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Bid to Purge Congress Stirs Guatemala Chaos : Reform: The move was ordered by the nation's new president. It is a risky challenge to the body that elected him.


GUATEMALA CITY — Guatemala has plunged into its second political crisis in three months, with Congress erupting in violent chaos over an effort to purge its most corrupt members.

The purge was ordered by new President Ramiro de Leon Carpio late last month in a major, risky challenge to the body that elected him in June. De Leon's election ended a series of tumultuous coups and countercoups and raised expectations that he could clean up Guatemala's largely discredited state institutions.

But removing corrupt legislators has proven more difficult than anticipated. In a series of stormy meetings, the legislators whose resignations are being solicited have refused to budge.

On Tuesday, rival factions within Congress disputed who was in charge, following a mutiny in which congressional President Jose Lobo Dubon was overthrown by reform-minded lawmakers.

A faction of 65 lawmakers elected a new directorate on Sunday night after alleging that Lobo had abandoned his post. But on Monday, the new congressional president, Arturo Soto, was unable to get into the presidential office because he was told the keys had disappeared.

Meanwhile, Lobo, who has his own keys, took up residence in his office, insisting that he is still the legitimate president of Congress.

Lobo is one of 16 Congress members singled out as the most corrupt by a powerful coalition consisting of business leaders, politicians and a handful of grass-roots organizations. The coalition was instrumental in making De Leon president and in guiding Guatemala back to democratic government following the coups triggered when former President Jorge Serrano tried to seize absolute power on May 24.

Congress met on Sunday in special session to begin debate on the purge, but the meeting descended into chaos, ending as members came to blows and a bottle was hurled from the public gallery.

The brawl perhaps marked the low point of the session, which was broadcast live on Guatemalan television. Enrique Guillen, a Christian Democrat, marched across the floor of Congress and threw a telephone at Francisco Reyes of the right-wing Guatemalan Republican Front. Reyes deflected the telephone off his wristwatch, but it hit his neighbor, Carlos Garcia, in the face. In retaliation, Garcia landed a right hook on Guillen.

The meeting was temporarily suspended, and Lobo and the rest of the congressional directorate abandoned the floor after an unidentified spectator hurled a bottle at the members. The bottle did not hit anyone.

Taking advantage of the departure of the directorate, a rump of 65 congressmen voted to throw out Lobo and elected a new directorate whose members support a purge of the 16 congressmen deemed most corrupt.

The week's events have done little more than reinforce Congress' abysmal image in the minds of the Guatemalan public.

During the last two weeks, the business lobby of the coalition that identified the 16 legislators has paid for full-page advertisements in Guatemalan newspapers, parading mug shots of the 16 above the slogan "If these are the fathers of the nation, wouldn't you prefer to be an orphan?"

But a block of about 40 congressmen, led by the Christian Democrats and the 16 who have been singled out, are resisting the purge, which they claim is being promoted to serve the interests of the country's powerful business elite. "(This is a) plot against a state organism . . . in order for it to legislate at the whim of two or three businessmen who wish to take over the state," Lobo argued before he was ousted.

The apparent impasse in Congress can be expected to have serious political ramifications, analysts say.

"The failure of Congress to purge itself has created a political vacuum which could have unforeseen results if it is not resolved very soon," said Eduardo Mazariegos, a political analyst at a Guatemalan think tank.

The move for a congressional purge began to gain momentum last month when De Leon called for the voluntary resignation of all 116 members of Congress. His initiative received broad public support.

That support was reflected Tuesday afternoon when about 100 trade unionists and Indians pushed dozens of policemen aside and swarmed onto the floor of the Congress to voice their demand that all deputies resign. They left peacefully after a three-hour occupation.

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