Petty Crime or Something More? ; Human Rights Workers in Guatemala Raise Alarm about Recent Cases of Attacks That Go Unsolved

Article excerpt

As part of an Amnesty International research mission to Guatemala, Barbara Bocek was trying to document an escalation in abuses against human rights workers.

Her research last month was unexpectedly bolstered by first-hand experience.

Ms. Bocek says that, just days after Amnesty International had issued a press statement calling for an end to intimidation of Guatemalan human rights activists, two armed men forced her into her Guatemala City hotel's stairwell, bound her mouth, feet, and hands in tape, and then left, saying they would return. She was found hours later by hotel security and a colleague.

Interior Minister Byron Barrientos, the only government official to comment on the incident, says the abduction never happened.

The case is heightening fears here among local human rights workers, who say that the government is increasingly attempting to pass off harassment as the work of common criminals.

"This case seems to go a step further, the international impact is greater, and it's hard to construe this act as common crime," says Guillermo Fernandez-Maldonado, the director of Minugua, the human rights program for the United Nations Mission in Guatemala.

He says that while the government response to many recent incidents involving human rights workers has been to dismiss them ascommon crime, "the hypothesis that a serious institution, like Amnesty International, fabricated this attack is even more bold."

Guatemala "approaches being one of the worst situations in Latin America vis-a-vis threats against human rights workers, and that wasn't the case a year ago," says Andrew Miller, a Latin American specialist for Amnesty International.

According to Mr. Fernandez-Maldonado, in Minugua's upcoming human rights report for July 2000 to June 2001, one of the important topics covered will be the "elevated number of complaints" that human rights organizations operating in Guatemala have filed with Minugua, the organization responsible for monitoring the implementation of the country's 1996 peace accords, which ended the nation's 36-year civil war.

While Minugua officials declined to give figures until the report is released, they say the most disturbing factor is not the number of incidents, but the increasing boldness of the attacks, which range from phoned death threats to physical attacks to office break- ins in which hard drives and files are stolen.

Fernandez-Maldonado says most of these acts have the appearance of common crime, the hypothesis the government has maintained in a number of these cases. Nonetheless, he says the concentration of similar complaints in such a short time period is "absolutely unusual. …