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Rights Groups Probe Guatemala Raid

February 13, 2002

CHOCON, Guatemala (AP) _ Government agents stormed into this sweltering, corn-growing town and gunned down two men, telling everyone else they would also wind up dead unless they threw themselves on the ground to be searched.

Residents and the office of Guatemala’s government human rights ombudsman say the anti-drug officers abused their power. But a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, which oversees the anti-narcotics team, defended the Jan. 29 raid.

``They were responding to an emergency call,″ spokesman Rodolfo Zelada said.

The agents were sent to Chocon, 200 miles northeast of Guatemala City, to break up a drug-smuggling ring allegedly headquartered in the town of 76 families.

Killed during the raid were suspected drug dealers Leonel Diaz Valenzuela and Abinail Cerna.

``They started shooting like it was a war,″ 36-year-old grocery store owner Clara Leon said. ``I managed to catch a glimpse of their bulletproof vests, which had the letters DOAN,″ the initials of Guatemala’s elite anti-narcotics team.

Zelada first told reporters that Valenzuela and Cerna were shot and killed before officers got to town, then later said the pair drew gunfire after attacking the drug agents.

Jaime Cordoba, a human rights ombudsman spokesman, said prosecutors are studying evidence to determine if they should file charges of homicide and abuse of power against commanders of the operation. The United Nations Mission to Guatemala said it also plans to investigate.

Cerna’s sister, Gudelfa Cerna, said her brother was running for his life when the agents shot him.

‘``Why did you kill him?’ I asked them. They told me that when they are attacked they are allowed to kill,″ she said. ``But nobody attacked them.″

Witnesses said that after the initial shots, officers made everyone lie face-down in the street. Yelling ``hand over the drugs,″ they searched dozens of men, women and children for more than an hour, but found nothing.

Officers then began breaking into and ransacking homes, pulling out anyone they could find and making them lie in the street, witnesses said. They set up shop in a municipal building and spent the next two days interrogating dozens of people and making detailed lists of their belongings, residents said.

Zelada said anti-narcotics raids do not normally last three days, but that the officers did nothing wrong. He said Interior Ministry officials consider the operation a success because three people were arrested on drug-trafficking charges _ even though house-to-house searches failed to result in a single drug seizure.

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