Traveling in a Troubled Land
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 22, 1998; Page A01
GUATEMALA CITY It was about 3:20 p.m. Friday when a beige pickup truck zoomed past Victor Anibal Lopez's busload of Maryland college students and gradually forced it to a stop on a remote stretch of highway in this exotic but troubled Central American country.
Five men in street clothes most with pistols but one carrying what looked like an Uzi submachine gun jumped out of the truck and immediately began firing into the air, Lopez said.
"Stay right there, you son of a bitch, or we'll kill you!" one man yelled at him. Some of the attackers forced the bus door open, Lopez said, and as one grabbed him around the neck and pulled him to the back of the vehicle, another leapt behind the wheel and drove the bus off the road and down a bumpy dirt path through a field of tall sugar cane. About a third of a mile into the field, they stopped, he said, amid plants higher than the bus that obscured it from the road.
Thus began a two-hour ordeal in which the group from St. Mary's College was robbed and five young women were gang-raped. The incident once again has put a spotlight on the violence that wracked this country during its 36-year civil war and has continued since a peace accord was signed in December 1996. It also has raised questions about the risks involved in educational and religious trips abroad.
Days later, it has been possible to reconstruct what occurred after the college group, here on a two-week academic field trip, planned to take a long, unusual back route in the direction of Lake Atitlan, a spectacular pool hemmed in by towering volcanoes, about 70 miles west of the capital.
The famous lake was popular with foreigners even during the civil war, when backpacking adventure tourists were lured to Guatemala by its magnificent Mayan ruins, abundant forests and wildlife and exotic Indian cultures.
But the route selected by the college group took them down to the Pacific slope, a lush, tropical area rich with coffee and sugar cane plantations that is not a top tourist spot.
Normally, tourists would travel from Guatemala City to the lake by the inland Pan-American Highway, a roughly 2½-hour trip. But the group instead took a 4½-hour, southwestern route via the Pacific Highway to stop at a women's cooperative, an embassy official said. From there, they planned to drive to the back side of Lake Atitlan along a dangerous rural road that embassy officials said they would have strongly advised against taking, had they known of the itinerary.
The bus never reached the most dangerous leg of the journey. It was attacked on the Pacific Highway and forced into the cane field, where the passengers were forced to lie face-down while a group of men selected, one at a time, five women and assaulted them. Each of the victims, ages 19 and 20, was raped multiple times in a harrowing ordeal that lasted two hours, according to embassy officials.
Circumstances of the incident were provided by the bus driver, U.S. Embassy officials who declined to be identified and Guatemalan police, army and Interior Ministry officials.
The 13 students on the bus, who returned to the United States Saturday and Sunday, have decided as a group not to talk to the media. The three faculty chaperons were professors William Roberts and Jorge Rogachevsky and study-abroad director Mary Spear. Rogachevsky recounted some details of the trip in a news conference Monday, but declined to provide specifics about the assault.
There are some conflicting details most notably, about the number of attackers. The Guatemalan Interior Ministry said there were seven attackers, the bus driver said six, and according to U.S. Embassy officials, the rape and robbery victims said there were four.
Also at issue is the nature of the route and the point at which it was chosen. Embassy officials here said this week that it was a last-minute change of plans that put the bus on the more perilous path along the Pacific slope, but U.S. Ambassador Donald J. Planty said yesterday that the embassy knew the route well in advance and that he knows of no changes in the group's plans.
"If that information [about a change of plans] came from discussions with my people, it's a mistake. It's inaccurate," Planty said yesterday.
College officials say their plan was set last August and did not change.
College officials also pointed out that the bus was waylaid on the Pacific Highway, a major route. But the State Department's consular information sheet on Guatemala, a traveler's advisory, states: "When driving to the Lake Atitlan area, the safest route is via the Pan-American Highway (CA-1) through Solola. Travel to the lake by any other route is dangerous."
The assessment was echoed yesterday by Brian Clark, pastor of the Riverside Presbyterian Church in Sterling, Va. Clark said four Loudoun County church missionaries were victims of a bus hijacking in Guatemala in August that was strikingly similar to the attack on the St. Mary's students.
Four members of the church were traveling on a bus southwest of Guatemala City in the same general region where the St. Mary's attack occurred on a 28-member mission trip when armed bandits pulled up alongside their vehicle in a pickup truck and forced it to halt. The bandits drove the bus into a cane field, made the missionaries lie in the dirt and robbed them.
Unlike the St. Mary's incident, in which where five women were raped, the men fondled several of the women missionaries but did not rape them, one of the victims said.
Early Friday morning, the St. Mary's group flew to the capital from Tikal, site of one of Central America's most famous collections of Mayan pyramids, in the north of Guatemala.
In an interview with The Washington Post, bus driver Lopez, 33, said he met the group of 13 students and three advisers at the airport in Guatemala City about 9 a.m. After stopping for an hour at a bookstore and detouring to pick up a guide in the city, the group headed south to the Pacific lowlands.
The area, a flat, sparsely populated region criss-crossed by dozens of small rivers tumbling toward the ocean from the mountain highlands, is dominated by vast coffee and sugar cane plantations. Colorfully clad Indians migrate from the cool highlands to work at the large plantations that thrive in the tropical heat and humidity of the Pacific slope.
It is arguably the most crime-ridden region of a country plagued by violence and poverty, corrupt police and army officials, and weapons left over from the civil war.
