergency powers and a direct line to the president.
There had been many interventores before Degenhart, and many did not stay long.
“They lasted six months,” a U.S. Department of Homeland Security official said. “It was hard to clean that place up. Either they got involved in the corruption or they got burned out.”
In developed and developing countries alike, border agencies hold the keys to the kingdom for illicit enterprises of all kinds. There are few posts in which low-paid functionaries wield more potential power over people’s lives and the movement of goods.
Another factor in Guatemala: the toxic legacy of decades of civil war. Military regimes had systematically exploited the immigration and customs agencies for financial gain and operational ease. Post-conflict mafias with roots in the military continued the practice.
“I couldn’t tell you exactly how long the agency had been infiltrated, but I’d think it was almost from its creation,” Degenhart said. “There are operatives encrusted in the structure.”
Guatemala’s immigration service was also a haven for malfeasance thanks to the three labor unions that represented its employees, including border guards and officials in the bureaucracy, according to Guatemalan and foreign law enforcement officials. Union bosses behaved like kingpins: feuding, staving off internal investigations, developing influential political allies, and enriching themselves with illegal activities, according to Guatemalan, U.S., and Mexican law enforcement officials.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security took special interest in the affairs of the immigration agency because of concerns about Guatemala’s dual role as an outpost for smuggling and a source of illegal immigration. As in other Latin American nations, DHS worked closely with the government to push reforms and created a carefully screened unit of Guatemalan investigators to try to fill the vacuum in the fight against smuggling rings.
The union leaders “made so much money [that] they controlled judges and lawyers,” a veteran investigator for a U.S. law enforcement agency said. “They infiltrated the judicial system. It was almost impossible to make a case against them.”
Despite the many challenges of the interventor job, Degenhart accepted the position in February 2010. The president wanted him to overhaul the agency’s management and services and upgrade its technology. Degenhart felt comfortable with those tasks. When it came to crime fighting, however, he was a novice.
“Law enforcement was not a field in which I had ever worked,” he said. “I had no idea how complex it was going to be.”
Degenhart reported to then-Interior Minister Carlos Menocal. Like Degenhart, he was an outsider. A former journalist, Menocal had come to be regarded by Guatemalans and the diplomatic community as one of Colom’s most effective and honest cabinet ministers. In an interview, Menocal said he worked well with the new immigration chief.
“Degenhart was the beneficiary of a fortunate set of alliances with President Colom, with … myself, and international cooperation,” Menocal said. “It was a strong mix that helped make him successful. Enrique works in a direct frontal manner against criminality.”
Degenhart’s appointment was just one of the signs of a reform campaign underway in Guatemala. In 2007, the government had invited a team of U.N. prosecutors to set up shop in the capital and work with local law enforcement to build cases against mafias that had embedded themselves in the state during the military dictatorship — a move unprecedented in Latin America.
No one knew it then, but Degenhart’s path would soon converge with the U.N. crackdown. His experience gives a rare inside look at the methods and perils of fighting corruption in Latin America.
Degenhart’s first step in his new job was to commission a study of the immigration service.
Drawing on his business experience, he wanted a corporate-style diagnosis of the agency’s finances, services, technology, and human resources. The roughly 500 employees staffed border crossings and handled visas, passports, and other procedures. Many had paramilitary backgrounds. Degenhart learned the workforce was underpaid, neglected, and apathetic; the agency even forced employees to purchase their own uniforms.
They also worked in often primitive conditions. The agency’s ancient computer system looked to Degenhart as if it could have been disabled with a kick. At remote jungle outposts on the border with Mexico, he met inspectors who slept on cardboard bedding in hut-like quarters.
“We found a border station that was a little laminated shed with three people sitting at desks,” said Javier Rivera, who served as the deputy director of the immigration service. “Then you looked across the border, and there was the Mexican station with a helipad and everything. Our station was isolated and at the end of a bad dirt road. We had to install antennas for satellite phones [and] computers.”
At that border post and elsewhere, Degenhart’s team upgraded technology and databases that didn’t even allow inspectors to identify border crossers with warrants or security alerts, Rivera said.
