Guatemalan ex-president Laugerud dies at 79

AP News
Posted: Dec 11, 2009 8:47 PM

Former President Kjell Eugenio Laugerud, who is credited with helping rebuild Guatemala after the devastating 1976 earthquake, has died from complications related to cancer. He was 79.

Laugerud died Wednesday at his Guatemala City home, military spokesman Byron Gutierrez said Friday.

His conservative 1974-78 administration is credited with an effective response to a quake that killed tens of thousands, but criticized for rights abuses in an escalating fight with leftist rebels.

Born to a Norwegian father and Guatemalan mother, Laugerud rose through the military ranks to become a general and served as defense minister in 1971.

He was elected president in 1974 with the backing of the far-right National Liberation Movement party in elections marred by violence and accusations of fraud.

Two years later, an earthquake killed 23,000 people. Laugerud's quick response in visiting devastated areas and an efficient management of foreign aid helped bolster his popularity. He helped Guatemalans rally around the reconstruction efforts with the celebrated phrase, "Guatemala is wounded, but not fatally."

Internationally, his administration was widely criticized for human rights abuses in its fight to weed out a growing rebel movement.

In 1977, after the Carter administration criticized Guatemala's human rights situation because of forced disappearances, torture and arbitrary executions, Laugerud announced he would not accept U.S. military aid, straying from past governments that would not stand up to Washington. It was largely a symbolic gesture, however, since the aid already was appropriated for that year.

Shortly before Laugerud left office in 1978, the government's human rights record worsened when the army killed 53 indigenous people in a standoff with soldiers.

Abuses became even more brutal and rampant under the governments that followed. Tens of thousands of people disappeared under President Romeo Lucas. Massacres and forced disappearances continued under Gen. Efrain Rios Montt's government that took over after Lucas was overthrown in a military coup.

Gutierrez said a memorial Mass was scheduled for Saturday, and Laugerud would be cremated. He is survived by two daughters.