Crime in the lowlands, as elsewhere in Guatemala, has skyrocketed since peace accords were signed in late 1996. The area has some of Guatemala's best roads to help facilitate the transport of coffee Guatemala's biggest export crop and its top foreign exchange earner to the Pacific ports. The roads also attract tour buses, and Guatemalan security officials said this week that gangs of thieves some of them former members of Guatemala's feared military have sprung up to ambush buses and rob their passengers.
Compounding the problem is the absence of an effective police force or other security since the army accused of atrocities that left 140,000 people dead or missing during the war largely returned to its barracks and withdrew from most police duties as required under the accords.
The small town of Santa Lucia Cotzumalguapa about 40 miles from the capital is typical of municipalities in the region. Once the center for the treasured cacao plant, the town has only four police officers to protect a dispersed population of about 55,000.
It was about 3:20 p.m., after driving through Santa Lucia and continuing on a remote stretch of the Pacific Highway about five miles northwest of the town, that Lopez, the bus driver, had to suddenly swerve left to avoid hitting a white pickup truck that sped up from behind, swung in front of him and then suddenly slowed down.
Lopez said he passed the pickup, thinking that the driver the lone person in the vehicle must have been drunk. He said he never saw the pickup again, and does not know if the driver was working with the group that, a little over a mile farther, sped up on his left in a beige pickup and cut in front of him, forcing him off the road.
Lopez and a U.S. Embassy official who interviewed some of the victims after the incident said that after driving them into the cane field, the gunmen ordered the passengers to get out and lie face-down, side-by-side, in a single line in the dirt. As they were disembarking, Lopez said, they frisked and fondled the passengers, making frequent lewd remarks about the women.
Rogachevsky explained to the robbers that they did not have much money because they were nearing the end of their trip and had already spent it. After everyone was out of the bus and on the ground, the bandits rummaged through suitcases and bags aboard the vehicle, grabbing cameras, clothes and other items.
Following the robbery, according to an embassy official, the men stood over the passengers as they lay on the ground and methodically selected the ones they would rape.
The embassy official said that one of the girls who spoke Spanish overheard one bandit ask the others, "What do we do now?"
"At another point, she said they were told to stay put, not to move, but essentially they [the attackers] just walked away," the official said.
Lopez said that as the men left, the warned them not to move for two hours, threatening to kill them if they did. About 10 minutes later, he said, they heard shots close by, and the tour guide from Guatemala, who was lying next to him, said, "It's either the police or they've come back to kill us."
Two police officers walked up "and told us not to worry, the police were here," Lopez said, after which some of the women began to cry.
A short time later, several soldiers arrived. According to Lt. Col. Edith Vargas, a spokeswoman for the Guatemalan army, a passer-by had noticed that a vehicle was parked awkwardly near the scene and notified a patrol of police and army officers nearby that something suspicious was going on.
Embassy officials said that apparently the attackers bumped into a patrol as they were emerging on foot from the cane field back on to the Pacific Highway. "It was just coincidence, as it was told to us," an embassy official said.
Santa Lucia police chief Jose Patzan told the Associated Press that police caught one suspect near the scene.
After the rape victims were put inside a vehicle to be taken to a local hospital, police came and asked them if they would be willing to get out to identify the captured suspect, and all refused, the embassy official said. But two women said the police could bring the man to the window, "and two of the rape victims and one of the robbery victims identified him."
Three other suspects were later arrested, and Guatemalan security officials were seeking three others. Two of the four in custody have confessed, the officials said.
Someone on the scene had a cellular telephone, and one of the professors called the embassy. Six embassy officials escorted by 12 Guatemalan police left the capital about 9 p.m. and arrived at the Social Security Hospital in Santa Lucia, where the group was taken, about 10:30 p.m.
The robbery victims later were taken back to Guatemala City. Embassy officials said police recommended that a night judge be summoned to take a formal declaration from the women, but "he never showed up."
"I'm not sure how they could be, but they were all composed and calm and objective and rational," said an official who accompanied the victims back to the capital. They were very interested about what the police would need to prosecute, what evidence. But in the end, they just wanted to get out and get back to the United States."
A parent of one of the students on the trip, who did not want to be identified by name, said he knew something was wrong when he picked up the telephone on 2:40 a.m. Saturday morning to hear his 19-year-old daughter's voice.
"She was calm. She's an understated person to begin with. She didn't want to upset my wife and myself, and the crisis was over," the parent recalled. "She said 'We were robbed' and went over the salient points of the attack. . . . She wasn't harmed physically."
The call wrapped up when his daughter said she just wanted to go to sleep. "For the next two hours, my wife and I just lay in bed and held each other and cried," the parent said.
St. Mary's College President Jane Margaret O'Brien learned of the attack Saturday morning from Roberts, one of the faculty members who chaperoned the group.
O'Brien dispatched a counseling team to meet the the rape victims, who were arrived at Dulles International Airport on Saturday night. Planning then began for the return of the rest of the group on Sunday night.
On Sunday, every effort was made to shield the victims from cameras and reporters as they arrived at Dulles.
In a private room at the airport, parents and other family members greeted the victims. O'Brien, along with other college officials and more counselors, greeted the group.
"It was powerful to see the parents touching the kids," she said.
Staff writers Annie Gowen, Jessie Mangaliman and Todd Shields in Washington and special correspondent Jared Kotler in Guatemala City contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Co.