By ROMINA RUIZ-GOIRIENA, Associated Press
GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — Chanting and waving signs to protest high electricity prices, thousands of unarmed indigenous demonstrators blockaded a highway in western Guatemala, forcing a standoff with police. Two truckloads of soldiers arrived and gunfire erupted, killing eight protesters and wounding 34.
What happened next after the Oct. 4 incident was virtually unprecedented in a country scarred by decades of civil war as well as violence against its indigenous majority and years of impunity for its powerful military. Authorities actually investigated the violence, and the alleged perpetrators were arrested.
The country's attorney general, a former human rights activist known for her bold pursuit of criminals, dispatched at least 175 prosecutors and investigators to the scene, and many of them collected shells, blood samples and DNA evidence. Others travelled to two nearby hospitals to interview wounded demonstrators and witnesses.
Within a week, prosecutors had detained eight army privates and a colonel on criminal charges. Two privates and the colonel could each face a maximum penalty of 500 years in prison for extrajudicial assassination while six privates could face up to 320 years each for attempted murder with intent. An accompanying report said soldiers had ignored police instructions to stay away from the protest.
The soldiers involved were not recipients of any U.S. aid or training in a Central American country in which the United States has spent $85 million fighting drug traffickers since the civil war ended in 1996.
President Otto Perez Molina pushed to end an earlier U.S. ban on military aid that was imposed during the conflict over concerns about human rights abuses. To fight the drug trafficking problem, Perez has since approved the creation of two new military bases and the upgrading of a third to add as many as 2,500 soldiers. He's also signed a treaty allowing a team of 200 U.S. Marines to patrol Guatemala's western coast to catch drug shipments.
Perez, a former army general who's been investigated for human rights abuses during the country's civil war, lent his support to the investigation into the shooting of protesters earlier this month, saying he would accept the attorney general's actions. He also pledged never to use troops again to quell the protests, blockades and land takeovers frequently employed by Guatemala's mostly poor majority to denounce government policy.
Outside observers said the prosecution, after a series of government attempts to exculpate the soldiers, is largely attributable to the political power of Claudia Paz y Paz, 46, an aggressive attorney general who enjoys support from the U.S. and other countries that provide essential aid to Guatemala. That's given her the clout to face down the president and the military and ward off obvious attempt to thwart or quash her prosecution.
Within 24 hours of the shooting outside the town of Totonicapan, Paz had deployed prosecutors from five offices spanning three different states, crime scene specialists and investigators. The overwhelming majority of the teams had received international training funded by the Spanish and Canadian governments, said Jose Arturo Aguilar, the attorney general's secretary of strategic and private affairs.
"The role of the public ministry is to consolidate justice as a fundamental mechanism for strengthening our democracy," Paz told The Associated Press.
A spokesman for Perez said his acceptance of the prosecutor's actions showed his commitment to reforming a country marred by corruption and impunity.
"The president's reaction ratifies his promise of strengthening the rule of law that will fortify Guatemala's democracy," spokesman Francisco Cuevas said.
Guatemala has widespread institutional corruption, "including unlawful killings, drug trafficking, and extortion; and widespread societal violence, including violence against women and numerous killings, many related to drug trafficking," according to a recent State Department report.
Experts said the president's recent actions mark a dramatic shift in a country once known for its reluctance to punish its military. In fact, the prosecutions are the first of troops accused of illegally suppressing protests since the end of Guatemala's civil war in 1996.