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GUATEMALA CITY — A former U.S.-backed dictator who presided over one of the bloodiest periods of Guatemala’s civil war will stand trial on charges he ordered the murder, torture and displacement of thousands of Mayan Indians, a judge ruled Monday.

Human rights advocates have said that the prosecution of Jose Efrain Rios Montt would be an important symbolic victory for the victims of one of the most horrific of the conflicts that devastated Central America during the last decades of the Cold War.

He is the first former president to be charged with genocide by a Latin American court.

The five-day Maya Meetings returned to Austin after being held in Guatemala last year, attracting scholars and enthusiasts of Maya culture from around the world to present their latest research and discoveries regarding Mayan architecture, cosmology and culture.

Some of the temples shown by researchers had not been seen by an audience in centuries. The new research focused on art, architecture and new texts that depicted the lives of ordinary Mayas, instead of the traditional accounts that focus on kings and gods.

“Truth is, we don’t know squat,” said George Stuart, director for the Center for Maya Research and keynote speaker for the 2013 Maya Meetings. “There’s about 6,000 known Maya sites and we’ve only researched about 5 percent of them.”

The conference was held on Jan. 15-19 by the UT Mesoamerica Center, headed by one of the most prominent epigraphists in the world, David Stuart, son of George Stuart. 

“Right now we are in an exciting time, things are almost moving too quickly,” David Stuart said. “This is the most active time in Maya research. I think this is a great time to be, intellectually.”

The annual conference was founded in 1977 by one of the pioneers of Maya scholarship, Linda Schele, when she was still a graduate student at UT — one of her youngest students was David Stuart. 

David Stuart was 12 years old when he presented his first academic paper in Mesa Redonda, Mexico, in 1979. At 18 he became the youngest recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship.

David Stuart was introduced to Schele by his father, who had a 40-year career with National Geographic.

“One of the first places to start is with the contemporary Mayan communities,” David Stuart said. “My hope is that in 10 years, in a little village of Chiapas, a kid could read the stories of the kings of Palenque the way we read about the kings of England and Spain.”

Francisco Estrada-Belli, a professor at Boston University who attended the conference, said he shared this objective.

“To serve — that is, perhaps, one of the main objectives of our science,” Estrada-Belli said. “It is now time to start giving this knowledge to our kids.” 

Several who attended the conference, including Estrada-Belli, said they particularly liked the fact that the conference included not only scholars but engineers, chemists, students and enthusiasts. 

“I thought the organizers gave a lot of importance to UT graduate students’ research,” said Ana Izquierdo, a professor from the National Autonomous University of Mexico. “Which is brilliant, because they get the chance to expose and learn from the best exponents in the field — that was a very good thing.”

Since the inception of the UT Maya Meetings, the conference has been used as a model for other conferences and attracts the attention of amateurs and enthusiasts from around the country. 

“I enjoyed the conference, but it was too short,” said John Sneider, an enthusiast from Palm Springs, Calif. “I spent $700 on the plane ticket, and this is the eighth or ninth time I do it, but it flew by me.”

The conference’s location has been alternating for three years between Antigua, Guatemala and Austin. The next conference will be held in Antigua from Jan. 7-11, in 2014.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

LA JOYA, Texas — The Texas trooper who fired on a fleeing pickup truck from a helicopter near the U.S.-Mexico border, killing two illegal immigrants hiding in the bed, has returned to work but in a different role, the state Department of Public Safety said Thursday.

The announcement came less than an hour after the American Civil Liberties Union and local civil rights organizations gathered near the site of the Oct. 25 shooting to demand an investigation by an independent body outside the agency. Currently, the Texas Rangers, an elite force within DPS, is leading the investigation.

Some state lawmakers are demanding an immediate meeting of a legislative committee that oversees DPS.

DPS identified the trooper involved as tactical flight officer Miguel Avila. He was placed on administrative leave immediately following the incident. He has since returned but been reassigned to administrative work pending the outcome of the investigation.

The chase started after Texas Parks and Wildlife game wardens spotted the red pickup near La Joya, near the U.S.-Mexico border about 250 miles south of San Antonio. The DPS helicopter joined midway in the 14-mile high-speed pursuit of what it believed was a “typical covered drug load,” and Avila fired from the air to disable the vehicle.

The truck crashed into a ditch. Six illegal immigrants from Guatemala, not drugs, were hidden under a blanket in the bed. Two died, and a third was injured. In total, DPS said there had been 10 people in the truck.

The agency’s statement Thursday reiterated earlier comments that troopers believed they were pursuing a covered drug load when shots were fired. They believed the driver’s recklessness was a threat to the public and to elementary and middle schools less than three miles away.

“Although it is very tragic that two lives were lost, had the vehicle continued recklessly speeding through the school zone, any number of innocent bystanders or young lives could have been lost or suffered serious bodily injury,” DPS director Steve McCraw said.

In a letter delivered to McCraw on Thursday, the ACLU suggested the use of deadly force was “illegal and unconstitutional” and asked for an investigation by an agency not tied to DPS.

