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Guatemala Confronts Past Rights Abuses

A LONG a quarter-mile stretch of barely passable dirt road outside the tiny village of Chontala, Guatemala is coming face to face with its brutal military past.It is here that forensic experts from Argentina have begun to exhume bodies from three mass graves, the first uncovered in Guatemala. Relatives say these graves hold the victims of an early 1980s counterinsurgency campaign by the military against tens of thousands of rebels and leftist sympathizers. "Guatemala still has not gotten to the point where it is investigating abuses of the past," says Anne Manuel, associate director of the rights group Americas Watch. "We want to identify the bodies and work to put those people responsible in jail." Four days prior to the January 1986 inauguration of the first civilian president in more than 30 years, departing dictator Gen. Oscar Mejia Victores granted the Army a blanket amnesty. "Laws can always be repealed in a true democracy," says Clyde Snow, the American leading the international team of forensic experts. Mr. Snow, a consultant to United States law enforcement agencies, helped identify victims of Argentina's "dirty war" of the late 1970s. Already, Snow's team has found 26 bodies in three graves along the road. Rights groups say there could be hundreds of bodies buried in this region of high conflict, about 90 miles northwest of Guatemala City. "It is proof of the violence that has been so prevalent in this country and the impunity that remains," says Andres Giron, head of the Guatamalan Congress's human rights commission. "Constant pressure from the international community might make the military think twice before it does anything like that again." Snow's team was brought to Guatemala by Americas Watch at the request of the country's Justice Department and the National Coordination of Guatemalan Widows of the Violence, an organization representing 50,000 women widowed by Guatemala's guerrilla war. Members of the group, mostly poor Indian women, are being trained by Snow to interview relatives in Quiche province, where Chontala is located, in an effort to identify the bodies. "This is the first time in [Guatemalan] history that they've established the identification of bodies [in mass graves] through scientific methods," says Edmundo Vasquez Martinez, president of Guatemala's Supreme Court. The data will be turned over to a provincial judge in Quiche, who has promised to pursue prosecutions. Although no soldier has ever been prosecuted for rights abuses, President Jorge Serrano Elias says he is "not going to cover up for anybody." Meanwhile, Snow and his team plan to work indefinitely under the watchful eyes of relatives like Tomas Gonzalez, an Indian farmer who waited patiently alongside the road while the bodies of his two young cousins were exhumed. They were killed, he says, by security forces in November 1980. He says he realizes supporting the project, which began in July, is risky. "Last week, the civil patrols gathered up most all the people in Chontala and told us not to say anything to anyone," Mr. Gonzalez says. Civilian patrols are paramilitary groups that act as eyes and ears for the armed forces, and have been linked to abuses. Snow admits the patrols have threatened his team. "I am hoping the threats don't continue.... I can't really think about that," Snow says. "Even if justice is not served ... We are letting the world know through documented evidence that these things actually did happen here."

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