Guatemala's 'bum rap'?

In the wake of his brief visit with President Rios Montt of Guatemala, Ronald Reagan has concluded that Guatemala has gotten a ''bum rap'' on its human rights performance. The United States President has a responsibility to certify to the Congress that there are not ''gross and consistent'' violations of human rights in any country to receive military assistance. Based on his comment and on human rights reports by the State Department, it appears that the President will certify Guatemala as free of gross and consistent violations and recommend arms aid and military training.

As recently as November Joseph Moran, of the North Carolina State Conference of Churches, and I went to Santa Anita las Canoas, a village of the municipality of San Martin Jilotepeque, Chimaltenango, Guatemala, to investigate a report of violence against civilians.

We met an army patrol ordered there by radio. In conversation, the captain in charge said that things had been calm in the area for three to four months, and he summoned a villager to verify his statement. The villager first reiterated the captain's view; after further discussion he told us in detail of events on Oct. 18, three weeks earlier.

On that day, an army unit had required the village residents - men, women, and children - to assemble in the chapel. The unit brought in hooded informers who identified 18 village men as guerrilla collaborators; an army captain came and ordered the 18 executed. They were killed that evening in the chapel yard and their bodies buried in a cornfield just below.

As this story was told, the army captain stood silent, his head bowed. We were stunned, by the story itself and that it had been told in the presence of army personnel.

Our team of inquiry was organized in response to an invitation from President Rios Montt to visit to see the human rights situation for ourselves. We held more than 40 interviews with individuals and groups in Guatemala and Chiapas, Mexico. The story of Santa Anita may have been the most dramatic that we heard, but it was not exceptional, and it and many others led us to conclude that the government and army of Guatemala are indeed engaged in gross and consistent violations of human rights, especially in rural areas, especially against indigenous people.

In the face of these findings, it is disturbing to realize that the US Embassy describes the human rights situation in Guatemala as improved, without gross and consistent violations.

A church team, known to be traveling with a presidential invitation and with army credentials, in Guatemala for only five days, was able to gather substantial information concerning violations by the army. The State Department has numerous staff in the country on a permanent basis but does little independent investigating. The question arises whether human rights information is gathered to assist policy formulation, or whether policy considerations shape the human rights ''information'' gathered by State Department personnel.

Perhaps Congress should make specific appropriations to insure independent, objective investigation. The present system of human rights reporting from Guatemala is worse than nothing; many more innocent people will suffer death and injury if the ''information'' produced by this system is used to justify increased arms shipments or military training for the Guatemalan Army.

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