Kamilo Rivera was a cop, an executioner and government minister. He is now on the run.
1. The Disappearance
Kamilo Rivera arrived shortly before 6 a.m. at his office in the colonial palace, an old, greenish-grey building with thick concrete walls and cavernous hallways in the heart of Guatemala City. It houses the Interior Ministry where Rivera was a deputy minister. Rivera would not stay long that day.
It was October 29, 2018, and the former police official turned deputy had discovered an arrest warrant had been issued for him three hours earlier, an investigator who participated in the operation, speaking on condition of anonymity, told InSight Crime later. Rivera and seven others had been accused of murder. Like him, they were all current or former police officials.
It was an old story, but one that had haunted the ministry and the country. Between 2004 and 2007, investigators claimed, Rivera was part of a clandestine operation embedded within Guatemala’s interior ministry. His group was known as the “Riveritas” for their boss, Victor Rivera Azuaje, a former Venezuelan police officer.
Investigations by the United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG) – which serves as an appendage to the Attorney General’s Office -- pointed to the Riveritas’ involvement in at least three massacres: the killing of seven prisoners in the Pavón prison in 2006, the deaths of three Salvadoran legislators and their driver on February 20th, 2007, and the jailhouse murder of four police officers accused of killing the legislators six days later.
The case against the Riveritas had become a symbol. For some, it was an illustration of the CICIG’s earnest efforts to root out corruption and crime inside the government. For others, it was a sign of CICIG’s overreach. Among those accused was the former interior minister and former boss of the Riveritas, Carlos Vielman, whose friends included some of the most powerful economic and political elites in the country.
SEE ALSO: Guatemala Elites and Organized Crime
However, over the years, most of the cases against the police and their bosses had stalled, been diverted or were archived. In some of the cases, witnesses and accused had been killed, including Rivera Azuaje, who was gunned down as he left his ministry office in March 2008.
But in some cases, the CICIG persisted, reviving sometimes years old case files. This was the case in late 2018 that sent Kamilo Rivera scrambling. Shortly after he arrived to the ministry on that October morning, Rivera left the building in a white pick-up truck accompanied by another police officer. The two of them parked at a nearby McDonald’s and met a third individual who arrived in a second car. Rivera drove away with the newcomer. He has not been seen since.
- Guatemala’s former deputy interior minister, appointed in January 2018 by President Jimmy Morales. He has been a fugitive from justice since October 29, 2018, after being accused of participating in extrajudicial executions. The Attorney General’s Office and CICIG have accused him of having been part of a death squad within the Guatemalan police between 2004 and 2009, known as "Los Riverita."
- Guatemala’s interior minister between 2004 and 2008. CICIG investigated him in 2008 and 2009 as being the man behind police death squads. He was tried for extrajudicial executions in Spain in 2010 but eventually acquitted. CICIG and the Attorney General’s Office charged him again for the same crime in October 2018, although related to different cases.
- Director of Guatemala’s National Civil Police (PNC) between 2004 and 2007. He was investigated by CICIG as having controlled death squads within the police. He was arrested in 2012 in Switzerland, his father’s country of origin. country from which his father originated. He was tried and convicted for his role in several extrajudicial executions, although acquitted of killings which happened within the Gavilán Plan in 2005. He was sentenced to life in prison in Geneva in 2014, although this sentence was reduced to 15 years on appeal in 2018.
- A former Venezuelan police officer who moved to Central America in the late 1980s. He was an adviser to police in El Salvador in the 1990s but had to flee that country after being accused of stealing ransom money from police kidnappings. In Guatemala, he gained protection and became an adviser to Carlos Vielman. CICIG and the Attorney General’s Office have named him as the leader of “Los Riverita,” the death squad which Kamilo Rivera was a member of.
