Guatemalan leader admits civil war atrocities

President promises to compensate those who lost relatives at the hands of military government during bloody 36-year conflict
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The Guatemalan President, Alfonso Portillo, astonished human rights activists yesterday by admitting government responsibility for a series of bloody atrocities during the country's 36-year civil war.

The Guatemalan President, Alfonso Portillo, astonished human rights activists yesterday by admitting government responsibility for a series of bloody atrocities during the country's 36-year civil war.

Coming so soon after the trials of repressors in other South American countries - particularly the high-profile immunity case against the former Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet - Mr Portillo's pledge to investigate Guatemalan village massacres, to prosecute the murderers and to compensate the victims' families is seen as a significant gesture. Many Latin American regimes have taken decades to acknowledge the bloody repression that had installed them and kept them in power.

Claudio Grossman, a Chilean diplomat who sits on the Organization of American States' Inter-American Human Rights Commission, said: "It is very courageous what the president did today." The commission has signed an agreement with the Guatemalan government that affirms the state's institutional responsibility for war crimes, and will monitor the actions of the Guatemalan government in light of it new promises.

The repercussions of airing Guatemala's dark past can be profound: only two days after a report on army abuses was published in April 1998, Bishop Juan Gerardi, who was responsible for the report, was bludgeoned to death. Five people have been arrested for his murder, but the case has yet to be resolved.

Ethnic tensions between mixed-race Ladinos and dirt-poor Maya Indians still underly the country's simmering violence, and the death toll of Guatemala's often-overlooked "Dirty War" is estimated at 200,000, 50 times more than in Chile. Many Guatemalan activists view the new investigations as a response to international pressure and an official attempt to counteract the culture of violence that has remained ingrained in Central America's most populous country. Mob violence, lynchings, and incessant urban street crime have marred Mr Portillo's term, and he recently sent his family to safety in Canada after a gang sent death threats.

Mr Portillo was elected in January on a national reconciliation manifesto, and in spite of his close campaign links with the former military dictator General Efrain Rios Montt he is determined that his country's festering wounds begin to heal. He appointed former human rights activists to his cabinet and promised an end to impunity, apologising for the previous government excesses.

Among the worst was a "scorched earth" policy overseen by Rios Montt, Mr Portillo's political mentor, which in 1982 resulted in security troops routinely slaughtering villagers as they torched more than 400 Maya hamlets, often with the residents still trapped inside their huts. Any place suspected of sheltering insurgents was targeted. In one jungle settlement, the women were ordered to first roast all the village fowl so the soldiers could feast before the human slaughter began. One young pregnant woman had the foetus ripped from her womb and replaced by the severed head of a neighbour. Rape of women and children was commonplace.

Last year, during a heated election campaign, a United Nations commission accused Guatemala of practising genocide during the civil war and called for the government to recognise the most infamous cases. Several court cases are already underway.

Accusations against the former President Romeo Lucas Garcia, his former chief of staff, Benedicto Lucas Garcia, and the former Defence Minister Luis Rene Mendoza Palomo, centre on 17 massacres in which more than 800 civilians died.

Mr Portillo affirmed that in 1982, Guatemalan troops massacred 200 Indians in Plan de Sanchez and a further 120 in Dos Erres. The disappearance of investigative journalist Irma Flaker in 1980, the murder of a dozen leftist students in 1989, and the suspicious 1990 robbery which ended in the fatal stabbing of Myrna Mack, an anthropologist who had accused the army of violating the rights of Maya Indians, are among the roll call of brutality to which Guatemala now admits.

The President also held the state responsible for at least 10 disappearances of small children which were brought to light on Monday by the Roman Catholic Church in Guatemala. According to a report issued by ODEH, the human rights wing of the Catholic Church, children aged between one and four were frequently taken off as war booty and sold by individual Guatemalan soldiers.

Frank LaRue, the Director of the Human Rights Legal Action Centre, which represents the families of massacre victims, said Mr Portillo's action represented "an important step for human rights in Guatemala".

Compared to the bloodshed in neighbouring El Salvador and Nicaragua, where US interests were more at stake, the war in Guatemala was ignored for years. It has its roots in a United States-backed insurrection in 1954 that put Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas in power.

The worst of the recent violence took place in remote highland villages. In Pacoj, a coffee-growing region, troops would arrive with packs full of toys and set up a marimba to lure as many villagers as possible to their death.

Paul Seils, legal director of the Center for Human Rights Legal Action in Guatemala City, said there was a "fundamental racism" in coverage of the atrocities. "The victims in Chile and Argentina were middle class and articulate with the media," he said. "Here they are Indians, many of whom didn't even speak Spanish."