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Can Democracy Survive Assaults on Americans?

January 25, 1998|Victor Perera | Victor Perera is the author of "Unfinished Conquest: The Guatemalan Tragedy" and "The Cross and the Pear Tree: A Sephardic Journey." He is currently working on a translation of the narratives of the Kogi Indians of northern Colombia

BERKELEY — The events had a sickening familiarity. Thirteen American college students and three faculty members on an archeological field trip in southern Guatemala were kidnapped and robbed by seven armed men in a pickup truck. Evidently dissatisfied with their take, the robbers then raped five female students.

President Bill Clinton has expressed confidence in President Alvaro Arzu's resolve to bring the culprits to justice. The Arzu government earned commendation from the international community for pushing through the peace accord that ended the country's 35-year civil war and for purging the military of its most murderous hard-liners. Now it can set a significant precedent by swiftly prosecuting the former soldiers suspected of assaulting the Americans. By doing so, Arzu would not only justify Clinton's faith in him and impress other Western and Latin American leaders closely watching the case. He also would go a long way toward cracking the shield of impunity that has protected active and retired military men in Guatemala since the colonial era.

Scores of Americans and other foreigners were tortured and killed, along with tens of thousands of Guatemalans, during Guatemala's civil war. The chief difference between the war-time crimes and those carried out against the Americans a week and a half ago is that the perpetrators have taken off their military uniforms. In the home of one of the five men arrested so far, 15 army uniforms were found, evidence that supports police reports that they were retired soldiers.

The sharp rise in assaults on U.S. tourists and students since the war ended is largely attributed to out-of-work former soldiers and civil-defense patrolmen who have been trained by the army for no other profession than torture, rape and murder. Their legacy was partly foreshadowed by Guatemala's archbishop, Prospero Penados del Barrio, who unsuccessfully advocated the rehabilitation of hundreds of retired kaibiles, the army's specialists in torture and mass killings now terrorizing the country. But even this thoughtful prelate may not have anticipated the scale of the problem. According to the State Department's latest report, assaults on Americans show no sign of letting up as more tourists and college study groups travel to Guatemala to visit archeological sites and bear witness to an emergent Latin American democracy.

Americans have been most vulnerable when they have traveled off the beaten path, as was the case in the attack on the St. Mary's study group and in the vicious assault on Alaska native June Weinstock in 1994. Weinstock was beaten senseless by enraged residents of a remote highland village after they mistakenly concluded she planned to kidnap their children and sell them for their organs. Americans also are being targeted by gangs of suspected former soldiers and civil-defense patrols when they visit the active Pacaya volcano, drive expensive cars across the Mexican border or become involved with drug dealers in hippie havens scattered around the shores of Lake Atitlan. But escorted groups of college students previously had not been victimized.

The wave of violence is by no means confined to attacks on foreign tourists and students. In two former war-zone Maya communities, for example, Santiago Atitlan and Todos Santos Cuchumatan, former combatants on both sides of the conflict are at each other's throats. In Santiago, the scene of the most publicized army massacre of the war, repatriated ex-guerrillas have drawn up a death list of brujos hired to cast hexes on them by townspeople who lost a son or husband in the war. The former guerrillas have executed three listed sorcerers, and some residents are calling for the return of the army to restore order in their community.

Vendettas and reprisals also are the order of the day in Todos Santos, another Maya community that suffered heavy casualties in the war. The mayor of the town, a former guerrilla, has accused the sons of four prominent Todosanteros of forming a gang to prey on their neighbors. One of the fathers of the accused, another ex-guerrilla, shocked his former companeros when he summoned army units from the departmental garrison to prevent his son from being lynched. The four accused young men remain defiant, smoking marijuana in public and shaking down drunks for loose change. Three of the fathers, who played an active role in the war, blame their sons' delinquency on a loss of Mayan identity, which was shattered by the war and the internal divisions introduced by the evangelical sects. Many other townspeople blame Bruce Lee and Arnold Schwarzenegger films shown on television sets that have mushroomed in their community.

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