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The CIA and Guatemala

INFORMATION about the deaths of Michael DeVine, an American who ran a lodge in the Guatemalan jungle, and Efrain Bamaca Velasquez, a guerrilla commander in that country, is far from complete. But enough has emerged to expose a nether world of death-dealing military officers and cynical spy masters who kept them on retainer.

Throwing light on this world should help clear out some murky corners. In the United States, Congress and the public are coming to understand how the CIA was able to continue channeling money to its intelligence ''assets'' in Guatemala even after presidential orders were issued to cut off all military aid after the DeVine murder in 1990.

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This inclination to sidestep even the highest authority threatens constitutional government and should be rooted out.

Exposing the dark corners in Guatemala is, in many ways, an even trickier task. Men like Col. Julio Roberto Alpirez, the intelligence officer implicated in the DeVine and Bamaca killings, consider torture and murder legitimate tools. Their war against leftist insurgents has been fought, won, and refought so many times it's a way of life -- the fall of world communism notwithstanding.

Yet there are hopes for something better in Guatemala: a peace process between the government and what's left of the insurgency initiated last year. Part of that process is an examination of past human rights abuses -- including the death or disappearance of thousands of civilians.

The worst thing that could follow from the CIA-Guatemala revelations is a reaction, on the part of either Guatemala's military or its guerrillas, damaging to the fragile peace process.

The US can help avert that by supporting the human rights review and other efforts at reconciliation within Guatemala.

Not least, US contacts with that country's military must have a much different purpose from the past. Colonel Alpirez, like many other Latin American officers, once received cold-war-era training in the States. According to high-ranking US officers, that training now emphasizes military ethics and respect for human rights. This step is but one of those needed to help end the culture of violence in Guatemala.

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