- President of Guatemala, whose term ends in January 2020. He has been under investigation by CICIG for potential illegal electoral financing and other crimes. The Attorney General’s Office has twice sought to charge him but these efforts were rejected by his political allies in Congress. Since 2017, Morales has waged open war against CICIG, including appointing Kamilo Rivera to obstruct its efforts to investigate him.
2. Government-sanctioned Death Squads
The Riveritas first graduated from the police academy as potential rising stars, according to a former public safety official who knew the Victor Rivera Azuaje group well.
"They gained the trust of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and businessmen who did not trust the police leadership in the early 2000s," she told InSight Crime on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.
Inside the government, these men replaced old military commanders, who were known more for inefficiency and corruption than for fighting the type of organized crime triggered by the end of Guatemala’s civil war. To be sure, in post-war Guatemala, kidnappings were rampant, requiring less brute force and more intelligence gathering, Rivera Azuaje’s world.
Before working at the ministry, Rivera Azuaje, who went by various alias such as “Zacarías” and “Frank,” had spent time with numerous state intelligence agencies, including the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), according to two former Interior Ministry officials who worked alongside him at the ministry.
Following the civil wars in Guatemala and El Salvador, Rivera Azuaje was contracted by business elites in both countries to help negotiate and resolve kidnapping cases. Even after he started working with the ministry, he continued to moonlight in the kidnap ransom and negotiation business, which would eventually lead to his own downfall.
Relatives of three kidnapping victims -- two Guatemalan and one Salvadoran -- in the late 1990s and mid-2000s described alias "Zacarías" as an efficient investigator who introduced modern police techniques to the two Central American police forces.
One relative, who spoke with InSight Crime on condition of anonymity, said that Rivera Azuaje "succeeded very quickly, because he knew he did not have to obey the law when obtaining what a normal prosecutor would have taken months to get, such as phone records.”
This remained true even after Zacarias was hired by the ministry and formed the Riveritas. The former public safety official said the business sector “latched on” to the Riveritas. “They were effective because they went unpunished, even when performing operations well outside the legal boundaries,” the official said.
According to the official, the government created “a parallel state structure that worked because of its impunity. Following the law was seen as rather unsuccessful. These were times when the Attorney General’s Office did not carry out autopsies and simply trusted what police reports said.”
- CICIG investigations in 2008 and 2009 established that the death squads embedded in the PNC and commanded by Erwin Sperisen participated in the murders of three Salvadoran deputies to the Central American Parliament, perpetrated near the Guatemalan capital in 2007, as well as in the subsequent cover-up.
- Four police officers accused of murdering the Salvadoran deputies under the orders of Victor Hugo Soto Diéguez were detained in the prison known as El Boquerón. They were murdered only a few days after the deputies. CICIG researchers determined that Víctor Rivera and his followers had participated in the operation at El Boquerón to murder the police officers, as well as in covering up the affair.
- In October 2018, CICIG and the Attorney General’s Office revealed a plan to extrajudicially execute prisoners who had escaped from the El Infiernito prison. These two institutions accused Sperisen, Vielman, Kamilo Rivera and other members of "Los Riverita" of carrying out these executions.
3. Ghosts Come Back to Life
On October 23, 2005, CICIG investigators say then-Interior Minister Carlos Vielman held a meeting. In the hours prior, 19 inmates had escaped from the El Infiernito prison in the city of Escuintla on Guatemala’s Pacific coast. Vielman ordered they be recaptured: “dead or alive.”
Dubbed “Plan Gavilán,” the Riveritas led the operation. The plan was simple: the fugitives would be tracked down and, if possible, executed. The scenes of the crimes would then be modified to appear as if the prisoners had been gunned down while resisting arrest. It was to become their modus operandi over the next two years.
