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Guatemala tries to block peace prize candidate

GUATEMALA'S indigenous leader Rigoberta Menchu has emerged as a strong candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize to be announced on Friday - and the prospect that she might win has so rattled the Guatemalan authorities that they have scrambled to produce a Nobel candidate of their own.

Ms Menchu's 11-year struggle for the improvement of the rights of America's indigenous peoples has been boosted by the 500th anniversary Columbus celebrations. For her, today's anniversary is nothing to celebrate. 'Columbus's discovery of America marked the start of a long dark night, of 500 years of silence, marginalisation and repression, and the destruction of our people,' she said recently.

As a child in Guatemala's cotton plantations, Ms Menchu saw two brothers die from pesticide poisoning. In 1980, when she was 20, her father, mother and another brother were tortured and burned to death by police for campaigning against human rights abuses. She escaped a similar fate by fleeing to Mexico.

A Quiche Indian, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by the Argentine Nobel prizewinner, Adolfo Perez Esquivel, supported by the Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu. She is supported by the Archbishop of Guatemala city, and another nominee, the Brazilian Bishop of Mato Grosso, recently withdrew to support her.

When she returned to Guatemala in July, assailants flung nails at her vehicle, puncturing the tyres, and a car with darkened windows tried to crash into her. She cut short her trip, but returned at the weekend, intending to stay until after the Nobel announcement is made on Friday.

Her experience could not be further removed from that of Elisa Molina de Stahl, a white, prosperous philanthropist who works on behalf of Guatemala's deaf and blind. Dona Elisa (as she is known), English-speaking and US educated, was nominated for the Nobel prize by MPs in what many regard as a thinly disguised spoiling operation.

Guatemala has the highest rate of disappearances among indigenous people in Latin America. The US State Department blames the police and army for most of the country's murders and disappearances, which last year numbered more than 2,000. Security forces, it noted, were almost never charged with the crimes. Should Ms Menchu win, President Jorge Serrano would find his country's human rights record thrust into the limelight.