Guatemalan generals unlikely to be tried for alleged rights abuses

Guatemala's new civilian government is unlikely to purge the military or police, or prosecute their leaders for alleged human rights abuses, observers say. ``I doubt whether anyone expects the generals to be put on trial,'' says a United States human rights specialist. ``That's just not going to happen here.''

Marco Vinicio Cerezo Ar'evalo, the Christian Democrat who is expected to become Guatemala's next president, has promised to abolish the Department of Technical Investigations, a special investigations unit of the Guatemala City police, and to replace the commander of the military intelligence. Both groups have been linked to alleged death squad killings.

But analysts say these changes will not substantially improve the human rights record. Within the past 30 years, more than 100,000 Guatemalans have been killed and 38,000 have disappeared, according to a 1984 report by a delegation of British members of Parliament.

Guatemala's main human rights organization, the Mutual Support Group, wants the military government to account for some 775 disappeared family members before civilian rule is restored in January. Some 120 group members staged a sit-in in Guatemala City's main cathedral last week to promote their cause. Although they left the church peacefully on Tuesday, their leader, Nineth Garc'ia, said, ``We're not leaving defeated.''

``We're leaving with a very great moral conviction that history will judge those who committed crimes against the Guatemalan people,'' added Mrs. Garc'ia, who says her husband, a union leader, disappeared at the hands of government security forces a year and a half ago.

Support for the group of working-class women and Indian women from the remote rural towns was unanimous among bystanders.

But Roman Catholic Church leaders, diplomats, and human rights observers doubt that the Army's alleged past crimes -- ranging from death squad killings and disappearances to Army massacres of Indians in the countryside -- will ever be prosecuted.

``This isn't Argentina,'' says one Western observer familiar with the Guatemalan Army. ``They haven't lost a war. In fact they won it.'' In Argentina, former junta members are on trial for murder and torture during the 1970s ``dirty war'' against leftists.

``We're not defeated. We're victorious,'' boasts Guatemala's Army strongman, Gen. Oscar Mej'ia Victores.

General Mej'ia denied allegations of Army abuses at a recent press conference. Yet he implicitly justified them on grounds of national security. ``If we hadn't beaten the communist terrorist threat, this would be a communist country,'' he said.

``This is the only state that has stopped, on its own, a communist invasion,'' Mej'ia said.

Despite claims that the Army has reformed, many observers were not heartened by Mej'ia's statements.

In an interview, Guatemala's likely president-to-be, Vinicio Cerezo, sidestepped the issue of prosecution of the generals. It is the court's responsibility, he said. If the courts had sufficient evidence, he would support prosecution of the generals, he said. (In last Sunday's election, Cerezo received 40 percent of the vote and is expected to win the Dec. 8 runoff.)

Human rights activists complain that the US Embassy in Guatemala has made monitoring human rights into a numbers game designed to show improvement. The US will not give aid to Guatemala until a civilian government is installed.

``Even the embassy's own figures show 30 to 50 deaths a month and we don't consider that consistent with the conditions necessary for a transition to democratic rule,'' says Margaret Roggensack, a US lawyer and human rights specialist. The embassy gets its figures from the local press.

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