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Mass murders haunt Mayan asking refuge

June 27, 1986

Her name is Petrona Mateo Esteban. She is from Guatemala. She came to the United States because something horrible happened to her family in the highland village where she lived.

The United States says Petrona should not stay here, that it's safe for her to go home; there is a new government in Guatemala and things are looking up.

This week Petrona's deportation trial began in U.S. Immigration Court in Miami. It was a most unusual proceeding.

Petrona is a Kanjobal Indian, one of about 800 who have resettled in Indiantown as migrants. She is 26, and partially crippled from a childhood disease. She speaks neither English nor Spanish, only the unique Mayan dialect of her village.

The court interpreter, the only one to understand Kanjobal, had learned a language slightly different from Petrona's. Her story, painful to recall under any circumstances, became excruciating in Judge Neale Foster's court.

She wore a beautiful Mayan dress and sat impassively on the witness stand. Often she spoke in little more than a shy whisper. She tried to tell how they had practically skinned her father alive.

In 1982 Petrona's village, El Mul, was caught in Guatemala's vicious civil war. The guerrillas would raid the rural towns for food and chickens; then the army would sweep in, tracking the insurgents and punishing those thought to have aided them.

Defense attorney Peter Upton: "How do you know there was a war?"

Petrona: "Because the helicopters came by."

Q. "What were the helicopters doing?"

A. "They were dropping bombs and shooting bullets."

Later Upton asked: "Did the soldiers ever kill anyone in your family?"

A. "They came and killed my fatherhe was taken by them and beaten by themIt was 6 in the morning. We were sleeping at the time. They broke down the door."

Petrona said the army men seized her father and two brothers, Esteban and Alonzo, and dragged them away from the others. Alonzo was only 14. Petrona said the soldiers beat them with rifles and hacked them with machetes. She and her mother ran for their lives.

After the soldiers had gone, Petrona said, she came back and found her home burned to the ground. Her brothers and father lay dead. Her father's features were "destroyed." His hands had been bound behind him; Petrona untied the rope.

In all, 11 men were murdered in El Mul that morning. Petrona said she remembered their names, they were her neighbors: Tomas Augustin, his son Daniel, Miguel Jose, Mateo Martin, Esteban Martin, and so on.

After the massacre Petrona eventually fled to Mexico to pick cotton and coffee. From there she made her way to America.

She does not fully understand the politics of her country, but what she knows is this: Men with guns came from the hills and invaded her village. They stole her family's food. Other men in uniforms arrived and stole more. They also slaughtered her father.

As you might imagine, Petrona does not wish to go home.

Kathy Hersh of the American Friends Service Committee says of the Mayans: "They were really caught in the crossnre.They are apolitical.The government doesn't know what to do with them."

Six months ago Guatemala elected its first civilian government since 1966.The United States says this is a new leaf, that the military is enlisting "civil patrols" to improve its image and help battle insurgents. Unfortunately, more than 700 men and women have been murdered in political violence since the new regime came to power.

Petrona seeks asylum here. Her case, and those of other Mayans, probably won't be settled until early next year. The immigration court must decide if the Kanjobales would be singled out for violence if they returned home, if they have a well-founded fear of persecution.

What Petrona Mateo Esteban has is simply a well-founded fear of death.

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