The rapes of five female college students from Maryland in Guatemala have prompted new questions about the degree to which U.S. colleges, in a quest to offer ever more exotic experiences, are placing their students in danger.
The group from St. Mary's College of Maryland--consisting of 13 students and three faculty members--was traveling through a remote region of Guatemala's violence-scarred countryside on Friday months after the U.S. State Department issued a specific travel warning about a new wave of crime targeting groups of Americans touring the Central American nation's rural areas.
"While violent crime has been a serious and growing problem in Guatemala for years, 1997 has seen a marked increase in incidents involving American citizens," stated a State Department travel advisory dated Sept. 17, 1997.
On Monday, one of the St. Mary's professors who helped lead the Guatemalan trip said he was aware of the State Department warnings but believed he and the other organizers had taken adequate precautions.
And although Jorge Rogachevsky, an Argentine-born Spanish language teacher, deplored the attack and expressed sorrow for the victims, he insisted that college students should be prepared to take some risks to explore the world and broaden their horizons.
"I would say that, yes, it was advisable to send students to Guatemala," he said during a news conference at the small school in rural southern Maryland on Monday. "Danger is part of the human experience. We certainly have a responsibility to protect students, but part of education is to reach out and to expand."
Friday's attack came when the college group's bus was stopped by at least four gunmen near the town of Santa Lucia Cotzumalguapa, close to Guatemala's Pacific coast. The group was robbed and held at gunpoint for 90 minutes while five of the students were led away and raped by gunmen who were apparently disappointed that the Americans did not have more money with them, school officials and U.S. authorities said.
After receiving medical treatment in Guatemala City, the five rape victims returned to the United States Saturday; the rest of the study group returned Sunday.
On Monday, as the case flared into an international incident, President Clinton expressed sorrow over the attack while Guatemalan authorities reported they had arrested four suspects and were searching for three others.
"It's a terrible thing, and I have a lot of concerns, obviously, for the victims and their families. But we're persuaded the [Guatemalan] government is taking appropriate action," Clinton told reporters.
The State Department also praised Guatemala's handling of the case, and U.S. officials stressed that they do not believe the attack was politically motivated. They said evidence suggests it was a brutal crime in a country already beset by image-damaging attacks on visiting groups of Americans.
Inside Guatemala, however, critics of the government were less tolerant of their nation's handling of the case.
Oscar Recinos, director of a citizen's anti-crime group named Neighborhood Guardians, called for the resignation of Rodolfo Adrian Mendoza Rosales, the minister of government who is in charge of security.
In the United States, meanwhile, troubling questions were aimed at St. Mary's College. Its stunned faculty and administrators struggled on Monday to respond to media queries about whether they had paid sufficient heed to U.S. government warnings about the dangers presented by travel in Guatemala.
The State Department's warning last September spelled out the dangers in detail.
"The most recent incidents reported to the U.S. embassy, which include shootings, kidnappings, rapes and violent assaults, have for the most part occurred during daylight hours and in many cases have affected entire groups of American tourists," the statement said. "Highway travel has generally exposed visitors to increased risk of violent incident. Highway robberies by armed thieves have increased significantly over the past year and have occurred in all parts of the country. Tourist vans have been particularly susceptible targets."
At Monday's news conference, Rogachevsky said: "Our concern was to travel in daylight--and this happened in the middle of the afternoon on a bright, sunny day. We always traveled with a Guatemalan who would know the people and the area, and we made sure that the group stayed together, and we counseled the students on safety issues."
While saying he was "shocked and dismayed" that such precautions proved insufficient, Rogachevsky added that he believes U.S. college students shouldn't retreat into campus shells because of the risks of such criminal attacks in the Third World.
College President Jane Margaret O'Brien said the attack would prompt a review of the college's "procedures and policies" for sending students abroad. "We may exclude this area, and we may look more broadly in our Latin American programs and determine how best we can serve the safety issue first before we do any of the cultural enrichment activities for our students."
But O'Brien said the liberal arts college remains committed to its study programs abroad.
As reporters and television trucks descended on St. Mary's traumatized campus, other academic experts said the case underscores how a surge in the number of U.S. college students exploring the Third World points to a need for better controls and coordination of overseas study.
A new report by the New York-based Institute of International Education noted that a year abroad once meant study in London or Paris, but today it could just as easily mean the Brazilian rain forest.
During the 1995-1996 academic year, 89,242 Americans received college credit for study abroad, and the survey found a strong trend among students to head for non-Western European destinations. The survey found nearly 14,000 U.S. students were involved in overseas study programs in Latin America, an 18% increase from the previous year. The survey also found a 10% rise in the number of students traveling to Africa, a 5% rise for Asia and a 15% increase for Russia.
"While you have more students going to the Third World, there is no central resource or clearinghouse to help college administrators decide whether to go to a country, and if they do go, how best to deal with the conditions," said Gary Rhodes, program coordinator at USC's Office of Overseas Studies and an expert on international study programs.