A few months later, as Christmas approached, police located one of the fugitives, Asiel Arauz Palacios, with the help of one of Kamilo Rivera’s informants. (Rivera and his partner, Stu Velasco, gave the informant a phone. The CICIG and Attorney General’s Office were later able to track several calls and messages between this number and Rivera’s phone. And the phone was filed as official evidence linked to seven extrajudicial executions for which charges were filed in October 2018.) And on December 20, 2005, Rivera and Velasco organized a sting to capture the fugitive. Part of it included a fake delivery of food and medicine to an internet café in Guatemala City where they expected the suspect to be. He was not; instead, he’d sent Adonis Asael Murillo, a young Honduran national, in his place.
Rivera and Velasco, wearing hoods, got out of their car and captured Murillo who promptly gave up Arauz Palacios’ whereabouts. An hour later, the two police captured Arauz Palacios. Investigators say he didn’t resist. The prisoner was taken to the police headquarters Guatemala City. Then he was hauled to a highway in another area of the city where investigators say several hooded men executed him. Witnesses interviewed by the CICIG and Attorney General’s Office have sworn that Kamilo Rivera was among these executioners. But he initially escaped prosecution.
Following Arauz Palacios’ execution, the police claimed the fugitive had opened fire, forcing officers to kill him in self-defense. And for a long time, this was the unquestioned official version. But subsequent investigations determined otherwise. Arauz Palacios was shot 12 times in the back by three different weapons. A SIG Sauer .45 caliber pistol was planted in Arauz Palacio’s hand, prosecutors said. A forensic investigation, autopsy and ballistic study showed that the "ballistic trajectories of all the injuries were from back to front and from top to bottom,” consistent with an execution-style death, they asserted.
"Those who fired were facing the victim's back, a situation that is not feasible with a confrontation," they said.
A day after Arauz Palacios was killed, the body of the Honduran, Murillo, was found at a farm about 30 kilometers from Guatemala City. Investigators say Rivera and Velasco murdered him.
4. The Parlacen Case
In February 2007, three Salvadoran deputies from the regional, albeit largely decorative, legislative body known as the Central American Parliament (Parlacen) and their driver were murdered at a country house outside Guatemala City along the Pan-American Highway.
Investigations pointed to four police officials -- not members of Riveritas, but another death squad operating inside the ministry. The theory was that they had murdered the deputies to steal drugs and cash the deputies were carrying from El Salvador.
The policemen were arrested a few days later and — after a famous (and video-taped) interaction with Victor Rivera Azuaje in which one of them clearly threatens to out the head of the Riveritas for his own dirty deeds — sent to El Boquerón prison. Within hours they too were dead, killed mysteriously inside the jail.
Preliminary CICIG reports, which InSight Crime had access to, said that the Riveritas were involved in the killing of the policemen at El Boquerón. Later investigations re-upped on this theory, adding that Vielman and Police Chief Erwin Sperisen were also involved in what became known as the Parlacen case. (Both ex-officials have denied their involvement multiple times.)
Investigators also placed Kamilo Rivera at the El Boquerón massacre and the Parlacen murder cover-up.
Worries of top-level involvement spread to other countries as well. In San Salvador, InSight Crime spoke with a former high-ranking official within the government of former President Antonio Saca, who was in power when the deputies were killed. He said numerous Salvadoran officials at the time suspected the Riveritas and their bosses were behind the murders and the coverup.
The United States also expressed suspicions about what happened at El Boquerón. In a confidential cable sent a few hours after the prison’s massacre, then-United States ambassador to Guatemala, James Derham, informed the State Department of a possible motive for the crime: “The fear that the alleged murderers -- the policemen -- would talk is broadly perceived as the motive for the intellectual authors of the deputies’ murders to silence the murderers,” he wrote.
Vielman and Sperisen were eventually tried in another case, but Vielman, who is a Spanish national, fled to Spain before he could be tried in Guatemala. Eventually, the former minister was acquitted. For his part, Sperisen fled to Switzerland, where he was convicted and is serving a 15-year sentence under house arrest.
