Route of St. Mary's group called path of greater risk Leaving Guatemala's tourist roads unwise, travel directors say

January 21, 1998|By Dan Fesperman and Caitlin Francke | Dan Fesperman and Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Michael James and Jonathan Weisman and research librarians Paul McCardell and Andrea Wilson contributed to this article.

In leaving the beaten path of tourism followed on two previous journeys to Guatemala, a St. Mary's College study tour entered a riskier land of poorly guarded roads without taking precautions often used by other tour groups, even in safer areas.

"They were between one place and no place, with no radio and no telephone," said Enrico Caputo, owner of Otupac Tours, which sends about 2,000 travelers a year to Guatemala. "They rented a bus and went out on their own. They didn't use common sense."

Those shortcomings, he and other tour directors said yesterday, could have made the school's 16 students and faculty members an easier mark Friday afternoon for armed hijackers, who forced the group's bus from the road before robbing everyone aboard and raping five women students.

Supporting that assessment was Guatemala's ambassador to the United States, Pedro Lamport.

In a morning condolence call at the college, he downplayed the attack as an "unfortunate occurrence." In a later telephone interview, he said the students' route was "not one where we have the priority of security, that's for sure. The tourist route has more elements of security on it. But we understand that there are people who want to see [other] parts of the country."

St. Mary's officials have maintained that the school took all proper precautions. College President Jane Margaret O'Brien said Monday, "There was not an indication to us that we were at greater risk than at other times."

Ernest Willoughby, a biology professor whose son Wesley was the only male student on the trip, seemed to accept that assessment when he said yesterday he is "not blaming anybody" at the school for what happened.

"Something like this can happen at anytime, anywhere, under certain circumstances," Willoughby said. "Visiting foreign lands, talking with people, seeing how they live cannot but broaden their perspective on life and society."

Traveling in Guatemala has not been a risk-free proposition in recent times. Yet even in the midst of a bloody 36-year civil war, thousands of tourists journeyed there each year, willing to take a few chances to see ancient Mayan ruins, picturesque volcanoes and the colorful weavings of Mayan Indians.

Most did so by sticking to virtually the same route -- one that is heavily guarded by the government to protect its third-highest grossing industry, tourism.

A typical tour would include a drive from Guatemala City to the colonial town of Antigua, then westward to Lake Atitlan, ringed by volcanoes, before heading northeast to Chichicastenango, known for its huge outdoor markets rich in colorful weavings.

Most tours would also fly north to Tikal, one of the most famed Mayan ruins.

When the country's civil war ended last year, thousands of government soldiers and rebel guerrillas suddenly had no jobs, but still had weapons. Some turned to banditry and hijacking, and the U.S. State Department warned travelers in its most recent report of the new dangers.

"In the past," the consular information sheet said, "travel during daylight generally afforded some measure of personal security."

But, it added, "shootings, kidnappings, rapes and violent assaults" recently have been reported during daylight, affecting groups of American tourists.

Tour directors tend to regard such warnings as worst-case assessments, and all those interviewed yesterday insisted that Guatemala is generally a safe place to visit.

"Normally, traveling in Guatemala is very safe if you stay on the tourist routes," Caputo said.

St. Mary's students had mostly stuck to those routes on their previous two study tours, but this year's group planned a detour for its final weekend, under the guidance of Jorge Rogachevsky, a professor of Spanish and Latin American studies.

Rogachevsky worked with members of a Guatemalan development organization, CIDECA, to set up an overnight visit to the southwestern farming village of Xojola, where the students would eat a simple meal, see the locals at work and be treated to a ceremony by a Mayan priest.

By adding this element, school officials raised the stakes of the trip: Along with the added benefits of a closer look at rural culture came the added risks of roads less-traveled by tourists.

Rogachevsky said Monday that he was confident in the safety of the region because he had lived there for more than a year in 1993 and 1994 with his wife and children, during a time of war.

The war's end convinced him that conditions would probably be safer now, he said, so he did not think extra precautions were necessary.

That judgment could become pivotal if the school is sued, according to Robert Aalberts, a professor of legal studies at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, an authority on such issues.

"Was there a foreseeable risk of harm that a reasonable person could have seen?" Aalberts asked. "And if they [at the school] failed to address those risks in a prudent way, then they were negligent."

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