After just a few days on the job, Degenhart collided with the criminal underworld. In February 2010, Guatemala hosted a world convention of coffee growers. Two dozen supposed delegates from China arrived in Guatemala City and then promptly disappeared. Some eventually turned up in Mexico, where authorities arrested them. The Chinese were actually migrants bound illegally for the United States. They had paid smugglers $50,000 apiece to help them pose as representatives of China’s coffee industry. With the help of accomplices inside the Guatemalan government, they procured fraudulent visas using an electronic system created for the convention.
Degenhart promptly shut down that visa system, according to U.S., Mexican, and Guatemalan officials who worked with him on the case. His agency turned away a second group of Chinese impostors who arrived at the airport sporting tennis shoes, jeans, T-shirts, and “little backpacks in which you couldn’t fit a suit and tie for a convention,” he said.
Teaming up with U.S. and Mexican law enforcement, Degenhart launched an inquiry into the smuggling scheme. His response was a pleasant surprise to his foreign counterparts. Mexican and U.S. law enforcement officials say they were unaccustomed to such vigor in the immigration service.
In addition to cracking down on smuggling, Degenhart set up a system that assigned a tracking number to people seeking passports, visas, or other services from the immigration agency. That simple measure drastically reduced the “margin of corruption” by creating a documented record of each case, as well as a timeline of the services provided, according to a Mexican law enforcement official who worked with Degenhart and U.S. counterparts.
“It becomes a lot harder to cut corners, sell favors,” the Mexican official said. “I told him: ‘You realize what you’ve done, don’t you?’ He looked at me, kind of surprised, and said, ‘Well, I come from the private sector. Everyone should get a number, like a bank, right?’”
Around the same time, Degenhart resolved a longtime contract dispute with the unions, agreeing effectively to double the salaries of immigration officers. But he warned that moneymaking on the side would not be tolerated, according to Rivera, his deputy director.
“Tell your people not to get into any more nonsense,” Degenhart told the labor bosses during a meeting, according to Rivera. “Now there’s going to be a decent, honest wage.”
Tensions with the unions escalated, however, when Degenhart unveiled a plan to rotate 64 officers to new assignments. Corruption depended largely on control of territory through key positions at land, air, and sea borders and in the bureaucracy. Union officials and their partners in crime had consolidated turf by entrenching operatives and collecting bribes from criminal rackets and users of the immigration system. The goal of the rotation plan was to disrupt those networks built on graft.
Two of the three unions accepted his plan, albeit grudgingly. But Juan Pacheco Coc, the leader of the smallest union, resisted. He stormed into the director’s office and threatened him, according to Degenhart.
“He objected because he had fewer operatives [than the other unions] and they were in posts that were probably strategic for him and were going to be removed,” Degenhart recalled. “He said, ‘If the rotations are done, you are going to have serious problems. You are going to have serious legal problems, political problems, and, in case you don’t understand, even personal problems.’”
Pacheco didn’t have a reputation for making empty threats. He had accrued clout and wealth over decades of working the system, according to Guatemalan, U.S., and Mexican law enforcement officials. He had formed his breakaway union after clashing with other bosses and survived investigations into money laundering, passport peddling, and the smuggling of drugs, immigrants, and gasoline, according to Guatemalan and foreign officials, as well as documents and press reports.
Pacheco tried to block Degenhart’s anti-corruption rotation plan in court. Meanwhile, anonymous callers threatened to kill Degenhart. Someone slashed his tires. In response, he began driving an armored vehicle and increased his government-assigned security detail from six officers to 10. He also took weekly shooting lessons from an instructor on a tactical range used by the presidential protective service.
Before he began that training, Degenhart possessed only what he called “typical firearms knowledge” for a Guatemalan.
“You keep a shotgun in your house in case a robber breaks in,” he said. “But it was inherent to my new job to learn more. The danger was greater, and I also wanted to learn more about this world.”
