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Guatemala Pierces Army's Shield

Long tradition of immunity on human rights abuses is broken by court's landmark sentence. RIGHTS ABUSES

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A ROADBLOCK has emerged on the only rocky road leading into the highland village of Santiago Atitlan, one manned not by soldiers with automatic weapons, but by local Indian men wearing embroidered knickers and straw hats.Each night around 11 p.m., a makeshift barrier seals off the 20,000 or so residents, mostly fiercely independent Tzutuhil natives. Men armed only with sticks and the ability to summon mobs of people with the blow of a whistle prevent Army patrols and jeep-loads of national police from passing through their town. This village, about 50 miles west of Guatemala City, took justice into its own hands last Dec. 2, after soldiers at the town's military post opened fire on thousands of residents who were protesting the attempted kidnapping of a local merchant by the Army. That barrage left 13 Indians dead, including a 10-year-old boy, and at least 20 wounded. Following an unprecedented wave of criticism the government ordered military and police forces removed from the town at the residents' request. Now, nearly a year after the high-profile massacre, the hamlet has become a symbol not only of grass-roots justice, but of the first crack in the wall of impunity that has protected killers within the Army and police for decades. In a landmark move, a military court last week sentenced two military men to prison for the Atitlan murders; Sgt. Maj. Efrain Garcia Gonzalez will serve 16 years in prison and Lt. Jose Antonio Ortiz will serve four years. "This sentencing begins a process of ending impunity in Guatemala and is in line with President Jorge Serrano [Elias]'s pledge to establish law and uphold the human rights of all citizens," says Attorney General Acisclo Valladares. "In fact, the president has instructed me to seek the maximum sentences of 30 years," in a court appeal.

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