A wave of hysteria fueled by rumors of child-snatching foreigners has victimized three Americans, triggered rioting in Guatemalan villages and threatens to provoke a backlash by government security forces.
An American woman was beaten nearly to death Tuesday in a remote Indian village and remained in a coma Friday. June Weinstock, 51, a journalist from Fairbanks, Alaska, suffered extensive injuries when a mob beat her with machetes, clubs and metal pipes while she was visiting San Cristobal Verapaz in northeastern Guatemala.
Villagers chased and attacked Weinstock under the mistaken impression that she had stolen a local child. The child later reappeared. An unidentified American man translating for Weinstock was also hurt.
Another American woman was nearly lynched last month under similar circumstances.
Rumors of Americans stealing children--either to adopt or, in the more fantastic versions, to harvest their organs for transplants--have long circulated in Guatemala and other Latin American nations. But the hysteria that has gripped Guatemala in recent weeks is unprecedented.
It builds on the local legend of Miculash, a Guatemalan bogyman who stole children to make soap out of them. But analysts said there may be a more carefully orchestrated ploy at work here.
Hard-line factions of the Guatemalan military are believed to be exploiting these visceral fears--perhaps even encouraging them--to undermine public security and to generate suspicion of foreigners.
The furor came as the Guatemalan army sought ways to maintain control of the domestic security apparatus in the face of a push by civilian authorities to diminish military influence.
In both the Weinstock beating and the riots that ensued after the arrest of a New Mexico woman--also accused of nabbing a child--in Santa Lucia Cotzumalguapa, the army was called in to restore order. Conservatives in the government of President Ramiro de Leon Carpio are hinting at a sudden need to take drastic actions to calm the country.
In the wake of the attacks, U.S. officials are urging American tourists to avoid Guatemala and residents to use "utmost caution."
Graffiti declaring, "Gringo child-stealers, go home" has appeared in wealthy neighborhoods of the capital, and Guatemalan mothers have taken to shielding their children on the streets when they see a foreigner.
The collective psychosis has been stoked by inflammatory reports in the local press of sightings of long-haired foreigners, driving Jeeps with tinted windows, supposedly hunting for children in remote villages. Another rumor that made the rounds was that a child had been found with several organs removed and a wad of dollars stuffed in his body with a note stating: "Thank you for your collaboration."
Illegal adoptions are not uncommon in Guatemala, but there has never been evidence of the theft of body parts.
Weinstock was secluded in a private clinic in Guatemala City after being airlifted from northeastern Guatemala in a U.S. Southern Command helicopter on a training exercise in the area.
She suffered fractures to both arms, serious head injuries and is breathing with the aid of an artificial respirator. Doctors said they must wait until she regains consciousness before they can assess whether she has suffered permanent brain damage.
The attack came three weeks after a mob chanting "Kill her" sacked the Santa Lucia police station in southern Guatemala, following the arrest of Melissa Carol Larson, a tourist from New Mexico who had been accused by local residents of stealing a child.
Townspeople burned down the station and destroyed police vehicles after they were led to believe that the police had been bribed into releasing Larson. In fact, a police van had taken her to a jail in the municipal capital of Escuintla for her safety. She then spent two weeks in prison in Guatemala City until her release March 25. No evidence against her was found, nor was she formally charged.
"Of all the things to be accused of, this is the last thing I would have imagined," said Larson, 37, an architectural draftswoman who lives in an adobe hut in Taos and sells jewelry. "It's as far-fetched as it could ever get."
Larson said she had arrived in Santa Lucia to visit nearby archeological ruins during her vacation. She does not recall talking to children and she cannot fathom how her actions might have been misinterpreted.
In both the Larson and Weinstock incidents, the military took over the towns to restore order when local police appeared unable to do so.
"They drove in in their armored cars like white knights in shining armor," a human rights activist said.
Informed sources said two members of military intelligence had been seen inciting the crowd in Santa Lucia, while police suspect that professional agitators were involved in the San Cristobal riot.
The hysteria and instability, human rights activists fear, will provide an excuse for security forces to crack down. Hard-line Interior Minister Danilo Parrinello has hinted at declaring a state of emergency and using the army to enforce order throughout the country.
"The army wants to appear as the savior for the people, but they are the chief accomplices," said Rosalina Tuyuc, an indigenous leader and longtime critic of the army.
Some fear that the xenophobia is also being whipped up to undermine the work of international human rights workers, diplomats and journalists, who have generally been critical of a military blamed for numerous human rights atrocities.
Parrinello, the interior minister, replaced Arnoldo Ortiz Moscoso, a respected former president of the Guatemalan college of lawyers, who quit in January complaining that the army was blocking his attempts to reduce the influence of military intelligence in the civilian police force.
A member of an extreme right-wing party, Parrinello was an adviser in the early 1970s to Mario Antonio Sandoval Alarcon, then president of Congress and reputedly the founder of several right-wing death squads.
Parrinello's appointment followed that of the former head of military intelligence, Col. Mario Alfredo Merida, to vice minister. Merida's appointment, in place of a civilian, has been viewed with alarm by diplomats and human rights workers, who see it as a setback to attempts to reduce the pervasive influence of the army.