Still, there were those who accused Degenhart of exaggerating the threat and of mismanagement. In May 2010, the newspaper Siglo 21 published a report titled “Excesos del interventor,” or “The Inspector’s Excesses.” It questioned Degenhart’s security spending and quoted a former interior minister who accused him of “lack of financial planning.”
Degenhart disputes the criticism. The security measures were warranted, he said in the interview with FP and ProPublica. The newspaper article, he said, was a political assault linked to the escalating labor conflict.
Pacheco, meanwhile, was making the rounds of influential figures and agencies, boasting that he had proof of crimes committed by his union rivals.
“It was a fight among mafias,” said the veteran U.S. law enforcement investigator. “Pacheco was dirty, too.”
On July 30, 2010, after weeks of trying to block the rotation of immigration officials behind the scenes, Pacheco publicly accused his rival labor bosses of engaging in corrupt activities such as selling fraudulent passports. The next day, authorities found his corpse in his home. There was no sign of forced entry. He had been bound, gagged, tortured, beaten, and stabbed to death. The case remains unsolved.
Four days after Pacheco’s murder, Roxana Baldetti, a powerful leader of the legislative opposition, summoned Degenhart and the interior minister to legislative hearings. A former Miss Guatemala contestant, she had a flashy, combative style. She was also gearing up to run for vice president on a ticket with Pérez Molina, a former general, and had taken a special interest in border issues.
“When I [sat] down with my division chiefs in the hearing room, she said, ‘Only you can stay here; the others have to leave,’” Degenhart recalled. “At that moment, I realized that it [was] a political lynching.”
Baldetti claimed during those public legislative hearings and comments to the press that Pacheco had given her information about a smuggling ring and that Degenhart had allowed it to flourish within the immigration agency.
But according to former Interior Minister Menocal and others, the reality was different. They assert that Baldetti presented herself as a crusader while concealing her connections to border mafias. Subsequent investigations of Baldetti have lent credence to those allegations.
Degenhart remained in his post. But it was clear he had acquired powerful enemies.
“They never found any dirt on him, and they looked for everything they could,” the Mexican law enforcement official said. “The fact is, in that job, either you devote yourself to stealing money or you do your work. He did his work. He didn’t need the money. His family is wealthy. But we were worried about him.”
Degenhart’s battles were part of a larger and longer war.
Big or small, leftist or rightist, rich or poor, Latin American nations struggle with a crime problem that threatens political stability and security. There are exceptions, such as Chile, and nations such as Colombia have made great progress. Latin American democracies are robust when it comes to freedom of elections and the press. Yet many struggle to consolidate the rule of law.
In Central America today, lawlessness has hit crisis levels. The repercussions reach into the United States, driving a surge of illegal immigration from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, a region known as the “Northern Triangle” of Central America. Honduras and El Salvador have among the highest homicide rates in the world.
Although the murder rate in Guatemala is lower than in its two neighbors, the country has long suffered from the criminality that afflicts Latin America like a virulent disease. Street gangs kill, extort, and terrorize drivers and riders on public transport. Cops scare citizens almost as much as robbers. Cartels use the nation as a base to ship drugs and launder money. Hundreds of murders committed by assassins on wheels led to a temporary ban on motorcycle passengers. Skullduggery is frequent; punishment is rare; and new scandals sometimes feature the protagonists of past ones.
Yet, by the time Degenhart took office in 2010, Guatemala had also experienced incremental progress. The chief catalyst of these gains: an unprecedented U.N.-backed justice reform experiment called the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala. Known by its Spanish acronym CICIG, the multinational team of prosecutors, investigators, and analysts was created in 2007 to fight organized crime in government and modernize law enforcement.
Another force for reform was Claudia Paz y Paz, a former human rights lawyer Colom appointed as his attorney general in 2010. Paz took on drug cartels, forged bonds with the U.N. prosecutors and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, and helped win the historic conviction of former military ruler Efraín Ríos Montt for genocide in the civil war.
Degenhart had a lower profile than the attorney general. But like Paz, he saw the value in cultivating foreign allies, including U.S. Embassy officials. He expanded his internal affairs team and created a much-needed intelligence unit at the immigration agency to gather information on the smuggling industry, vetting officials at both units with the embassy’s help.
