Five St. Mary's College students on an educational tour in Guatemala were raped after their group's bus was ambushed by gunmen in a hilly region known for banditry, according to college and State Department spokesmen.
Three staff members and 13 students from the Southern Maryland liberal arts college were returning to Guatemala City from an excursion about 3: 30 p.m. Friday when one or two pickup trucks accosted their private bus, according to Guatemalan national police, the Associated Press reported.
Police said the attack occurred near Santa Lucia Cotzumalguapa, on a hilly road about 40 miles southwest of the Guatemalan capital.
The region, where guerrilla activities were once common, has a reputation for lawlessness and banditry. Guatemala has been shaken the past year or so by a wave of kidnappings, roadblock assaults and a surge in crime since its 36-year civil war ended.
Four of the students who were raped were treated in a Guatemala City hospital, and all five rape victims returned to the United States on Saturday night. The remaining students returned to Washington Dulles International Airport last night and were met by the college's president, acting provost and dean of students.
"We are heartbroken by this senseless, violent attack on our students and colleagues," Jane Margaret O'Brien, St. Mary's president, said ina statement last night.
Accounts varied about how many were involved in the attack. Frank Neville, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala City, said there were reportedly seven to 12 bandits.
"The men were carrying firearms and began yelling at the bus," said Neville. "The men pulled up beside the bus and tried to force it off the road. When the driver didn't stop, they fired guns into the air."
Neville said the bus driver pulled the vehicle into a ditch alongside the road. The men then forced the students and faculty members at gunpoint off the bus and into a nearby sugar cane field, where they stole the group's personal belongings, then selected five female students and raped them, a State Department official in Washington said.
The group -- one male and 12 female students, two male teachers and a female administrator -- was then left in the field. None of the college group was identified.
Guatemalan authorities had two suspects in custody, an official lTC in the criminal investigations unit of the national police told the Associated Press late last night.
U.S. Embassy officials helped the victims return to Guatemala City, where the injured were treated at a hospital and released, and then to the United States. The bandits had allowed the group to keep airline tickets and passports, the State Department official in Washington said.
The students and staff had been in Guatemala since Jan. 2 on a 17-day visit studying ancient Mayan civilization and archaeology, as well as 20th-century Mayan culture and conditions in Peten, Guatemala's northernmost department, which was the focus of the group's research. The group had been scheduled to return yesterday.
"Our first concern is for the well-being of the students, faculty and their families," said O'Brien, the St. Mary's president.
"We've dispatched our counseling team to meet with the group members upon their arrival in the U.S.," she added, "and we will provide around-the-clock support to all our students."
State Department officials said the embassy regarded the attack as a "common crime" with no political overtones.
"We are very concerned. We deplore anything of this nature," Neville, the embassy spokesman, said in an interview last night. "This was a cowardly crime."
Guatemala has been troubled by guerrilla warfare for 36 years, but the conflict formally ended in December 1996 with a cease-fire.
The State Department has not issued a formal travel warning recommending that Americans avoid Guatemala. However, the department does advise prospective visitors about an increase in crime in the Central American country, which is about the size of Tennessee.
A consular information sheet notes that "violent crime has been a serious and growing problem for years," with a marked increase in incidents targeting American citizens in the past year. Four U.S. cit- izens were raped in separate incidents in different parts of the country last summer, the State Department said, and there have been 11 kidnappings in the past three years involving U.S. residents, one of whom was murdered.
"Highway travel has generally exposed visitors to increased risk of violent incident," the State Department information sheet warns. "Highway robberies by armed thieves [have] increased significantly over the past year and have occurred in all parts of the country. Tourist vans have been particularly susceptible targets."
A St. Mary's spokeswoman, Stacy M. Pruitt, said college officials were generally aware of the State Department advisories and had advised students and their families of the risks, but she could not say what, if any, precautions were taken.
It was the third year that St. Mary's had sponsored an anthropological tour to the Central American nation.
"The other trips were incident-free," said Pruitt.
"Most of the countries we visit have some level of risk involved," Pruitt said. Groups from the college also visit West Africa, England, Germany and China.
The school is a public four-year liberal arts college in St. Mary's City, about two hours southeast of Baltimore. It was founded in 1840 and has about 1,500 students.
Pub Date: 1/19/98