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Problems Grow Between United States and Guatemala

March 21, 1991

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) _ When the United States halted military aid three months ago, Guatemala issued a travel advisory warning of crime in Miami, New York or Los Angeles.

In mid-February, when the United States issued a new Guatemalan travel advisory citing the rapes of three tourists near the colonial town of Antigua, the foreign minister warned about the dangers of Central Park in New York.

Former President Vinicio Cerezo said: ″Many Guatemalans have been the subjects of robberies and assaults and North American authorities have not captured those responsible.″

At first glance, all this might seem like playful tit-for-tat, but the reality is a serious increase of tension since Dec. 21, when Washington cut off $3.2 million in military aid.

Last month, the United States joined the minority at a U.N. Human Rights Commission meeting in supporting a resolution to condemn Guatemala for human rights abuses, the root of the recent sourness

Washington recently named Guatemala as a problem narcotics nation for the first time.

″There are some problems with bilateral relations between the two countries, but it is because we are very concerned about human rights,″ a U.S. diplomat in Guatemala City acknowledged, on condition of anonymity. ″There comes a time when you want to start seeing some progress.″

U.S. officials cite a lack of progress in investigating the sexual assault of an American nun in 1989 and the killing last June of Michael DeVine, a rancher from the United States. DeVine’s death led to the halt in military aid.

Cerezo, who described relations as ″real negative″ before leaving office Jan. 14, denied human rights violations were a factor in the aid cutoff. He blamed it on his refusal to back the U.S.-sponsored Contra war in Nicaragua or do Washington’s bidding in other matters.

Some Guatemalan legislators say the United States should solve its own problems.

″It is very easy to condemn our country on human rights, but in the United States, who does the same?″ asked congresswoman Sara Mishaan. ″For example, who accuses the government of the violence that prevails in New York or Washington?

″I have lived in New York and I have been in Los Angeles and I know how many people die there every day.″

U.S. officials say tourists should be aware of dangerous areas in Guatemala, including the western highlands rich in Indian culture.

The Guatemalan government’s own human rights ombudsman, in his report for 1990, said his office recorded 599 killings and 140 disappearances. Non- governmental groups put the number of killings at nearly 1,500.

It sometimes is difficult to determine whether killings are political or the result of common crime, which is increasing as the Guatemalan economy deteriorates.

Many of the victims are labor leaders, student organizers or other leftists. The army has been criticized for its brutal suppression of a 30- year-old guerrilla war that has cost an estimated 100,000 lives.

A U.S. Embassy official said: ″For heaven’s sake, the president’s own helicopter was shot at and so was the human rights ombudsman. These are some very real problems. We’re not making these things up.″

Jorge Serrano, the new president, told foreign journalists recently he had rejected a U.S. offer to restore military aid because of attached conditions related to specific rights cases.

″I am not going to accept orders, especially of this nature,″ he declared.

The State Department later attributed the incident to ″poor communication″ and rescinded the offer, Serrano said, adding that he will continue to reject aid that affects ″the sovereignty of our country or the dignity of the presidency.″

Embassy officials have refused to discuss the matter and also delayed release of the State Department report on human rights in Guatemala, which was scheduled for early February.

Serrano has tried to counter charges that Cerezo could not or would not control rights abuses and has promised to do ″everything I can under the law to pursue people who commit crimes or violate human rights.″

During his first month in office, he met with congressional and judicial leaders on ways to strengthen the lax judicial system. Serrano also introduced legislation to create a national prosecutor’s office to back up the ombudsman, who has only investigative powers.

He called the moves ″clear and positive acts that demonstrate not only our intention to change the situation, but the actions our government will take to do so.″

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