Several investigations seem possible.

Some state legislators also called for a committee with oversight of the agency to convene immediately.

Terri Burke, the ACLU’s executive director in Texas, said her group is starting with the legislative committees that oversee DPS, but if that doesn’t produce results, the ACLU will go to the U.S. Justice Department.

“You think about it: you’ve got a helicopter, you’ve got a car moving at whatever speed. It’s outrageous in terms of safety,” Burke said.

Two Democratic lawmakers who sit on a House committee with DPS oversight are asking its chairman to immediately convene a hearing on the matter. Reps. Lon Burnam of Fort Worth and Armando Walle of Houston said they want the committee to review the trooper’s conduct and the agency’s policy on firing at moving vehicles.

In a letter to the chairman, they note that 13 percent of DPS pursuits between 2005 and 2010 occurred in Hidalgo County. Pursuits by a variety of local, state and federal agencies of drugs and illegal immigrants are a daily occurrence in the border county.

“I was not aware of this policy, but apparently, based on what I’ve learned since last Thursday, most areas’ law enforcement agencies in the state are aware of it and that’s why they call on DPS,” Burnam said. “But I have a lot of concern about a sharpshooter sitting in a helicopter shooting at what he can’t see.”

Burnam, who said he has flown in the border region with DPS and the local sheriff’s office, called the policy “terrible.”

“The fact of the matter is neither human trafficking nor drug trafficking deserves the death penalty without a trial,” Burnam said. “The two people who were killed are guilty of a misdemeanor.”

Hidalgo County District Attorney Rene Guerra announced Wednesday after meeting with Texas Rangers that the case would be taken to a grand jury, but at the moment charges against Avila were not under consideration. He asked them to tell DPS leadership to suspend firing from helicopters until its policies are reviewed.

McCraw’s statement Thursday indicated a policy review was underway.

The 14-year-old driver who was detained, but then released to a grandmother, is believed to have fled. The juvenile equivalent of an arrest warrant has been issued.
Guatemala’s consul in McAllen has expressed skepticism that the troopers wouldn’t have been able to see people in the truck and her government has asked for an investigation.

Michael Seifert, who once served as a Roman Catholic priest in La Joya and now heads the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network, said Thursday that he used to frequently drive the roads near the shooting site. He said the dead could have just as easily been local teenagers.

“It sounds like war but we’re not at war,” Seifert said.

GUATEMALA CITY — Guatemala’s president said Monday that the U.S. inability to deal with its drug consumption problem is leaving Central America with no option but to consider legalizing drugs.

President Otto Perez Molina said he wants a consensus before going forward with the idea for the region, which has become a major transit points for U.S.-bound drugs from South America and has been overrun by organized crime and Mexican drug cartels.

“We’re bringing the issue up for debate. Today’s meeting is intended to strengthen our methods of fighting organized crime. But if drug consumption isn’t reduced, the problem will continue,” Perez Molina said after a security meeting with El Salvador President Mauricio Funes.

Funes said he too is willing to consider legalization.

Perez, an ex-general, took office last month promising a crackdown on organized crime said earlier that his proposal would include legalized consumption and transportation of drugs in Central America.

Washington strongly opposes the idea.

The U.S. Embassy in Guatemala issued a statement Sunday saying that legalizing drugs wouldn’t stop transnational gangs that not only traffic drugs but also people and weapons. “The evidence shows our shared drug problem is a threat to public health and safety,” it said.

Anita Isaacs, a Guatemala expert and professor of political science at Haverford College, said that the sudden turnaround in Perez’s stance on drugs, could be “political gamesmanship” aimed at pushing the U.S. to move quicker on sending military help.

“This is kind of like a shot across the bow, saying if you don’t help us, this is what we can do,” she said from Guatemala.

Eduardo Stein, a former Guatemalan vice president and leader of Perez’s transition team, denied that was the case, saying Guatemala was overwhelmed by drug crime and saw itself as left with only one option.

“It’s evident what the situation is in these countries with small economies, we can’t fight the drug traffickers and cartels with superior resources,” Stein said. “The issue of drug trafficking and consumption is not on the North American political agenda. The issue of drugs in the U.S. is very marginalized while for Guatemala and the rest of Central America it’s very central.”

Perez took office last month and said one of his top priorities of ending a long-standing U.S. ban on military aid imposed over concerns about abuses during the Central American country’s 36-year civil war.

Close advisers say he supports meeting the conditions set by various U.S. congressional appropriations acts for restoring aid that was first eliminated in 1978 halfway through the civil war, including reforming a weak justice system.

Perez has already come out in support of a U.S.- and United Nations-backed international anti-corruption team whose prosecution effort has been criticized by Guatemala’s political elite.

Steve Stern from the University of Wisconsin at Madison speaks at the unveiling of Guatemalan police archives at the UT law school on Friday afternoon. The documentsÂ’ existence was long denied by the Guatemalan police, and they chronicle the history of the Guatemalan police for the past 100 years.

