The assassination of the Rev. Stanley Rother, an American priest working in Guatemala, comes at an awkward time for US State Department officials. These officials are expected to testify shortly in favor of a resumption of US military aid to that Central American country.
The State Department recently decided to permit the export of 100 jeeps and 50 cargo trucks to Guatemala. The action was protested by 54 Democratic congressmen, who charged that the Guatemalan government of President Romeo Lucas Garcia, an army general, was engaged in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights. They argued that this disqualified Guatemala by law from procuring US weapons or crime control equipment.
The Rev. Mr. Rother, shot to death on July 28 in the town of Santiago Atitlan , becomes the ninth Roman Catholic cleric to be killed in this troubled Central American country in the last year. The bearded Rother was the first American among the victims.
An initial report from Guatemala City by United Press International quoted US Embassy officials there as saying that they had no information identifying Rother's killers.
When this reporter first met Stan Rother he was sleeping every night with his work boots on because he feared assassins might be coming to get him.
Although he declined to be quoted by name at the time, Rother made it clear late last year that he believed the kidnappings and killings, which had occurred in Santiago Atitlan while he worked there, were carried out by terrorists working with the Guatemalan government army.
After hearing that he himself might be on an army death list, Rother left the Guatemalan town early this year and spent three months with his parents in Oklahoma. But against the advice of friends and despite the continuing danger, Rother returned in May to Guatemala to resume his missionary duties.
Frankie Williams, a medical secretary from Wichita, Kan., who spent four vacations working with Rother in Santiago Atitlan, said that unlike some other priests in Guatemala and elsewhere in Central America, Rother did not have strong political opinions.
"He did not activate, motivate, or instigate any kind of movement against the government," she said. "He was a carpenter priest who built a hospital with his own hands."
But Ms. Williams recalled that after the Guatemalan army had moved into Santiago Atitlan late last year. Rother did say something that displeased an army captain. The captain had called a meeting to tell the people of the community, most of them descendants of the ancient Mayan Indians, that the military were their friends and was only there to protect them. But several kidnappings and assassinations had occurred in the town while it was under army control.
According to Ms. Williams, Rother immediately put up his hand and told the captain: "How can you say you are our friends when there was no trouble before you came. Now there is so much fear that people are afraid to talk to their neighbors or go out of their homes."
Ms. Williams said that the priest also gave refuge to a lay leader who was in trouble with the government and who was later kidnapped right in front of the priest's house. A letter that Rother wrote recalling what he described as army retaliation against innocent civilians for a guerrilla ambush that occurred last January was widely circulated inthe United States. Some of his friends think this may have been held against him.
"Stan was very much a farmer and a builder -- a carpenter and a bricklayer," said Jude Pansini, a former priest and friend of Rother who now works as a social anthropologist for the American Institutes for Research in Cambridge, Mass.
"Stan was in his glory when he was fixing things or working on the experimental farm," said Mr. Pansini. "He was very hard working and clean living, very conservative in his values."
Pansini, who worked until late last year on water projects in Guatemala, said that both he and Rother had obtained information from sources inside the Guatemalan government which indicated that they were on death lists.
But Pansini said that the last letter he had received from Rother, Dated July 13, had been calm and understated. It nonetheless described conditions less than ideal for some of the missionaries working in Guatemala.
After explaining his successful efforts to get people working again at the church after the killing of the lay leader, Rother said "someone was looking out for me." He said that work in restoring the side wall of the 16th century church at Santiago Atitlan was also coming along well. Then he noted that on July 1 Father Maruzzo Tulio and a catechist were "gunned down" while returning from a plantation in quiriqua.
"A month ago, a priest by the name of Pellecer was picked up near La Mercede in Guatemala [City] and hasn't been heard from since," Rother's letter continued. "He had worked for our radio and the one in Nahuala but I had never met him. His office in Nahuala was ransacked and the people in Nahuala were really scared. . . . There were two big shootouts in the city last week. . . . I've heard rumors that there were several people kidnapped in San Lucas Toliman. . . ."