Acquittal of Casa Alianza's Harris Called a Victory for Human Rights

Article excerpt

One of the sacred symbols in Mayan culture was the Quetzal bird. It represented freedom to the Maya, for, if placed in captivity, the Quetzal will die. This symbol of freedom survived Spanish colonization and today is displayed proudly on Guatemala's national flag.

Like the Quetzal, however, freedom in Guatemala has become endangered. It is not available to everyone-least of all children. Within the last decade, the abuse of street children in Guatemala, often by police officers, has been brought to the publics attention by Casa Alianza, a branch of the New York City-based Covenant House, and headed by Executive Director Bruce Harris.

Working with street children in several Latin American countries, including Guatemala, Casa Alianza soon became aware of the rampant abuse against them. Casa staff started documenting the abuse of the children who came to its shelters-including torture and murder-and began working to bring the offenders to justice through the Guatemalan courts.

Casa Alianza and the Guatemala Solicitor Generals office entered into a cooperative agreement in 1997 to investigate situations affecting the children of Guatemala. Casa Alianza was asked to help investigate the trafficking of babies from Mexico to San Marcos and Guatemala City, and from there to overseas destinations. During a six-month investigation, Casa Alianza documented several irregular adoptions by private attorneys.

In September 1997, Casa Alianza and the Solicitor General's office held a press conference to announce the results of their investigation. The investigation revealed many children had been bought or stolen and that, in several cases, their parents had been manipulated, tricked, or forced into giving up their children for adoption.

Also released was a list of 15 criminal complaints filed with the public prosecutor's office. Susana Maria Luarca Saracho de Umana, wife of former Guatemala Supreme Court President Ricardo Umafta (now a Supreme Court Magistrate), was one of 19 lawyers named in criminal accusations related to child trafficking filed after the investigation.

Umaña -was accused of routinely engaging in influence peddling and soliciting favors, exercising "undue influence" with government authorities in facilitating international adoptions, pressuring public officials to overlook her alleged illicit adoption schemes, and misusing her position as the spouse of the then-President of the Supreme Court of Justice to speed up adoptions.

Within days of the press conference, Ms. Umaña charged Harris with criminal defamation, calumny, and slander, charges that could have resulted in five years in prison. …