With Papal Prodding, Guatemala May End Executions ; This Week, President Portillo Sent a Proposal to Congress That Would Eliminate Capital Punishment

Article excerpt

In the wake of Pope John Paul II's departure from the Americas, the stage has been set for a major national debate on the death penalty in Guatemala.

Days before the pope was set to arrive here to canonize Central America's first saint, the Vatican delivered a letter to President Alfonso Portillo, requesting a moratorium on executions. Within hours of the pope's arrival Mr. Portillo one-upped him, formally asking Congress to abolish the country's nearly two-centuries-old practice of capital punishment.

Along with Cuba, Guatemala is the only country in the Spanish- speaking Americas to maintain the death penalty. A handful of countries in the English-speaking Caribbean, including mainland countries Belize and Guyana, maintain it for civil crimes, as does the US. Many countries can apply it during wartime or if they declare martial law.

The news has been welcomed by activists here and abroad who are increasingly worried about Guatemala's human-rights record. They hope the pope's recent visit can help persuade Congress and the people of this crime-ravaged country to translate the president's request into law.

"This is going to cause a great polemic in Guatemala," says Luis Ramirez, executive director of the Institute for Comparative Penal Studies.

"The pope's discourse is provocative and buoyed by a humanitarian, moral, and Christian vision, which coincides with that of the human rights movement. Hopefully it can serve to influence the conscience of those in government and the traditional sectors that have supported the death penalty," he says.

Currently there are some 36 people in Guatemala sentenced to death by lethal injection - although five are fugitives of justice after a jail break last year. All of those awaiting execution are men, as women are exempt from the death penalty.

"Executions in the region are extremely rare ... and the worldwide trend is definitely moving towards eliminating [the death penalty]. During the 1990s an average of three countries abolished it each year," says Piers Bannister of Amnesty International, which advocates global elimination of the practice.

This is not the first time Portillo has brought up the possibility of abolishing capital punishment, despite the fact that two people have been executed during his administration. His spokesman, Byron Barrera, says that the president is an abolitionist, but has not been able to follow through on promises to push for elimination until now.

"He wouldn't have taken this initiative if it weren't for the pope's request because the majority of the people support the death penalty," says Mr. …