Degenhart also focused on what, at the time, was a U.S. priority — illegal immigration from India via Guatemala. Security cameras at the Guatemala City airport caught paid-off immigration officials in uniform directing passengers from India to inspection lines controlled by smuggling rings, according to U.S. and Guatemalan investigators who viewed the footage. Indians with suspiciously new Guatemalan passports showed up at the Mexican embassy in Guatemala City to request visas, according to the Mexican law enforcement official. Suspects in a thriving Guatemala-based network that smuggled Indians were caught in New Delhi and at the U.S.-Mexico border, where arrests of Indians attempting to enter illegally soared.
Working his contacts in the government and diplomatic community, Degenhart pushed through a visa requirement for Indian travelers that slashed the influx and cost the mafias a lot of money, according to U.S. and Latin American officials.
“He was working directly with us to combat corruption,” the DHS official said. “He had a great working relationship with the U.S. Embassy. For some people, that’s like treason.”
Guatemalan passports were a prized illicit commodity. In October 2011, airport immigration officials in Guatemala City implementing toughened screening policies detained two Colombians leaving for Amsterdam. Investigators linked them to a drug-related murder of four people in the capital days earlier. The duo carried Guatemalan passports, identification cards, and birth certificates — real documents, fake identities.
The arrest of the suspected Colombian hit men was one in a series of cases of international criminals carrying fraudulent Guatemalan documents. The trend exacerbated Degenhart’s concerns about the privatized system in which a contracted company called La Luz prepared and printed Guatemalan passports for the immigration service. He led an internal inquiry of the passport system and presented the results to the U.N. prosecutor, the attorney general, and the interior minister.
Because of lax screening, Guatemalan consulates in the United States had mistakenly issued second passports to Guatemalans using false identities, Degenhart found. Moreover, the inquiry revealed that La Luz had an unauthorized connection to an external computer at an immigration consulting firm, a worrisome vulnerability that could potentially have allowed outsiders access to sensitive records, including the biographical and biometrical information of Guatemalan passports, according to Degenhart, Menocal, Paz, and other officials.
The CICIG got involved. In late October 2011, Guatemalan investigators backed by the U.N. prosecutor’s office searched the passport offices run by La Luz, opening an in-depth investigation into the systemic passport problems.
As that case unfolded, Pérez Molina and Baldetti, his running mate, won Guatemala’s presidential election. During the transition, U.S. diplomats met with representatives of the incoming administration and sent a discreet message: Attorney General Paz and Degenhart were forces for progress. The embassy hoped the new government would retain them. The conversations were described to FP and ProPublica by U.S. and Guatemalan officials familiar with the matter.
When Pérez Molina came to power, Paz remained in her post. But Degenhart was dismissed. And in a decision that stunned him, officials in the new government told him he would lose his armored vehicle and bodyguards, breaking an established tradition to provide protective details to former law enforcement chiefs. Even worse, the presidential transition teams had signed an accord specifically adding the immigration director to the list of ex-officials who would keep their security for five years, according to a copy of that accord obtained by FP and ProPublica.
Degenhart’s allies, such as former Interior Minister Menocal, blamed Vice President Baldetti, who had quickly asserted control over the immigration and customs agencies and who had made no secret of her hostility toward Degenhart.“I felt totally vulnerable and exposed,” Degenhart said. “They wanted to leave me out in the cold.”
In February 2012, Degenhart returned to his business ventures. A few months later, the U.S. Embassy offered him a job as a part-time consultant on Central American immigration issues, and he accepted. His duties included monitoring the very reforms he had initiated and collaborating with officials he knew at Immigration and Customs Enforcement and other U.S. agencies.
In October 2012, the bosses of two of the immigration employee unions asked to meet with Degenhart to discuss technical aspects of the comprehensive labor accord he had brokered with them. He had lunch with them at Pollo Campero, a popular chicken restaurant chain in Guatemala City. Those attending the lunch were Arnoldo de Jesús Miranda Fuentes, the secretary-general of a union known as the SITRAMMIG; Miranda’s deputy; and Rodolfo Quiñones, the chief of the largest union, according to Degenhart. (Union officials did not respond to requests for comment about the meeting.)
