A terrorised nation goes to the polls

Guatemala's murky human rights record bodes ill for this weekend's elections, writes Phil Davison

Guatemala City - Baby-snatching does not normally grab headlines here. There are too many children kidnapped for ransom, for personal vengeance, sometimes for sale to childless foreigners.

Last week's kidnapping of Juan Carlos Velasquez Mench was the exception. The 22-month-old baby was the "nephew" of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Mench. The baby's mother is Ms Mench's cousin but within the Mayan Indians' extended family, the Indian activist considers him a nephew. And the kidnapping highlighted Guatemala's murky human rights record in the run-up to tomorrow's presidential and general elections.

"This was a direct message to me and to the peace process," Rigoberta Mench said in an interview this week. "And a direct response to the Xaman case." She had been pressing for the prosecution of a soldiers who killed 11 Indians and wounded 30 in a massacre at Xaman last month.

As in that case, in countless other cases of murder and torture of Indians or political activists, and in the unsolved cases of 40,000 "disappeared" people in the past two decades, the kidnapping came as an eve-of-election reminder of what most observers here agree is Guatemala's most serious problem - impunity. Impunidad is a catchword, with all 19 presidential candidates insisting it will be top of their priorities.

But despite high hopes raised when the former human rights ombudsman Ramiro de Leon Carpio was named President in 1993, he has failed to improve the country's human rights record. "On the contrary, his performance has been dismal. Rights violations have in fact increased since he took over," said a West European diplomat. "He might have seized the initiative and taken advantage of public sympathy but he missed the chance. He has depended on the army to stay where he is."

Mr de Leon was appointed by Congress in June 1993 after President Jorge Serrano suspended the constitution and tried to seize dictatorial powers. Serrano was forced into exile and Mr de Leon was mandated with completing the term which will end when the winner of tomorrow's election takes office on 14 January.

The front-runner is a 49-year-old businessman and former Foreign Minister, Alvaro Arzu of the conservative National Advancement Party (PAN). But he is thought unlikely to win the absolute majority necessary to avoid a run-off on 7 January, in which the second-placed Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG), controlled by the former dictator Efrain Rios Montt, could pick up support.

A report by the UN Mission for the Verification of Human rights (Minugua) condemned the de Leon government, saying there was "a clear lack of will" within the country's institutions to respond to a paralysis of the justice system, the virtual non-existence of justice. The power of criminal groups, whether linked to the state or not, who resolve police or private problems via crime, is "greater than that of the institutions whose role is to combat them," the report said.

It said an average 10-12 bodies arrived in the Guatemala City morgue daily this year with the same hallmarks - hands bound behind the back and a shot through the back of the head. Only one in 20 of such killings are solved and in 90 per cent of cases witnesses refuse to testify for fear of reprisals.

"It's near anarchy and it's a vicious circle," said a First World diplomat here. "People are afraid, witnesses are afraid, prosecutors are afraid, judges are afraid. So there's no justice system. So the death squads get rid of what they consider the criminals the cheapest, quickest way possible: a bullet to the head. Of course, one man's 'criminal' is another man's human rights activist."

As a result of the kidnapping, Rigoberta Mench gave up her campaigning aimed at urging Mayan Indians - 60 per cent of Guatemala's 10 million people - to vote tomorrow.

Abstention, particularly among Indians, was chronic during Guatemala's decade of democracy, allowing the ladino elite to maintain control. "I won't be intimidated. And I won't let them force me back into exile," the 36-year-old Nobel laureate said. "And I intend to vote for the first time." She is by no means imagining the intimidation of which she talks.

Ms Mench said this week that little had changed for Guatemala's Mayan Indians since she movingly described their plight in her 1983 autobiography, I, Rigoberta Mench, but that she was encouraging Indians to vote "because it is the only way that things might change".

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