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20 January 2000 Edition

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Back to square one

Far right takes power in Guatemala

Friday 14 January, Los Chucumatanes, Guatemala

A dog wanders lazily across the main street of a village in the Northern Highlands of Guatemala, a sad but strikingly beautiful country located somewhere to the north of Honduras. It lifts its leg carelessly against the side of the pavement and rambles off down an alley. The men of this colourful Mam village - overwhelmingly Indian, poor and with little or no education - are in a similarly lacadaisical, hungover state. Somebody came back after five years in the Chicano suburbs of Los Angeles and invited them to bottles and bottles of Gallo beer. The returned Yank. The women continue with their endless work of cooking, weaving, minding children and working in the fields.

It's the opening scene from the lacklustre B movie which is Central

American reality.

A couple of hundred miles due south, in Guatemala City, former general Efrain Rios Montt is designated president of the national parliament. He's a frail, elderly gentlemen wearing glasses and a moustache who governed the country during 1982 and `83 - the worst years for governed-sponsored violence in a conflict that spanned 36 years and left 200,000 dead. The Rios Montt dictatorship sponsored death squads that effectively annihilated the population of whole villages in regions where the guerillas were most active, in order to choke off popular support for the resistance fighters.

Indigenous woman and Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu is attempting to prosecute him under international law, in an action that closely parallels the Pinochet case. Like others, she has had to go to Spain to fight her case.

Some hours later, Alfonso Portillo Cabrera is sworn in as President of the Nation. He was elected under the aegis of Rios Montt's Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG), defeating Oscar Berger of the Party of National Advancement, which had governed the country since 1996 when a peace settlement was signed with the guerillas. Portillo's triumphal sweep to power has been effected on the backs of the most reactionary elements of Guatemalan society: nevertheless the new president identifies himself as ``democratic left'' and has confessed to killing two people in self-defence while in exile from the military dictatorship in 1982. He was elected after winning more than 60% of the votes cast in the second round last month.

The figure belies the truth of the situation. Less than 40% of the electorate actually turned out to vote, partly because almost a third of the population is completely illiterate, and 80% of the population is classified as living in poverty. Abstention has always been particularly high among the indigenous population, who comprise 60% of the Guatemalan people and in the main tend to live in very isolated villages and communities. The statistics go on... Because of the country's high birth rate, most people living in Guatemala are still too young to vote, even though they may play a decisive role in their family's economy.

Third World democracy in action... Portillo's decisive victory was gained with the support of a little over 10% of the population. Many of these people were probably unaware of both who and what they were voting for. An Irish woman working with returned refugees tells the story of one Portillo voter whose entire family had been shot by soldiers and left to be eaten by animals during the massacre years. The man had cast his vote despite his utter inability to read or write. Against such a background, the enormous disparities in wealth and social capital look set to continue.

One drugged, one dead

Incredible scenes at Basque dirty tricks trial

Imagine a court case where on the opening day of trial one of the defendants turns up in his underwear and heavily sedated and then one of the main witnesses dies of a heart attack while testifying...

This is not a freak show, but one of the most significant trials in the recent history of the Spanish state. Senior security officers and government officials are facing from 2 to 97-year sentences for their roles in the kidnapping, torture and killing of two young Basque activists, Joxean Lasa and Joxi Zabala in the early 1980s.

On 20 January 1985, human remains were found in a small town near Alicante, on the Mediterranean coast of Spain. Ten years later, in March 1995, it was confirmed that the remains found were those of two young Basque activists, Lasa and Zabala. They had disappeared from Bayona (North Basque Country) on 16 October 1983. Forensic evidence confirmed that both were brutally tortured - their nails and teeth were missing - before being shot in the head and then buried in quicklime.

Today, seven people are being tried for their role in these killings. They are General Galindo, Commander Angel Vaquero, Corporal Felipe Bayo and Officer Enrique Dorado, all members of Spain's Guardia Civil; one of the Spanish government delegates to the Basque Country, Julen Elgorriaga:;Secretary of State for Security, Rafael Vera; and a lawyer who worked for years for the Home Affairs Department, Jose Argote.

It was Corporal Bayo, charged for his direct participation in the kidnapping, torture and murder of Lasa and Zabala, and whose testimony linked the rest of the defendants to the case, who appeared in court sedated and semi-naked on the opening day of the trial. This was just the opening act, however. Last week, Jesus Garcia, the detective who linked the human remains found in Alicante with the disappearance of the two young ETA volunteers, dropped dead in court while answering the prosecution's questions.

Both events made headlines in Spain. But coverage of these admittedly unusual developments has taken attention away from the implications that the outcome of this trial could have for the Spanish establishment.

The kidnapping of Lasa and Zabala was GAL's (Antiterrorism Groups of Liberation) first action. GAL was created by the Spanish government - secret service documents dated 6 July 1983 point out that the best way of dealing with Basque dissidents was ``the disappearance by kidnapping'' of political activists - and was funded from the budget of the Spanish Home Office. GAL killed 27 people in the north Basque Country (that area under French rule) and one, pro-independence leader Santi Brouard, in Bilbao.

Judicial and political leniency have been common practice in such dirty war cases. In previous trials, two Spanish National Police detectives, Jose Amedo and Michel Dominguez, were sentenced to more than a hundred year imprisonment for their involvement in GAL activities. Three years later, they were released.

In 1998, former Home Affair Minister, Jose Barrionuevo, and former Secretary of State for the Security, Rafael Vera, were sentenced to ten years for their role in the kidnapping of French citizen Segundo Marey. They served only three months.

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