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Slaying raises specter of past
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Murder of an indigenous leader is part of a wave of rights abuses.

When Antonio Pop Caal’s body was found in an abandoned well on Dec. 18, it conjured memories of a time when Maya leaders were regularly "eliminated" to spread fear among the population. It also marked the end of a year plagued by violence.

Pop Caal disappeared in October. There were reports that he had been kidnapped and his abductors were demanding a US$24,000 ransom, but that negotiations had broken down. Three men were arrested in the case on Dec. 17, and police said that one provided information that led to the discovery of Pop Caal’s body. Three days later, another indigenous leader and former legislator, Diego Velásquez Brito, was shot dead in what police called confusing circumstances.

Two other attacks occurred earlier in the month. On Dec. 5, an unidentified assailant shot at Attorney General Carlos de León Argueta, who has been investigating human rights cases and allegations of government ties to organized crime (LP, Dec. 2, 2002), and on Dec. 12, human rights activist Amílcar Méndez was attacked after attending a meeting about Pop Caal’s disappearance.

Journalist Mario Antonio Sandoval believes that Pop Caal’s murder was more than a common crime. "Those who planned it had reason to believe they would not be punished for their actions," he said. "Assassins were hired. This is a return to murders similar to those that occurred during the worst years of military repression."

As with so many murders in Guatemala, the truth behind the indigenous leader’s death may never be known. "The lack of evidence makes it difficult to say for sure that the murder was political, but it’s impossible to ignore his political past," said lawyer María Eugenia Solís of the Myrna Mack Foundation.

Sketchy police investigations and the hiring of petty criminals to carry out political killings often make it difficult to prove political motivations for violence against activists. Last year, UN Human Rights Rapporteur Hina Jilani reported that there was credible evidence linking clandestine armed groups with the Guatemalan Army and national police (LP, July 15, 2002).

Pop Caal’s death was a blow for all Maya, said Andrés Cus, president of the Q’eqchi Linguistic Community. The victim was an important Maya intellectual, lawyer and religious leader whose work in the 1970s and 1980s helped forge a new sense of Maya identity.

He was born in 1941 in a village near Cobán, Alta Verapaz, in the central highlands, where the local bishop recognized his potential and sent him to study in the capital. He considered becoming a Catholic priest, but abandoned the idea because of contradictions with his Maya beliefs. Instead he studied philosophy, theology and law, becoming the first lawyer to practice in the Q’eqchi language. He was also a Maya spiritual leader.

In a year-end statement, Amnesty International denounced "continuing threats, intimidation and attacks against human rights defenders and members of the legal community involved in efforts to combat impunity or implement key aspects of the peace accords. Journalists reporting on human rights cases or on allegations of official corruption, and church figures and indigenous leaders supporting peasant farmers seeking to secure land rights and adequate living conditions are also under attack."

Activists and human rights leaders are not the only targets of violence. Reports from organizations that defend sexual rights and children’s rights and a group that works with gangs point to an alarming pattern of killings in the capital.

Casa Alianza, a children’s rights organization, recorded a 27-percent increase in murders of children and youths last year, with 408 killed in Guatemala City between January and October. The sexual rights group OASIS reported 18 killings of sex workers last year.

Many victims of violence are youths involved in street gangs, but many observers question the official explanation that the deaths result mainly from turf wars. "It is rarely clear who is responsible. The children are often killed with weapons of a caliber not frequently seen among the gangs," said Antonio Montúfar, coordinator of the Legal Action Center for Human Rights’ crime program.

Many observers believe that last year’s violence marks a resurgence of efforts to rid Guatemala of groups that those in power consider "undesirable." Sources say that many of the attacks against sex workers, street children and youths were carried out from passing vehicles. Firearms were used in 95 percent of the cases.

Toward the end of the year, there was more international criticism of the perceived deterioration of security in Guatemala, along with rumors that international aid, particularly from the United States, could be withdrawn. Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo responded by replacing Foreign Minister Gabriel Orellana with Edgar Gutiérrez, a former left wing activist and trusted adviser.

The move drew criticism because of Gutiérrez’s lack of diplomatic experience, although he is respected abroad for his work with the Catholic Church’s Recovery of the Historical Memory (REMHI) project (LP, May 14, 1998) and he is well versed in two of the international community’s main concerns: the peace accords and Guatemala’s human rights record.

Some observers worry that violence could be on the rise because this is an election year. The last time elections were held, in 1999, there were sharp increases in political violence and human rights violations.

Between April and December 1998, the UN Verification Mission in Guatemala (MINUGUA), which is monitoring the implementation of the peace accords, recorded 1,168 human rights violations and warned of "an alarming rise in activities referred to as ‘social cleansing’ and lynching." The figure rose to 4,781 during the first nine months of 1999.




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