Jerry Weller was running for his sixth term as congressman from Illinois’ 11th District in July 2004 when he announced that he was engaged to Zury Rios Sosa, an outspoken third-term legislator in Guatemala’s congress and the daughter of former dictator General Efrain Rios Montt. “I am thrilled to have found my best friend and soulmate,” Weller stated in a press release. “Our love knows no boundaries.” In the same release Sosa said, “With Jerry, I am starting an eternal springtime. I admire his character, his commitment to his responsibilities, and his honesty.”
Their mutual admiration notwithstanding, the announcement raised a red flag. Weller, who would be the first congressman ever to marry a member of a foreign national legislature, sat on the International Relations Committee and its western hemisphere subcommittee–would his votes be influenced by Sosa?
In a July 12 editorial the Chicago Sun-Times said, “The problem is the image it conveys to our Latin American neighbors, who are critical enough of our policies without concerns about how a vote might have been influenced by a committee member’s wife.” The following day the Bloomington Pantagraph, the biggest paper in Weller’s district, ran an editorial that said, “Any time an elected U.S. representative privy to confidential information is intimately involved with a central figure in a foreign government–and one whose father has been accused of genocide within that country–there should be concern. . . . There are some boundaries that elected representatives have to draw in the name of U.S. security. We can’t say Weller has crossed that line, but he’s sure tiptoeing down it.”
The Sun-Times suggested that Weller, a Republican whose district includes parts of the south suburbs, resign from the committee. His opponent in the congressional race, Tari Renner, also called on him to give up the post. Weller’s spokesman, Telly Lovelace, told the Pantagraph the congressman had no intention of resigning. “If there is any obvious conflict,” Lovelace said, “Congressman Weller will do what’s appropriate.”
In late August 2004 Weller met with members of the Pantagraph’s editorial board; without quoting him directly, the paper said he’d told them he would “recuse himself from legislation . . . specific to Guatemala.” Lisa Haugaard, executive director of the nonpartisan Latin America Working Group in Washington, D.C., says that’s a “fairly meaningless statement,” explaining that any Guatemalan issue would almost surely be part of broader legislation. Weller also went to the House ethics committee for advice. According to the Associated Press, committee members told him he had “a duty to vote on bills unless he had a direct interest in the outcome”–not exactly a clear standard.
Two years later Weller, who’s 49, and Sosa, who’s 38, are married and just had their first child. Weller is up for reelection in November. Sosa is still a leading member of Guatemala’s single-house, 158-member congress, and until earlier this year she sat on its foreign affairs committee, the counterpart to Weller’s committee. She’s the second most powerful person in her party, the Guatemalan Republican Front, or FRG, which was founded in 1989 by her father and is still led by him. It’s been plagued by accusations of corruption, money laundering, and helping drug traffickers, though no one’s accused her personally of any of those things. In many ways she’s the clean face of her party, having sponsored legislation to protect women and people with AIDS from discrimination and to protect children by regulating the advertising of tobacco and alcohol. She’s also sponsored legislation to curtail the financing of terrorists and to curb smuggling, allowing Guatemalan authorities to seize assets such as trucks, boats, and planes from drug runners.
In January 2005 Weller became vice chairman of the western hemisphere subcommittee, by far the most important committee in Congress writing legislation on Latin America and the war on drugs and overseeing U.S. policy on those issues. “The western hemisphere subcommittee has been one of the only ones overseeing U.S. drug policy, and it has been the main one making U.S. drug policy,” says Adam Isacson of the watchdog group Center for International Policy. “It has huge influence.” The 16-member committee also focuses on trade and democracy in the region.
Weller often talks about these issues as they relate to Caribbean and Latin American countries–but not Guatemala, even though it has 12.7 million people, a third of the population of Central America. He voted for CAFTA, the free-trade agreement that includes Guatemala, but he doesn’t talk about specific trade possibilities with that country. He also doesn’t talk about democracy in Guatemala, which is fragile at best, and he doesn’t talk about money laundering or drug trafficking there, even though up to 70 percent of the drugs that enter the U.S. come through Guatemala. All of which raises questions about whether he’s doing everything he can to address the concerns of his constituents. He’s painted himself into a corner, and he seems to be making no effort to get out.
In 2003, the year Weller met Sosa, Guatemala was controlled by the FRG, and the nation’s president was her father’s handpicked FRG ally, Alfonso Portillo. Relations with the U.S. had sunk to their lowest in years. “By all accounts corruption continues to run rampant in Guatemala,” Otto Reich, an assistant secretary of state, had told the western hemisphere subcommittee in October 2002. “Organized crime, in particular narcotics trafficking and alien smuggling, is increasing. Guatemala is a major and growing transit country for narcotics, yet seizures have dropped to practically nothing. . . . Few high-level figures are ever charged or even formally investigated for corruption, and fewer go to trial.” Reich also stated that “large amounts of cocaine are being transshipped through Guatemala with almost complete impunity” and noted that narcotics smugglers had “very close ties to the highest levels of government.” The following month the Bush administration embarrassed Guatemala by denying a former intelligence chief a visa and accusing him of drug trafficking.
