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Rights Still at Risk for Guatemalans : Central America: Nation has worst record in hemisphere, activists say. A U.N. team expects to meet official resistance.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Carlos Catalan’s run-in with the Guatemalan army began as a traffic altercation.

Driving his bus along a steep road 40 miles outside this capital, he encountered a Nissan utility vehicle, but neither motorist would let the other pass. It was the kind of traffic macho that is common on Central American streets. But when the driver of the Nissan lowered a tinted window and began shooting at the bus, Catalan’s nightmare began.

Fearing for the safety of his 60 passengers, Catalan sped away until he reached a police post, where he expected to report the incident. But the other driver turned out to be an army intelligence officer.

Over the days that followed, Catalan said, he was beaten, followed, snatched from a hospital at gunpoint and threatened with death if he tried to file charges or speak publicly about what happened.

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The beating and kicking that Catalan says he received from the well-placed army colonel caused him to lose a testicle, and his family has fled the country. Catalan now lives a frightened life, taking refuge at a Roman Catholic church while his case goes through the courts.

“They destroyed my life in a way you cannot imagine,” he said.

Catalan’s story is one of dozens of cases that human rights activists are pressing in an effort to challenge what they describe as the continued power and impunity of the Guatemalan military. Despite changes in the command of a notoriously brutal army, and an end to the kinds of army-directed massacres that decimated Mayan communities in the 1980s, murder, torture and disappearances by government security forces continue, human rights and church officials say.

With one of the most abysmal human rights records in the Western Hemisphere, Guatemala has finally agreed to allow the permanent presence of an international monitoring team from the United Nations. The decision was hailed as a major breakthrough in Guatemala’s efforts to end a 33-year civil war that has claimed about 100,000 lives. Human rights verification had been a key stumbling block in reaching a peace accord.

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But even before the mission begins, there are signs its mandate will be limited by unrest and government resistance.

A recent wave of anti-foreigner violence, in which North Americans were accused of stealing Guatemalan children and two U.S. citizens were beaten by enraged crowds, is being seen in some circles as a warning to the U.N. mission, which is scheduled to arrive this month. U.N. officials say privately that they are worried.

And government and army officials seem determined to restrict the work of the U.N. monitors by requiring them to turn over any investigation to existing Guatemalan institutions, such as the police. Some of these institutions are already discredited because of their routine failure to solve cases or prosecute abusers who are members of security forces.

The U.N. human rights mission was authorized in a landmark agreement signed March 29 in Mexico City by the government of President Ramiro de Leon Carpio and guerrillas of the leftist Guatemalan National Revolutionary Union. With this new push to end the war, the two sides also agreed to discuss the formation of a crucial but controversial commission to examine the past massacres and atrocities of the war.

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Guerrilla spokesmen said they are confident the commission will be established in the next round of peace talks in Norway later this month. But the army hates the idea.

Senior officers warn against a commission similar to the U.N.-sponsored “Truth Commission” that was formed as part of peace accords that ended neighboring El Salvador’s 12-year civil war. The Salvadoran panel named names and implicated government security forces or their right-wing backers in most of the war’s atrocities.

Guatemalan church and human rights groups argue that the commission is vital to building peace on a foundation of justice that clarifies who killed whom and what exactly happened to about 40,000 missing union, student and peasant leaders. The criminals, they argue, should be held accountable. Army officers, accused of many of the crimes, do not agree, saying the past should be relegated to the past. And they contend that the guerrillas would be unfairly spared scrutiny.

“If it were up to me, the commission would not exist,” the defense minister, Gen. Mario Enriquez, told The Times. “It will not reconcile. It will only polarize.”

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Such resistance could doom the panel to failure. President De Leon, himself a former human rights ombudsman, wants the commission to report on war crimes without including the names of murderers and torturers, nor the institution to which they belonged.

Hector Rosada, the government’s representative to negotiations with the rebels and army, said that if the commission probes more deeply, if it follows the Salvadoran example, the entire peace process would be torpedoed.

“We don’t want to provoke vengeance,” he said in an interview in the presidential palace here. “We want to put the emphasis on the victims, not on those who made them victims.”

Critics doubt that such a limited evaluation of war crimes will satisfy victims’ families.

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“If they do not name people, there will be resentment and anger,” said Nineth Montenegro, a human rights activist whose husband was among the tens of thousands of people who disappeared in the 1980s. “We are not asking for (public) trials, but there should be a moral judgment.”

The arrival of the U.N. monitors is especially welcomed by those who argue that Guatemala’s human rights situation has not improved under De Leon and may have actually deteriorated.

De Leon’s surprise election by the National Congress last June ended a dizzying series of coups and countercoups. His background as a human rights prosecutor raised high hopes of sweeping reform, but many Guatemalans today say they are disappointed. He failed to disband army-backed Civilian Self-Defense Patrols, armed peasant vigilantes blamed for widespread abuses. Their elimination has been recommended by human rights advocates the world over--including De Leon himself before he was president.

De Leon made progress early in his administration by starting to remove the military influence from the national police. But this year, civilians he had named to key posts were replaced by military hard-liners or extreme rightists.

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According to the Roman Catholic archbishop’s office on human rights, the number of reported summary executions, disappearances and other violations grew at an “alarming” rate after De Leon took office. Extrajudicial executions, for example, jumped from four in June to 27 in July and 50 in January, the church office said in a 468-page report.

“There have been many steps backward with respect to human rights,” said Fernando Lopez, legal director of the office.

The reported violations come amid a wider escalation of violence in Guatemala. In addition to the attacks on foreigners, which prompted a U.S. State Department warning against travel here, kidnapings, killings, unending public-service strikes, demonstrations and sit-ins--plus renewed rumors of a military takeover--have contributed to a climate of tension and instability.

Perhaps the single most shocking incident was the April 1 slaying of Epaminondas Gonzalez Dubon, president of Guatemala’s Constitutional Court, the highest court in the land and possibly the country’s last public institution with credibility. Several days later, Obdulio Chinchilla Vega, the most powerful and reputedly most corrupt member of the Guatemala’s unicameral National Congress, was seriously wounded in an assassination attempt--the second in 11 months.

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The guerrillas, whose war against the Guatemalan army has dropped off considerably in recent years, have also been accused of human rights violations, such as forced recruitment of child soldiers and the use of peasant villagers as shields in the remote Peten and Quiche regions.


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