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Hurricane Stan adds to Mayans' misery

DAVIS, Calif. -- Hurricane Stan pummeled the highland Mayan Indian
communities of Guatemala's southwestern departments of San Marcos and
Solola, killing 669, causing the disappearance of 884 and destroying 9,136
homes, according to CONRED, the Guatemalan national disaster relief agency.

According to the agency's most recent Web site update, 474,821 persons have
been "victims" of Hurricane Stan. But while the natural disaster caused
immediate and widespread destruction, it shed a spotlight on a country that
has systemically abused, neglected and oppressed the indigenous people for
at least 40 years, according to indigenous leaders there.

The hurricane that lasted from Oct. 4 -- 9 caused mudslides that wiped away
entire communities and revealed a tragic reality for Guatemala's indigenous
population that makes up 60 percent of the country, according to Jalcaltec
Mayan Congressman Victor Montejo. That reality includes decades of poverty
and misery, environmental destruction of their lands and the slow and
painful work in the post-civil war era to find, identify and rebury
innocent victims of the conflict.

Rigoberta Menchu Tum, 1992 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, visited the
devastated regions with Guatemalan President Oscar Berger Perdomo
immediately following the disasters, according to press reports.

On Oct. 21 she spoke at the University of California -- Davis in northern
California and shared a first-hand account of the devastation and
conditions for Mayans in Guatemala.

"The majority of the people who died in Hurricane Stan were Maya," she
said. "Entire villages disappeared. There are communities who were left
with absolutely nothing," said Menchu who joined the government to become
"goodwill ambassador" for the peace process last January after an
invitation by Berger. She noted that because of their location and
remoteness, Mayan people in Guatemala live in especially dangerous areas of
the country.

"And if the hurricane would have lasted another four days, it is entirely
possible that the entire Mayan population could have been wiped out. We are
the ones who live beyond the mountains, in the valleys, in the mountains,"
she said, dressed in her traditional multi-colored, hand-woven dress and
head scarf.

The recovery of the bodies of people who died during Hurricane Stan adds to
the tens of thousands of Guatemalans killed during the 36-year civil war
that she is charged with helping to find and lay to rest, she said. As
goodwill ambassador, Menchu helps to oversee the implementation of the
Peace Accords signed in 1997 by the Guatemalan government and the main
rebel group, the National Revolutionary Unity of Guatemala.

"There are more than 3,000 mass graves and we have only uncovered about
220," she said during her talk at UC-Davis.

But while the large scale violence of that extremely brutal civil war is in
the past, the government's mistreatment and negligence of Mayan citizens
continues, according to Montejo, a Jacaltec Mayan professor, author,
congressman and the former cabinet secretary of peace in charge of the
Peace Accord operations.

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In a country where indigenous peoples make up the majority of the
population but only nine Mayan Indians hold seats in Congress, Native
communities hold little political power. According to Montejo, the
president this year cut his budget by more than half, making it
"impossible" to carry out legal, social, educational and cultural programs
for Mayan people as mandated by his position.

"I was charged to promote indigenous identity and rights," Montejo said.
When he took over as secretary of peace he announced a renewed effort to
shake up the Peace Accord process and promised a high level of indigenous
participation. "There is no interest to promote indigenous rights in
Guatemala."

Montejo, 54, is a veteran of indigenous struggle in his country. During the
1980s, death threats from paramilitary troops forced him to flee from his
village, where he worked as a schoolteacher. He escaped, journeyed to the
U.S. Northeast and ultimately received a doctorate in anthropology from the
University of Connecticut and a teaching position in the Department of
Native American Studies at UC-Davis. While on leave from the university, he
won a congressional seat in November 2003 and the following January was
selected as secretary of peace. He resigned in August in protest and
returned to Congress, where he will continue to serve until the elections
in November 2007.

While Montejo said that many factors -- including deforestation policies,
bad or non-existent roads and isolation -- led to the destruction of
villages as well as the failed rescue efforts, neglect of indigenous
peoples in the country played a major factor as well.

"Even today, people are asking [why] we haven't received any help," he
said. "[There is a] lack of resources and lack of preoccupation for the
poor people. [The government's attitude is] if they are poor people,
indigenous people, peasant people, who cares?"

Still, Congress and the president did act, according to Montejo. Congress
passed legislation declaring the flooding and mudslides a national
emergency and provided funding to the national relief agency, CONRED.
Additionally, continuous rain and cloudy weather dampened relief efforts,
Montejo said, making it impossible for planes or helicopters to immediately
assist hurricane victims.

But geographical isolation and extreme weather may only account for part of
Guatemala's inability to provide aid to survivors or those searching for
family members or dead relatives. In addition to charges of the
government's disregard for isolated Indigenous communities, Montejo said
Guatemala is plagued by its inability to respond quickly to national
emergencies, its centralized relief and aid distribution system and
corruption.

To rebuild the hardest-hit regions, Berger has created a Commission for
Reconstruction for the South. Congress has also created a commission in
order to prevent corruption in relief efforts.

"One of the problems Congress was concerned about [was that] the aid go
directly to the indigenous people," Montejo said. "Congress set up a
commission to monitor the aid [so that it is] justly distributed."

To date, the Guatemalan government has received medicine, supplies,
transportation and financial aid from 14 private groups; 14 international
and U.N. relief organizations; and the governments of 27 countries,
including the United States, Mexico and Cuba, according to CONRED.