GUATEMALA CITY -- Nine members of the Guatemalan military were ordered arrested Thursday in connection with the killing last week of six indigenous peasants during a protest -- a remarkable development in a country where the army was long considered untouchable despite egregious abuses.
National prosecutor Claudia Paz y Paz said a colonel and eight soldiers would be tried on charges of "extrajudicial execution" in the shootings of the peasants, who blocked a highway in western Guatemala's Totonicapan province Oct. 4 to denounce electricity prices, a series of proposed constitutional reforms and other grievances (link in Spanish).
At least six peasants were killed, more than 30 were wounded, and one remains missing.
The government of former Gen. Otto Perez Molina initially blamed the shootings on "provocations" by protesters engaged in what he called illegal demonstrations. But as pressure mounted, the president ordered the army to cooperate with the investigation.
Arrest warrants were issued and agents dispatched to pick up the accused military personnel, the government's website said (link in Spanish).
The shootings drew widespread condemnation from church officials, human rights organizations and international agencies, and sparked larger demonstrations by indigenous communities demanding justice.
"We hold Col. [Juan] Chiroy Sal principally responsible for the acts because he had a position of command over the actions of his troops, but he abandoned them," Paz y Paz said at a news conference.
She said he ignored orders from the National Police, which was in charge of attempting to disperse the demonstrators, to steer clear of the people in the roads.
The Guatemalan military was the most brutal in Central America's dark history of civil conflict in the last half of the 20th century. About 200,000 people were killed or disappeared -- the majority of them indigenous campesinos -- during the nation's 35-year civil war, which ended in 1996.
In only a handful of cases have military officers been held accountable.
Human rights organizations welcomed Thursday's arrests in the Totonicapan killings.
"Considering the history of impunity for members of the military in Guatemala," said Kathryn Johnson, development and advocacy coordinator for the Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA, "the charging of the soldiers in this case is an important step toward ensuring justice and the peaceful resolution of social conflicts in the future."
She also expressed concern about the "alarming rise" in the deployment of the army in what should be police actions under the Perez Molina administration.
-- Anna Bevan in Guatemala City and Tracy Wilkinson in Mexico CityPhoto: Activists attend a ceremony Tuesday for one of the indigenous campesinos killed during a protest in western Guatemala on Oct. 4. At least six people were killed when the army opened fire on the demonstrators, authorities say. Credit: Moises Castillo / Associated Press