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Guatemalan probe could use U.S. boost

The recent testimony of two former members of an elite Guatemalan military unit about the planning that went into the massacre of 300 unarmed civilians in 1982 in the village of Dos Erres -- and the subsequent arrest orders issued for 10 other members of the armed forces as “material authors” of the slaughter -- raise hope that a new day is dawning in that war-torn country.

The developments provide a moment for the United States to make some amends for the great agony it helped to cause in Guatemala by its complicity with the aims and tactics of often-brutal military dictatorships.

For 36 years Guatemala suffered under such dictators, propped up and embraced by the United States. Few were as vicious as former Gen. Efraín Rios Montt. He loved to advertise himself as a born-again Christian, and he apparently had a lot of people fooled. The Reagan administration touted him as the one who would control the insurgency movement. He was the darling of the religious right in the United States, the object of fervent prayers of figures like TV preacher Pat Robertson, who referred to Rios Montt as a man of God.

But while Rios Montt was waving his Bible before prayerful crowds, his troops were conducting unspeakable slaughters in the countryside.

In three days in 1982, the people of Dos Erres, 300 unarmed civilians -- men, women and children -- were wiped out. The people, thus the village, simply disappeared.

The Dos Erres massacre might have remained just one more awful mystery of that bloody period -- all over Guatemala, human rights workers are still opening mass graves -- were it not for the fear and the troubled consciences of the two men who turned state’s witnesses and for the persistent work of Will Lotter, the retired college football coach from the United States (see story). Lotter, who spent most of his career coaching at University of California Davis, is the embodiment of the kind of decency and clear thinking that sees past the hype of misguided foreign policy and the jingoism that so often gets passed off as patriotism.

He was courageous enough to work through his own anger toward the killers turned state’s evidence, to gain their trust and raise the finances necessary to obtain legal advice and take care of the details of seeing the men and their families into safe exile.

The story might have remained buried if not for the courage of the Guatemalan prosecutor and of the judge who took the testimony of the two witnesses and has begun issuing arrest orders. Confronting the conduct of the military is a dangerous act in Guatemala. The country’s recent history is littered with the bodies of attorneys, judges, journalists, religious leaders, physicians and other professionals who have challenged the powerful or worked to expose human rights abuses committed by the government and its agents.

The United States should now, in the most forceful language, encourage the investigation, offer protection for witnesses and those in the judicial system handling the case and urge that the investigation be pursued to the highest levels of the Guatemalan government and military.

Last year, after the release of a United Nations-sponsored truth commission report that contained damning conclusions about U.S. involvement in the horrors committed against the rural Mayan population in Guatemala, President Clinton issued an apology.

If that apology means anything, the United States must take the opportunity, with this breakthrough in the legal process, to do all in its power -- including opening up the considerable archives that exist chronicling events of the period in question -- to advance the investigation in Guatemala, no matter where it leads. Guatemala’s agony has been a hidden story for too long. It is time to shine the light that will bring justice and advance a new rule of law.

National Catholic Reporter, April 21, 2000