Political crisis looms in Guatemala

 CAFOD says Guatemala is on the verge of a political crisis after the constitution was changed to allow former dictatorGeneral Efrain Rios Montt to run for the presidency. The Supreme Court had blocked Rios Montt from running in the 9 November elections because of the part he played in the 1982 military coup that brought him to power. But the higher Court of Constitutionality ruled yesterday that Rios Montt could run in the elections, effectively rewriting the constitution. The court had come under intense political pressure from Rios Montt,s ruling Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) party. Riots convulsed the capital Guatemala City last week in support of Rios Montt. Protestors targeted the Constitutional and Supreme Courts, and the Supreme Electoral Council as well as offices of the media and the US Embassy. Neither the military nor the police attempted to prevent the rioters. CAFOD's partners reported that the FRG brought in 20,000 supporters from the countryside, paying each demonstrator a two-day salary to take part in the riots. FRG denies the charge. The Human Rights Office of the Archdiocese of Guatemala blames Rios Montt for dozens of massacres during the country's 1960-96 civil war, which killed 200,000 mainly indigenous Mayans. A UN report concluded that genocide had been committed in Guatemala during the period Rios Montt held power. The FRG government has also stirred controversy this year by offering compensation packages of $650 to 250,000 ex-members of the Civil Defence Patrols. According to the Guatemalan Catholic Church, at least one-fifth of them were involved in massacres and other human-rights abuses during the civil war. CAFOD's Latin America programme officer, Sarah Smith-Pearse said, "Democracy is incredibly fragile in Guatemala. The country is only just emerging from the shadow of a brutal 36-year-old civil war. Undermining the constitution so blatantly and fermenting political violence could tip Guatemala over the edge. "Reconciliation has only just begun in Guatemala. That process cannot be helped by the presidential candidacy of a man that many people believe is responsible for genocide. "Already the international community has spoken out against events in Guatemala, it must keep up the pressure in a bid to prevent a return to bloodshed that has so often blighted Guatemala."

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