Killings Of Guatemala's Indigenous Activists Raise Specter Of Human Rights Crisis Indigenous groups and human rights activists worry that the violence that raged through their communities in the 1970s and 1980s is making a comeback.

Killings Of Guatemala's Indigenous Activists Raise Specter Of Human Rights Crisis

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In Guatemala, there's been a wave of killings of indigenous leaders over the last year. International human rights organizations have tried to raise the alarm, but in Guatemala itself, there's been little outrage and silence from most political leaders. Maria Martin reports.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: (Speaking Spanish).

MARIA MARTIN, BYLINE: The newscast on Guatemala's TV channel Guatevision led off its regional evening report this past summer with the murder of a 25-year-old indigenous rights activist in the western province of Quiche.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

MARTIN: The victim's father tells us that Juana Raymundo, a nurse by profession, was kidnapped while coming home two nights before her body was found in a river covered by brush showing signs of torture.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

MARTIN: Raymundo was also a rising young Ixil Maya political leader, active in various human rights and political groups. To many in the area, her death was reminiscent of the massive atrocities committed during the country's long civil war, which ended a little over 20 years ago. More over, her death was not an isolated incident. According to The Washington Office on Latin America, 26 indigenous human rights workers were assassinated in the last year.

JO-MARIE BURT: Guatemala is on the verge of a major human rights catastrophe.

MARTIN: Jo-Marie Burt is a professor at George Mason University and a senior fellow at The Washington Office on Latin America. She says Guatemala is close to falling into the violence that gripped the country three decades ago, a violence that the U.N. and Guatemalan courts say led to a genocide of the country's indigenous citizens.

BURT: It's amazing to look at what's happening in Guatemala, and it literally feels like it's on the edge of the precipice. And just over that precipice, you're staring back at the 1970s. You're staring at the massive violation of human rights. It's no surprise that we see hundreds of - tens of thousands of Guatemalans fleeing the country, going into Mexico, trying to get to the United States to flee a country that is in freefall.

MARTIN: Guatemala's human rights ombudsman, Jordan Rodas, says the situation is troubling, especially because of what he calls a lack of concern on the part of Guatemala's authorities.

JORDAN RODAS: (Speaking Spanish).

MARTIN: Rodas says the president and his interior secretary refused an invitation to meet with Mayan leaders to discuss the escalating number of assassinations.

RODAS: (Through interpreter) One feels a certain indignation that there's no public condemnation of these acts. I don't have much faith in this government. Hopefully, the Justice Department will take action on these cases because it's like going back to a past I thought we had put behind us.

MARTIN: The government didn't respond to multiple efforts seeking comment. Guatemalan society is deeply unequal. Indigenous Maya form at least 40 percent of the population but have little political representation and are last in terms of education and health.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Speaking Spanish).

MARTIN: More than half of the indigenous activists killed in the last year, including Juana Raymundo, were members of CODECA, an organization of mostly rural Mayan farmers which is trying to become a political force. Analysts say this poses a threat to the power structure in Guatemala. Anthropologist Irma Alicia Velasquez says Guatemala has entered what she calls a new stage of repression.

IRMA ALICIA VELASQUEZ: All the majority that the country produce is control in a few hands, so CODECA tried to talk about this, tried to change the situation. And for the reason, they are confront a lot of repression in the last years.

MARTIN: Velasquez says indigenous people in Guatemala are now up against powerful business interests bent on acquiring resources in Mayan communities. These interests, she says, are allied with the military-backed government fighting reforms and anti-corruption efforts. President Jimmy Morales just recently expelled an international anti-corruption commission which had investigated him and many of his allies. For NPR News, I'm Maria Martin.

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