In January 2003 the Bush administration embarrassed Guatemala again by dropping it from the State Department’s list of countries seen as cooperating in the fight against drug trafficking. It was the first time Guatemala had failed to make the list since the U.S. began doing annual evaluations in 1987, and it was one of only three countries decertified, the others being Haiti and Myanmar.
A few months later the Los Angeles Times reported that State Department officials estimated 220 tons of cocaine had been shipped through Guatemala in 2002–triple the amount of a decade earlier and over two-thirds of the U.S. supply–and that seizures by the Guatemalan government had dropped from just under 10 tons in 1999 to less than 3 tons. The flow had “turned parts of Guatemala into lawless zones ruled by family-controlled transit cartels. . . . Now U.S. and Guatemalan anti-drug officials believe that Colombian drug traffickers have mostly consolidated their operations in Guatemala with the cooperation–or at least tolerance–of current and former Guatemalan government figures.” The Times quoted a former ally of General Rios Montt who was running against the FRG in the November election: “If we don’t watch out we could become another Colombia. What has happened here is that narco-traffickers have infiltrated the people in authority–both the army and the government.”
In May the FRG nominated Rios Montt as its candidate for the presidency in the November elections. The U.S. view, though couched in understated diplomatese, was clear. “We would hope to be able to work with and have a normal, friendly relationship with whoever is the next president of Guatemala,” said the State Department’s Richard Boucher. “Realistically, in light of Mr. Rios Montt’s background, it would be difficult to have the kind of relationship that we would prefer.”
Rios Montt had been president before, having come to power in a military coup in 1982. The Guatemalan military was then at war with leftist rebels–they’d been fighting since 1960 and wouldn’t stop until 1996–and thousands of civilians were being murdered. During the war an estimated 200,000 people were killed, up to 70,000 of them during Rios Montt’s 17 months in office; he was overthrown in another coup. According to two truth commissions set up after the war, the military was responsible for over 90 percent of the violence. Rios Montt wanted to run again for president in 1990, but the constitution passed in 1985 barred former coup leaders from running. Four years later he ran for congress and won and was soon elected its head. When he tried to run for president that year the courts again barred him, but in 2003 he was back as a candidate.
Zury Rios Sosa, who’d started her political career in 1989 doing public relations for the FRG and was first elected to congress on the party’s slate in 1995, was running for reelection in 2003–and directing her father’s presidential campaign. She regularly stumped for him, saying Guatemala needed a “strong hand” and calling him her “inspiration.” (She hasn’t publicly distanced herself from his record or denounced the murders committed while he was president in the 80s.) In mid-July the constitutional court ruled that this time Rios Montt could continue his campaign, saying the law against former coup leaders running couldn’t be applied retroactively. The country’s supreme court said it wanted to revisit the issue, and on July 24 thousands of his supporters, armed with clubs and machetes, poured into the streets of the capital, burning cars, smashing windows, and surrounding court buildings and the U.S. embassy. A TV reporter chased by Rios Montt supporters threatening to douse him with gasoline suffered a heart attack and died. The rioters’ actions seemed coordinated, and for hours neither the police nor the military intervened. The U.S. State Department accused the FRG of providing tents and other supplies to the demonstrators, many of whom had been bused in the night before.
FRG party delegates were photographed in the middle of the crowds, and some people told reporters they’d seen Sosa among the demonstrators with a walkie-talkie. A few days later a Prensa Libre journalist asked her, “There are those who say you were the brains behind the disturbances. What do you say to that?”
“Who says that?” she said.
“Some analysts, and yesterday a morning daily published their views.”
“For the moment I have no comment.”
“And with respect to the FRG party members involved and whose photographs have been published?”
“I don’t have any comment.”
When the reporter asked if it was important that Guatemalans know who was responsible for the violence, she replied, “Every day thousands of people die of AIDS, and we have 13 million orphans in the world. This is what concerns me.”
Two weeks later Jerry Weller, arrived in Guatemala with three other members of the International Relations Committee to discuss trade and drug trafficking.
Weller saw Sosa for the first time at a reception the day he arrived. “From the moment I met her I realized I had discovered the most incredible woman,” he later told journalists. He reportedly confided his interest to the U.S. ambassador, and the following evening he found himself sitting next to her at a state dinner sponsored by the Guatemalan congress’s foreign relations committee, of which she was a member. He later told Guatemalan reporters he saw it as luck, but an embassy official who was seated at the same table says, “She arranged it.”
In November, while she and Weller were courting long-distance, Sosa was reelected. Her father, whose right to run had been reaffirmed by the constitutional court a week after the July riots, got less than 17 percent of the vote, and the word was that the violence had cost him the election. A coalition of parties opposed to the FRG had won the presidency and now controlled the congress; the FRG had become Guatemala’s largest opposition party.