The prosecutions set the stage for the ongoing battle between the CICIG and the country’s elites and portions of its security forces. Vielman and the Riveritas were among them, and they would not sit idly while they were vilified. After Vielman left the country, the anger subsided somewhat, but it would return when CICIG tried a second time to prosecute him and many others in Guatemala. It was there that Kamilo Rivera would emerge again, this time to keep the international commission at bay.
5. Rivera vs. the CICIG
On the morning of August 14, 2018, agents from the anti-impunity unit (Fiscalía Especializada Contra la Impunidad -- FECI) of the Attorney General’s Office prepared to carry out a series of arrests in a major case that was culminating. The FECI is CICIG’s partner in the Attorney General’s Office, and the case, dubbed “Construction and Corruption,”involved several prominent businessmen and politicians.
Given the sensitivity of the case, FECI Director Juan Francisco Sandoval decided to email the Interior Ministry on August 13 to request police backup for the arrests. At first, the ministry told him the police would support him. But in reality, they stalled. Sandoval was furious but not surprised.
By August 2018, the Interior Ministry had turned against the CICIG, positioning people to thwart its investigations and sting operations on a number of occasions. Among those blocking the CICIG was Kamilo Rivera who had been named deputy in January.
This was not just about Rivera’s past with the death squads, Rivera had a vendetta against the CICIG for more personal reasons. As part of its initial investigation into the Riveritas, the CICIG arrested Edwin Emanuel Rivera Gálvez, the former second-in-command of the Riveritas and Kamilo’s brother. Edwin Emanuel was eventually released on appeal and ultimately hired as the security chief of a private company harvesting African palm.
Now it was time for Rivera’s revenge on the CICIG. For hours, Sandoval sent repeated WhatsApp messages to the deputy minister, but Rivera stalled. At 11:25 p.m., Rivera said he did not know which officers would accompany the prosecutors, claiming that there were “other operations planned.” Sandoval asked again at 2:51 a.m., just over an hour before the raids were set to begin. Again, Rivera answered that police officers would only be available from 7 a.m. onwards. Then, at 3:30 a.m., Rivera said in an email that police officers would not be going at all.
Investigators later told InSight Crime that it had become, by then, part of a pattern. On February 7, 2018, only weeks after Rivera had become deputy minister, the ministry had tipped off a reporter about an operation to arrest a suspect in a bank fraud case. On April 12, the ministry leaked information about another operation. On April 18, the ministry withdrew police from another operation. “The prosecutor had no choice but to request support from police stations along the route to the operation,” said an August 2018 FECI report.
Another reported incident seemed to come straight from a bad sit-com. On May 16, 2018, the Attorney General’s Office requested police support for inspections by prosecutors related to a case. On the morning of May 17, however, Rivera informed prosecutors that there would be no police support due to “technical issues.” When they asked for more information, Rivera said that the request was denied because the FECI had made the demand through an “unofficial [email] account.”
6. 'An Honorable Employee'
For a long time, Kamilo Rivera knew how to avoid being directly linked to the controversy following his brother’s arrest. Silently, and with the support of allies in the private sector and the military, Rivera jumped from job to job within Guatemala’s public security institutions, according to statements given to InSight Crime by former CICIG investigators.
By at least 2014, he was already trying to undermine CICIG investigations. One prosecutor, for instance, said that Rivera tried to boycott the CICIG and FECI between 2014 and 2015, while he was the director of criminal investigations at the Attorney General's Office.
But by late 2018, his activities as part of the Riveritas were catching up to him. On the day he escaped capture, several others were arrested, including Vielman and Velasco. They were all charged for several deaths related to the Gavilán Plan. Vielman was eventually given house arrest while he awaits trial, while the others remain in prison.
Before he absconded, Rivera penned his resignation.
“I am ready to continue serving my country in whatever place it finds me,” he wrote, “being a good citizen, an honorable employee and always in conjunction with the law.”
Rivera is still on the run.
Photo: Alex Cruz/El Periódico de Guatemala.