Two die as mob attacks Japanese tour group

Visitors were taking photographs of a group of brightly dressed children, then someone shouted 'the baby-snatchers have arrived'
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The Independent US

A Japanese coach tour to a highland textile market in northern Guatemala ended in bloodshed when a mob of 500 Mayans stoned a group of tourists for taking photographs. The lynch gang, who apparently believed the tourists would give the pictures to a catalogue used by baby kidnappers, then beat the Guatemalan bus driver, poured petrol over his body and set him alight.

A Japanese coach tour to a highland textile market in northern Guatemala ended in bloodshed when a mob of 500 Mayans stoned a group of tourists for taking photographs. The lynch gang, who apparently believed the tourists would give the pictures to a catalogue used by baby kidnappers, then beat the Guatemalan bus driver, poured petrol over his body and set him alight.

The drama began when the 22 middle-aged Japanese holidaymakers left their bus onSaturday. Many photographed a group of children dressed in brightly embroidered clothing.

According to Faustino Sanchez, the local police inspector at Todos Santos Cuchumatan, someone in the crowd screamed that a busload of baby-snatchers had arrived, and a hostile crowd began pelting the group with stones and using tree branches as clubs. The driver, Edgar Castellanos, was killed while trying to protect his passengers. Soon after, Tesuo Yamahiro, 40, died from a blow to the temple.

Police tossed tear-gas canisters into the crowd to break up the mêlée, and two policemen and two tourists, Esasika Takami and Ueda Kimiko, were roughed up. No arrests have been made. A spokesman for the Japanese embassy said the incident was "lamentable" and noted that there were nearly 5,000 Japanese visitors to Guatemala every year.

Mob justice is frequent in outlying Guatemalan towns: last year there were 71 lynchings by vigilantes.

Todos Santos Cuchumatan is a rural weaving village some 90 miles north-west of Guatemala City. Outsiders are not unusual in the town of 25,000, which is internationally known for fine textiles.

Backpackers frequently attend the weekend market, which draws hundreds of vendors and buyers from the hamlets near Huehuetenango. In addition, there are two Spanish-language schools in the town centre, although most people speak Mam, a Mayan language.

"This attack takes me utterly by surprise," said Robert Sitler, a professor at Stetson University, Florida, who has visited the town with his family and students every summer for seven years. "The only explanation is that people might have perceived some threat. They are extremely protective of their children; they are nursed for a couple of years at least and carried at all times." In recent years many babies, toddlers and teenagers have disappeared from Guatemala and southern Mexico.

Big profits for arranging private adoptions have spurred abductions, particularly among Indian families with little political clout. In March the UN released a report about the problems caused by international adoptions in Guatemala. With foreign couples willing to pay $25,000 (£15,600) for a healthy baby, there is a growing black market for stolen children. Some 1,332 Guatemalan children were adopted by foreigners in 1998, compared with 50 in Ecuador, a nation with a larger indigenous population.

Todos Santos Cuchumatan also witnessed brutalities during 36 years of civil unrest. Many breadwinners fled across the border to Mexico or to the capital, where rumours are rife. A widespread belief is that Third World children are kidnapped and cut up to supply organs for Western hospitals. Although there is no evidence to support this fear, it is potent. Six years ago June Weinstock, a US journalist, was badly beaten when a Guatemalan crowd suspected her of baby trafficking.

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