The following summer Weller announced that he and Sosa were engaged. His spokesman said it would be the second marriage for both of them, and it’s not clear whether Weller knew this would actually be her fourth. At any rate, the day after they announced their engagement they sent a petition to the Federal Election Commission asking if Sosa–who had no intention of resigning her seat, applying for U.S. citizenship, or becoming a permanent resident–could make decisions in Weller’s reelection campaign as well as solicit funds for him and speak on his behalf. The FEC said the law prohibited foreign nationals from donating funds or participating in decision making related to any U.S. election, but if she worked as a volunteer she could make speeches and ask for money, though only from Americans.
Weller won in November 2004, then flew to Guatemala, where he and Sosa were married in a villa her father owned outside the capital. Her father was under house arrest in the capital, charged with inciting the July riots, but a judge gave him permission to attend. (He was cleared of the charges this past January; in July a Spanish judge indicted him for alleged crimes, including genocide, dating back to the early 80s. Meanwhile Portillo, who remains under investigation on embezzlement charges, fled the country, and top officials from his administration were jailed on corruption charges.)
Two months after his marriage Weller, ignoring calls for him to resign, became vice chairman of the western hemisphere subcommittee. It’s not that he doesn’t have plenty of other interests. He’s also on the powerful Ways and Means Committee and on the International Relations Committee’s terrorism and nonproliferation subcommittee. His record, of which he’s proud, covers a wide range of issues, from eliminating the marriage-tax penalty to redeveloping the Joliet Arsenal, establishing health clinics for veterans, creating tax incentives for companies to clean up brownfield sites, and lobbying to expand the use of alternative fuels.
In 2004 Weller released a statement saying he wanted to stay on the western hemisphere subcommittee “to focus on narcotics trafficking and international law enforcement,” and his Web site states that he “has taken an active role with U.S. government agencies in combating narco-trafficking.” Yet he seems determined to act as if Guatemala doesn’t exist. In January 2005 he led a nine-day delegation to Colombia, Panama, and Honduras to discuss trade and drug trafficking, during which he said, “Almost 90 percent of the cocaine and one half the heroin that comes into Illinois comes from Colombia and the Andean region.” He didn’t mention Guatemala, though Bush administration officials say most of those drugs passed through it. He didn’t make drugs in Guatemala an issue that May either, though he spoke about drugs in general terms: “We have tremendous concerns about narco-trafficking through the region.”
It’s not like the problem in Guatemala has gone away. In September 2003 the country was put back on the State Department’s list of countries cooperating with the U.S. on trafficking, but last fall its interior minister, Carlos Vielmann, told Reuters, “We can see the effects in Guatemala similar to what happened in Colombia from 1985 to 1990.” Also last fall Michael O’Brien of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration made a similar point. “If they don’t change things they could have a mini-Colombia,” he said, adding that what Guatemala needed was a tough law against organized crime. And DEA chief Michael Braun told the western hemisphere subcommittee, “Guatemala is a major transshipment and storage point for South American drugs en route to the United States.” The State Department’s 2006 annual report to Congress on the war on drugs says, “Large shipments of cocaine continue to move though Guatemala by air, road, and sea.”
This March at a subcommittee meeting Weller told Bush administration officials he hoped they would focus on corruption in Venezuela, but he hasn’t talked about corruption in Guatemala. He denounced Venezuela for sheltering Colombian “terrorist groups” who’d assassinated judges and elected officials, but he didn’t denounce Guatemala, even though judges and elected officials there have been assassinated too. This spring one of the leading delegates backing legislation to fight organized crime, Mario Pivaral, was assassinated outside the building where the congress meets. (In July the congress passed the nation’s first law that specifically fights organized crime, allowing the government to tap suspects’ phone calls and put law enforcement agents undercover.)
A thorough search of online congressional records and news reports over the past three years turns up almost nothing Weller’s said publicly about Guatemala. He is quoted in a press release his wife distributed in Spanish in Guatemala City, saying, “I am a Republican and we believe our countries must work together.” He wouldn’t comment for this story, and in a January 2006 article an AP writer complained, “Weller refused repeated requests to discuss his marriage’s impact on his work in Congress.” Other members of the western hemisphere subcommittee talk about Guatemala, including the Republican chair, Dan Burton, who last year denounced “mob justice” in the country.
Weller clearly thinks he can’t even talk about anything good that’s happened in Guatemala, including the antiterrorism legislation sponsored by his wife. “There are some positive notes in this hemisphere,” he said during a subcommittee hearing in May. “Some countries, such as Panama, Trinidad, Tobago, Jamaica, Mexico, and El Salvador, have all made serious prevention and preparedness efforts” against terrorism. He didn’t say a word about Guatemala, which sits between Mexico and El Salvador.
Carlos Gomez, coordinator of the Chicago-based Foundation for Human Rights in Guatemala, thinks Weller’s silence hurts both the U.S. and Guatemala. “If he did not have a relationship with Zury he would be working against drug trafficking and organized crime in Guatemala,” he says. “It is the FRG that opened the door to drug trafficking and organized crime in Guatemala. So he can’t attack the same party as his wife.”
Like every politician, Weller must know that, no matter how confident he is that he’s serving his constituents fully, appearances matter. And silence doesn’t help.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/AP Photo/Moises Castillo, Jo Ann Hustis/Morris Daily Herald, AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd, AP Photo/Ron Edmonds.