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Although Guatemala remains the lone Central American nation at war, it too is being touched by the trend to reduce military influence.

Since the transition to a civilian government in 1986, numerous local human rights groups have formed and the press has become more outspoken on military impunity.

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"But progress in alleviating an oppressive culture of repression - and reducing the powers of the Guatemalan military, a veritable state within a state - has been painfully slow over the seven years of civilian government," says a report released Dec. 10 by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a Washington-based human rights monitoring group.

One of the key concerns is military influence on the judicial process. WOLA calls the trial of military officers for human rights abuses under President Jorge Serrano Elias (in office since 1991) "a positive and unprecedented step."

But while nine soldiers and one low-ranking officer have been convicted for civilian murders, "no high-ranking officer has been convicted for ordering one," the report notes. The United States State Department expresses similar dissatisfaction in cases involving US citizens in Guatemala.

Even in the most highly publicized cases evidence and suspects disappear, arrest warrants are ignored, and judges and witnesses receive death threats.

"One of the greatest limits is fear," a Guatemalan judge says.

The report details the presence of former and current military officers in the top ranks of the National Police, thus creating problems when the police are called to investigate military wrong-doing.

Juan Jose Rodil, president of the Guatemalan Supreme Court, is proposing a series of judicial reforms, including the creation of a separate investigative police force under the judiciary instead of the Interior Ministry.

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In September, the Guatemalan legislature passed reforms to the criminal code, which if fully funded and implemented "could modernize and democratize trial proceedings," WOLA says.

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