The conversation soon grew tense, Degenhart recalled. Old conflicts flared as Miranda complained he’d been sidelined during the contract talks, according to Degenhart. No explicit threats were made, but he sensed hostility.
“I left that meeting with the idea that these people were really dangerous,” he said.
On Oct. 31, Degenhart left his home in an upscale residential area a few minutes after 6 a.m. He was headed for his gym, which was located in a small shopping center next to the Pan-American Highway.
It was a nice day. His family had planned a Halloween party with friends that evening. He was looking forward to the festivities — and his daily exercise session.
“That was the only part of my day that didn’t change,” he said. “Otherwise, I changed up my routine for security.”
Security cameras captured his blue Cayenne crossing through the lot of a corner pharmacy and stopping behind two southbound vehicles waiting to proceed to the Pan-American Highway entry ramp.
In the video, a Mitsubishi Lancer emerges from a highway exit ramp behind Degenhart, moving at a healthy clip. The Lancer catches up to Degenhart’s Cayenne, maneuvers around it into the parking lot driveway, and swings into position at a near-right angle to his front bumper. He says he immediately sensed trouble.
“All my alarms were going off,” he said. “The way they positioned themselves — that is a shooting angle.”
The vehicles waited at the intersection for about 40 seconds. When traffic resumed, the Lancer pulled in front of the Cayenne, and the two vehicles turned left and then left again. The Lancer activated its hazard lights and slowed, easing to the left as if inviting Degenhart to pass on the right.
Degenhart kept his distance. Fearing a trap, he drew his gun as the two vehicles descended the entry ramp, according to his account. His heart was pounding. His eyes searched for signs of aggression.
As the vehicles merged into highway traffic, the right rear passenger window of the Lancer lowered. A hand emerged, holding a Glock 19.
The volley of bullets shredded Degenhart’s side window, hitting him twice in the chest, once in the chin, four times in the left arm, and once each in the right bicep and wrist. He shot back wildly, getting off roughly 16 rounds, first from his side window and then through the windshield as the Lancer pulled away.
Degenhart remembers the thunder of the gunshots, the crunch of bullets breaking glass, the gunpowder spraying like sand into his eyes, nose, mouth, and hair. He’d turned in profile — as he’d been trained — making his body into a smaller target and using his left arm to shield himself. Blood spurted everywhere.
“In my mind, I went into a dark room. I said: ‘I died. I said to God: ‘Please, I have to go back to protect my wife and children,’” he recalled. “I went to the other side. And I came back.”
A different camera on the shoulder of the busy highway captured blurry images of the gunfight from a distance. The footage shows the two vehicles rounding a curve into view, the Lancer on the left and ahead of the Cayenne. Frightened drivers stop behind them. The Cayenne stops. Glass and smoke spray up as Degenhart’s final shots pierce his own windshield. The Lancer speeds away past the camera; what appears to be a man’s arm is visible in the open rear window.
Degenhart tried to call for help, but his hand was too bloody for the touch screen on his iPhone. He managed to use a BlackBerry to call his wife, telling her he had been badly wounded in a shooting and was going to the hospital. His left arm hung uselessly at his side. He started driving one-handed, peering through the bullet-riddled windshield, the Cayenne weaving among lanes.
Fifteen minutes later, he pulled into the entrance of a medical clinic.
“I get out, I grab my arm, and go running into the building asking for help. I tell the nurse, ‘Please stabilize me because I am bleeding to death,’” he recalled. He collapsed into a wheelchair and passed out.
An ambulance transferred him to a hospital, which soon filled with visitors: former Interior Minister Menocal, former President Colom, U.S. and Mexican diplomats. U.S. law enforcement agents responded quickly. They regarded the attack on a close ally as a potential threat to embassy personnel, the DHS official said.
Degenhart would survive, albeit with a nearly pulverized left elbow.
