- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 7, 2001

The president of Guatemala yesterday said he has asked the FBI to help investigate human rights abuses that threaten to tear apart his nation's fragile democracy.
"I made a commitment that the FBI and the National Security Council will help investigate harassment of human rights investigators. We asked for the support of the FBI," President Alfonso Portillo said during a visit to The Washington Times.
Assassinations and threats to Mr. Portillo's 2-year-old presidency continue to endanger a 1996 truce that ended Guatemala's long civil war.
"Yesterday, I made the decision on the FBI the details are to be worked out with our ambassadors and the State Department," Mr. Portillo said. His remarks came one day after meeting with President Bush at the White House.
Mr. Portillo said he has personally faced threats from 16 powerful families, which have monopolized trading of commodities such as sugar, fertilizer and cement, after he sought to collect taxes on their earnings.
He said he agreed with Mr. Bush's assessment that transparency and fighting corruption are major tasks that Guatemala's civilian government must tackle before foreign investors will take a risk there.
However, Mr. Portillo said that security represents an even bigger obstacle for Guatemala's fledgling democracy.
"There is a climate of uncertainty. There are groups more powerful than the president of the republic," he said.
While the president has worked to break up monopolistic control over the Guatemalan economy, many question if he really is able to control the dark elements of his nation's past.
Paramilitary death squads once slaughtered tens of thousands of mainly ethnic Indians suspected of sympathy with Marxist guerrillas in the 1960s, '70s and '80s.
A 1998 report by the Catholic Church said the army and other security forces killed most of the 200,000 victims of the civil war.
Two days after the report was issued, 75-year-old Roman Catholic Bishop Juan Jose Gerardi was bludgeoned to death in what was widely seen as a reprisal for the report.
Recently, a three-judge panel convicted three former military officers and a priest in the murder.
They were the highest-level convictions of members of the military. Human rights activists continue to exhume bodies of massacre victims from many sites around Guatemala.
The U.N. Committee Against Torture in November noted a "deteriorating" human rights situation, including intimidation, harassment and death threats against judges, journalists, prosecutors, witnesses and others.
Mr. Portillo said he inherited a country with a legacy of "500 years of intolerance" and that he has fired 20 generals and dozens of other military officers.
But he said that in order to train and deploy 20,000 civilian police as called for by the 1996 U.N. peace plan, he needs $500 million in aid.
The Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) Thursday issued a statement calling Mr. Portillo "a well-intentioned but powerless president" who must defer to the real power in the country, former strongman Efrain Rios Montt, who is currently head of the legislature.
The group cited slayings of American journalist Larry Lee in 1999 and the recent slaying of American nun Barbara Ford as part of a wave of human rights abuses unleashed by former death-squad activists.
Many judges and witnesses in human rights cases have been threatened, attacked or fled the country, according to COHA, which cited U.N. and State Department reports.
The State Department has found that those guilty of human rights abuses often take advantage of the country's judicial inefficiencies by loading the courts down with motions and trial delays.
Mr. Bush raised the human rights problems with Mr. Portillo, who said he was powerless to intercede in judicial matters.
"There have been many scars in our country, but we are in a healing process," Mr. Portillo said Thursday at the White House.
"What is most important is the executive is not standing in the middle to hinder the judicial process."
Mr. Portillo said that despite reports that Mr. Rios Montt intends to try to become president once more, he was unlikely to get the two-thirds vote needed to amend the constitution to allow him to run.
Mr. Rios Montt headed the country in the 1980s, during a period of intense violence against civilians.
Both Mr. Rios Montt and Mr. Portillo belong to the conservative Guatemalan Republican Front.
However, Mr. Portillo was elected on a populist platform in 1999 by pledging to support the peace plan, an end to rampant crime and help for the poor.
Yesterday, Mr. Portillo said he will not back down on plans to raise taxes needed to provide the education and other services he has promised to the poor.
He said he would resist complaints by the nation's powerful families, known as "oligarchs," against new labor laws and a minimum-wage bill.
Mr. Portillo also asked Mr. Bush to help more than 1 million Guatemalans in the United States many of whom came to escape the civil war to remain here.
In addition, he pledged to work with the United States to curb illegal immigration and drug smuggling into the United States.

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