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In Guatemala, soldiers' arrest marks shift

GUATEMALA CITY -- Chanting and waving signs in protest of high electricity prices, thousands of unarmed indigenous demonstrators blockaded a highway in western Guatemala, forcing a standoff with police. Two truckloads of soldiers arrived and gunfire erupted, killing eight protesters.

What happened next after the Oct. 4 incident was virtually unprecedented in a country scarred by decades of civil war as well as violence against its indigenous majority and years of impunity for its powerful military. Authorities actually investigated the violence, and alleged perpetrators were arrested.

The attorney general, known for her bold pursuit of criminals, dispatched 175 prosecutors and investigators to the scene, and they collected shells, blood samples and DNA evidence.

Within a week, prosecutors had detained eight army privates and a colonel on criminal charges. Two privates and the colonel could each face a maximum of 500 years in prison for extrajudicial assassination while six privates could face up to 320 years each for attempted murder with intent. An accompanying report said soldiers had ignored police instructions to stay away from the protest.

The soldiers were not recipients of any U.S. aid or training in a country in which the United States has spent $85 million fighting drug traffickers since end of the civil war in 1996.

President Otto Pérez Molina pushed to end an earlier U.S. ban on military aid that was imposed during the conflict over concerns about human rights abuses. To fight the drug-trafficking problem, Perez has approved the creation of two new military bases and the upgrading of a third to add as many as 2,500 soldiers. He's also signed a treaty allowing a team of 200 U.S. Marines to patrol Guatemala's western coast to catch drug shipments.

Perez, a former army general who's been investigated for human rights abuses during the country's civil war, lent his support to the investigation earlier this month, saying he would accept the attorney general's actions. He also pledged never to use troops again to quell the protests.

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