“God saved my life,” he said. “I could have very easily died that day because of the number of impacts and where they hit me.”
He suffered through three nights of pain, fear, and hallucinations in the hospital.
“One night, I woke up at three in the morning in the hospital bed, and I said to the security officer: ‘Give me your gun, give me your gun. The assassins are coming to kill me again, and I’m going to be ready for them.’”
There have been numerous car-to-car ambushes of law enforcement chiefs and other government officials in Latin America. They rarely have a happy ending. What saved Degenhart?
“Alertness,” he said. “Always being vigilant, looking around, monitoring your surroundings. And also the repetition of having trained with the firearm. Muscle memory.”
The response from the government was minimal. Senior officials did not visit the hospital or express much concern, according to Guatemalan and foreign officials.
“When you leave government, you feel exposed,” Menocal said. “That’s why I made a statement expressing solidarity with him. But there was no response from the government.”
Two weeks after the shooting, still groggy from medication, Degenhart met with Guatemalan investigators to give a statement and turn over his gun as evidence in the case. Two days later, U.S. officials in armored vehicles took him to the airport, and he boarded a plane for the United States.
Civilians in the Guatemalan attorney general’s office, with quiet assistance from the U.S. Embassy, conducted the investigation into the attack on Degenhart. Their work was diligent but limited in scope, according to Guatemalan and U.S. law enforcement officials involved in the case.
The investigators viewed hours of footage obtained from roadside cameras located at the intersection and the highway where the incident took place. The Lancer’s license plates were not visible in the videos. Using a list of license plates on cars parked at the gym obtained from a security guard, investigators identified a Lancer whose occupants went into the shopping center very early that morning and, the guard said, drove off in a hurry just before the shooting. Investigators believed the gunmen had initially planned to ambush Degenhart at the gym and then decided to intercept him en route, perhaps using a spotter with a telephone to track his movements.
About two months after the shooting, the Guatemalan and U.S. investigators tracked down the car’s owner and another suspect in a semirural zone known for violence, hired gunslingers, and kidnapping gangs. One of the suspects admitted he had driven past the ambush scene on the day of the shooting. Both men had alibis for the crucial hours, however, as well as clean records. The car showed no signs of bullet impacts. The case, in other words, was weak.
Strangely, though, the Guatemalan prosecutors neglected a seemingly obvious line of inquiry: Degenhart’s conflicts with the unions and the passport company over the fraudulent passport racket.
In an interview, auxiliary prosecutor Maritza Sagastume Bojórquez said she refrained from pursuing that angle after learning the CICIG was investigating the passport fraud ring already. The U.N. anti-corruption prosecutors, however, didn’t examine the shooting, according to CICIG and Guatemalan officials. Sagastume said her requests about the U.N. probe’s possible relevance to her case went unanswered. The investigation by the attorney general’s office into the attack on Degenhart hit a dead end.
Sagastume decided to close the case in September 2013. She said her heavy workload played a role in making that decision. Moreover, she wasn’t convinced the shooting was premeditated.
“I had the impression that he and the other car got into a dispute,” she said during the interview last year.
Degenhart disagrees. He believes it was an ambush timed to send a macabre gangster-style message: Halloween is the eve of the Day of the Dead, the holiday during which Latin Americans honor the departed. He suspects that the mafias he clashed with during his tenure, such as those connected to the passport racket, retaliated against him. But he finds it hard to believe his assailants did not have orders or approval from his enemies in power. At minimum, he blames the Pérez Molina administration for leaving him vulnerable to an attack.“It was convenient for them to remove my security and leave a door open so anyone could eventually attack me and kill me,” he said.
Guatemalan and U.S. law enforcement officials interviewed for this story have similar suspicions. Degenhart’s former boss, Menocal, has no doubt he was targeted. Menocal said in the interview last year that he believes CICIG should examine the shooting.
“This attack is related to achievements when he was director of the immigration service,” the former interior minister said. “He is a victim of the impunity that still exists in Guatemala.”