Photo Credit: Jorge Corona | Daily Texan Staff

A digital archive featuring millions of images and documents from the National Police of Guatemala could help people searching for family and friends who have disappeared, said Karen Engle, law professor and co-director and founder of the Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice.

The Rapoport Center, the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies and UT Libraries hosted a conference where panelists discussed a wide-range of topics, such as how the use of the archive has helped with the progress of human rights cases and research in Guatemala.

Engle said the information in the archive became public in 2009 when Guatemala passed a freedom of information law, and on Friday the UT Libraries made much of the archive available online.

The archive’s coordinator, Gustavo Meoño, created the archive from a warehouse of decomposing documents at the national police headquarters that was found more than six years ago in Guatemala City. The warehouse’s existence had been denied by the country’s government and police force, according to UT’s website.

Now, Meoño and his team have transformed these documents into a world-class archive that chronicles the history of the national police for the past 100 years.

He said this archive has helped and will continue to help uncover the history of Guatemala, specifically the time period of 1975-1985, when the majority of human rights violations were committed during the country’s civil war.

“The archive is fundamental for criminal investigations and persecutions in Guatemala,” Meoño said. “Historical, cultural and sociological investigations can all be stemmed to the archive and can advance the transition of justice.”

The archive is currently comprised of approximately 80 million images and documents, and about 13 million are already digitized and available on the archive’s website.

Christian Kelleher, archivist for the Benson Latin American Collection and project manager for the Human Rights Documentation Initiative, led the presentation of the website.

Kelleher navigated the audience through the website’s structure and discussed how to go about searching for documents and viewing them.

“We tried to make the experience of using this online archive as close to the experience of someone using the original archive itself.” Kelleher said. “There’s very limited indexing that can lead to direct access to the document, so identifying any material or looking for any document takes a lot of work to find.”

Charles Hale, director of the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies and Benson Latin American Collection, said students could find the archive valuable for many purposes.

“Students can learn how to navigate large data sets, explore the complexities of Guatemalan history — deeply intertwined with that of our country — and work in support of initiatives in Guatemala to protect human rights, bring perpetrators to justice and build a more just and democratic society,” Hale said.

Printed on Monday, December 5, 2011 as: Archive features Guatemalan documents

Rodrigo Telon Yucute focuses on the sound of the voices, raises a camera and snaps off a shot, capturing an image of a couple laughing as they sit on a yellow park bench.

He shows it to the subjects but cannot see it himself. The photographer-in-training has been blind for nearly 30 years.

“When I was young, I met a lot of people, and it always caught my attention how they would take photographs to keep as mementos,” Telon said. “I like to take photographs to capture a moment that I can later share with my family and friends so they can see what my life is like.”

Telon was a 22-year-old guerrilla fighter in his home country of Guatemala when a land mine exploded, ripping apart his left forearm and destroying his eyesight.

After years of rehabilitation, he learned Braille and how to use a cane to get around.

Now 51, Telon is fulfilling his longtime wish of taking photographs.

He is one of 30 visually impaired or blind people learning photography with the help of the Mexico City foundation Ojos Que Sienten, or Eyes That Feel.

Founded five years ago by professional Mexican photographer Gina Badenoch, the foundation teaches the blind to express in photographs how they perceive the world. Her students use hearing, touch, smell and taste to choose their subjects and create their images.

“It helps them feel part of society again. It helps them be seen and be heard again,” she said.

For many of the new photographers, the most rewarding part is having their sighted friends describe the images.

“Being able to share something I made and hear people who are seeing your photograph describe what you created in your mind is something I enjoy tremendously,” said Jose Manuel Pacheco Crispin, a 33-year-old university student who began losing his sight at 16 because of a retinal degenerative disease.

“It has helped me to break barriers and to keep having crazy ideas,” said Pacheco, who recently climbed to the top of Iztaccihuatl, a 17,159-foot volcano near Mexico City.

Photography doesn’t come easy. Beginners often leave out the heads or legs of their subject, but they learn to improve their images. The sun’s warmth helps them know where to place themselves to photograph their subject. They may touch a flower to sense its shape or listen for the wind blowing through leaves to locate a tree.

“My hearing, my smell, all my senses are alert when I’m taking a photograph,” said Jose Antonio Dominguez.

Dominguez, 49, first lost sight in his right eye when he was a teenager because of glaucoma.

Each blind photographer has a project to work on for two months. Dominguez wants to photograph people who help him as he navigates the chaotic streets of Mexico City.

Telon, who lost his parents and two brothers during the civil war in Guatemala, will focus part of his project on an 8-year-old girl who lost her arm and who refuses to wear her artificial limb.

“I want to tell her my story and how I got accustomed to using my artificial arm,” Telon said.

He may also tell her about a daughter he last saw 29 years ago, when she was 6 weeks old.

“When I left to join the guerrilla, she was starting to smile,” Telon said. “That’s a photograph I keep in my mind.”