Tour organizer recounts terror in Guatemala Lying face down, professor wondered how ordeal would end

4 men reported arrested

January 20, 1998|By Dan Fesperman and Jonathan Weisman | Dan Fesperman and Jonathan Weisman,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Caitlin Francke, Michael James and Jamie Stiehm contributed to this article.

It was to have been the last leg of their Guatemalan journey, an immersion in the remnants of an ancient culture. The locals would greet them with a simple dinner of beans and rice. Then they would witness a ceremony conducted by a Mayan priest.

But the 16 students and faculty of St. Mary's College never made their destination, colliding instead with the remnants of 20th-century warfare. Seven men with automatic weapons forced their bus from the highway and marched them into a field of sugar cane. And when it became clear that the students had too little money to buy a peaceful ending, the gunmen raped five of the women.

Jorge Rogachevsky, 43, the professor who had organized this leg of the trip, could do little but agonize, face down in the field, as the ordeal began.

"How is this going to end? That kept going through my mind," Rogachevsky recalled yesterday at a news conference on the college's campus in Southern Maryland.

The ordeal would end about 90 minutes later, officials said, when a retired Guatemalan army colonel happened by with some formidable weaponry of his own. Hours later, the group headed toward Guatemala City in four armored vans supplied by the American Embassy, and by Sunday they had all returned home.

The effects of Friday's attack are likely to last far longer, not only for the five young women but for their stunned classmates on the campus of 1,500. Already some are questioning the worth of such study tours, while others worry about the effects of the intense news media scrutiny that has suddenly focused on the campus.

Rogachevsky, a professor of Spanish and Latin American studies, made it clear yesterday that he hopes to minimize these losses, saying, "Part of education is to reach out, to expand, to venture into areas that are unknown. Danger is part of the human experience at some level."

In Guatemala, such danger has been mounting in recent months.

The U.S. State Department's most recent consular information sheet warned of an increasing number of daylight highway robberies, with tourist buses being especially vulnerable. The report then cited a bus hijacking in July with chillingly similar results: "All of the occupants were robbed of their belongings at gunpoint, and five foreigners, including two American citizens, were raped by gang members."

Such attacks have been largely attributed to the detritus of Guatemala's 36-year civil war, which ended a year ago. Possible culprits include everyone from suddenly unemployed soldiers and policemen to individual guerrillas with no cause left to fight for but their own survival.

Guatemalan police arrested 37-year-old Cosbi Urias Ortiz on Friday and said that his confession led them to his brother-in-law, 24-year-old Reyes Guch Ventura, nicknamed El Indio (the Indian). Urias has previously been charged with rape. The two men were being held in local prisons awaiting court hearings.

A police detective told the Associated Press that two more men were detained yesterday in Guatemala City and taken to a prison in the capital city, while authorities sought three other suspects.

Some details of the attack remain vague. Rogachevsky offered only a sketchy summary yesterday, and the families of two students on the trip would not comment when reached yesterday by telephone.

The 13 students -- 12 women and one man -- arrived in Guatemala Jan. 2 with three faculty members for the 17-day study tour, paying nearly $1,500 apiece for the holiday trip that would earn them four academic credits.

They spent most of their time the same way that the school's two previous -- and uneventful -- annual study tours to Guatemala had, by traveling in the northern region of Peten, where they toured rain forests and spectacular Mayan ruins.

Friday morning, the students flew from Peten to Guatemala City, where they were to begin a new leg of the journey, the one planned by Rogachevsky. Having shown the students the ruins of Mayan culture's most glorious era, he hoped to show them its impoverished remnants.

They were to accomplish that by riding a rented bus for nearly four hours to the highland farming village of Xojola in southwest Guatemala, a town of about 2,000 people. There they would visit a development project run by a nongovernmental association known as CIDECA, a Spanish acronym for the Counsel for Investigations for Central American Development.

Their hosts for the overnight stay would be the project's 125 participants, mostly women, who grow coffee, bananas, wood and vegetables for export. The students would eat a dinner of beans and rice and be treated to a ceremony by a Mayan priest.

One reason for staying overnight was the danger of traveling in the country after dark, Alberto Monterroso, a program director for CIDECA, said in a telephone interview.

"We are very worried because [the attack] is a demonstration of the uncontrollable violence that our country suffers from," he said. "It is a country that has suffered so much [from years of

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