By early 2014, Degenhart had immersed himself in a new life in the United States. A surgeon had repaired his left arm. His psychological wounds had healed. He watched from afar as his country underwent increasingly rapid change.
In January 2014, Attorney General Paz and the current U.N. prosecutor, Iván Velásquez Gómez, announced the findings of a major investigation into the immigration service. Police arrested three dozen people, most of them employees of the immigration agency, on charges of running a ring that sold passports and smuggling services to Indians, Chinese, Pakistanis, Russians, and more. The alleged ringleader was Miranda — the same union chief who had argued with Degenhart at lunch only days before the ambush.
The investigation had also resulted in the arrest four months earlier of a former manager of La Luz, the passport firm with which Degenhart had clashed, according to the CICIG. Another employee of that company was arrested and convicted, according to the CICIG.
Soon, the U.N. prosecutor’s office gained momentum on another border-related case. It was known as La Línea, a massive investigation of the scandal-plagued customs agency. Tens of thousands of phone intercepts mapped out a vast high-level scheme to avoid import duties by paying bribes. In April 2015, prosecutors indicted 20 suspects, including a top aide to Vice President Baldetti. Baldetti resigned.
When investigators searched her home last August, Baldetti took refuge in a hospital. A team of police led by Juan Francisco Sandoval, a Guatemalan anti-corruption prosecutor, arrived at the hospital. Baldetti mistook the bespectacled 33-year-old for a doctor.
“I said, ‘No, I’m not a doctor. I’m a prosecutor,’” Sandoval recalled in an interview. “And the police officer read the arrest warrant.”
Outside the hospital, citizens set off firecrackers to celebrate the arrest of the former vice president.
In September, U.N. and Guatemalan prosecutors set their sights even higher: They arrested the president. Investigators say La Línea was part of a giant money machine built by Baldetti and Pérez Molina. The duo’s fall was hastened by months of unprecedented protest marches by ordinary Guatemalans who were fed up with the regime.
“The image of President Pérez Molina, a former general, in court submitting to the power of a judge exhibits dramatic change,” said former Attorney General Paz in an interview.
The former president and vice president have pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial.
Latin American and U.S. leaders, such as Vice President Joe Biden, have hailed the work of CICIG and are pushing for the Guatemalan justice reform model to be reproduced elsewhere. Just last fall, the Organization of American States announced the creation of an anti-impunity commission in Honduras.
Degenhart is proud to have played a role in Guatemala’s evolution. His experiences had convinced him true change was possible.
“There is a perception that all the employees in the immigration service are corrupt,” he said. “I think it’s a minority of employees who are involved in acts of corruption. Most of them don’t want to be involved.”
While in the United States, Degenhart continued to work as a consultant for the U.S. government on immigration issues in Central America. And he gave tactical presentations about the gunfight in Guatemala to U.S. federal trainees.
The reforms in Guatemala brought down many of his enemies. Still, his case remains unsolved; no one has been charged.
In October, newcomer Jimmy Morales won the presidency on a wave of voter disgust with traditional politics. Although President Morales ran on an anti-corruption platform and promised to support the U.N. prosecutor, critics worry that his political movement includes military veterans from the country’s dark past.
Degenhart shares those concerns. But he said the new government has also taken encouraging steps, appointing reform-minded law enforcement officials whom he respects. The danger appears to be receding, he said.
Last month, for the first time since his hurried departure in 2012, he returned home to Guatemala. He will be working there as a regional consultant on immigration issues for the U.S. government.
“I want to contribute to positive change in my country,” he said in a recent phone conversation.
Meanwhile, he gives thanks every day. For him, Oct. 31 is no longer just Halloween.
“It’s my second birthday,” he said.
Editor’s note: This report is based on a series of interviews conducted in Guatemala and the United States with officials and experts from Guatemala, the United States, and Mexico, as well as a review of law enforcement files and other government documents. Foreign Policy and ProPublica agreed to grant anonymity to some law enforcement officials because of concerns for their safety or because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
Illustrations by Christopher Park for ProPublica.
Sebastian Rotella is a senior reporter at ProPublica, an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest.