Terror on a field trip Guatemala crime: Many schools take more risks than St. Mary's College.

January 20, 1998

ALL SYMPATHY goes to the academic community at St. Mary's College, the state liberal arts college in St. Mary's City. Its semi-isolation in rural Southern Maryland makes this school of 1,500 students tight-knit, with people sharing each other's joys and griefs.

Thus, the robbery and rape that victimized 16 members of the college on a field trip in Guatemala is an even greater shock to this institution than would be the case at a larger, more impersonal university.

Guatemala has been progressively unsafe since its three-decade civil war ceased at the end of 1996. A commission is examing 150,000 incidents from that struggle, a seemingly hopeless task. Far from ending violence, peace has loosed gangs, presumably former soldiers from both sides, with guns and without jobs, to prey on Guatemalans and visitors.

An American woman student was kidnapped in early 1996 and murdered. Kidnappings are routine in Guatemala City. With victims of modest means, ransoms are set low -- less than $200. Although the U.S. embassy does not warn tourists away from Guatemala, a consular information sheet describes recent crimes similar to the raid on the St. Mary's students' bus.

It is easy in hindsight to suggest that St. Mary's officials should have been more wary. Study semesters and brief trips abroad are increasingly common at American colleges. Many are to Third World sites of uncertain safety and others to venerable cities known for crime. Many send students without instructors or guides. This field trip was more carefully arranged than most.

The school had done it twice before. Two faculty members and an administrator accompanied the 13 students. They were on a bus. The crime was cut short by Guatemalan citizens who observed it and alerted authorities. Police action has been swift. The Guatemalan government gives high priority to prosecution. This is different from the civil war, when a violent crime was sanctioned by one side or the other and never investigated thoroughly.

This crime may have a chilling effect on other individuals and institutions contemplating study trips to remote locales. But in the long run, it will not dampen the adventurous curiosity of young Americans or inhibit the devotion of colleges to research and study in all manner of places. It should, though, compel more caution and wariness of possible dangers. That would be all to the good.

Pub Date: 1/20/98

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