Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Guatemala apologizes for slayings

Under orders from an international court, Guatemala apologized Monday for the government-directed massacre of 226 people in a highland village during the nation's bloody civil war.

Vice President Eduardo Stein traveled via helicopter to Plan de Sánchez, 95
miles north of the capital, Guatemala City, to formally accept government responsibility for the killings by soldiers on July 18, 1982.

The government was ordered to apologize by the Inter-American Human Rights Court, which also decreed that the state pay survivors and relatives $7.9 million in damages in a ruling last fall.

Stein said the army had ``unleashed bloodshed and fire to wipe out an entire community.''

Between 1978 and 1983, the government of Guatemala carried out a scorched earth policy against Mayan villages in the highlands where the guerrillas operated. The Plan de Sánchez killings took place during the 18-month dictatorship of Efrain Ríos Montt whose short lived administration conducted the worst of the genocide. Over 600 Mayan villages were burned to the ground, crops destroyed, and animals either killed or carried off in the spoils of war. Villagers who survived fled into the mountains where they were pursued by the Army and bombed by the Air Force.

Soldiers aided by members of civilian patrols stormed into Plan de Sánchez in 1982. They used machetes and machine guns to kill inhabitants, and forced groups of men and women into homes which they set ablaze or pelted with grenades. Additionally, a helicopter bombed the area, considered a stronghold of rebel activity. The war killed 200,000 people before a U.N.-brokered peace treaty was signed by both sides in December 1996.

Stein said he insisted the ceremony take place in Plan de Sánchez and called the court ruling historic.

``The people want moments that commemorate their victims,'' he said. ``But, more than anything, they don't want what happened to keep being denied officially.''

But the apology hardly ends the story. Only one massacre has been successfully prosecuted and in that case only three low level civil patrolers were convicted. A warrent is out for the arrest of the officer in charge, but he can't be found--even though he continues to collect his pension.

Earlier this week, a collection of secret police files were discovered detailing more cases of dissapearance. Forensic teams plan to start digging up secret graves in Guatemala City itself in the near future. At the same time, human rights activists continue to be persecuted, recieving threats against their lives.

Nearly ten years after the peace agreement, Guatemala continues to suffer from the after affects of the years of genocide.


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