Rumor and Rage

updated 04/25/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/25/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

JUNE WEINSTOCK'S BIG MISTAKE, Apparently, was that she said hello to some small children during a March 29 morning walk near San Cristobal Verapaz, a quiet market town of 10,000 she was visiting during a six-week trip to Guatemala. This simple act prompted two men to begin following her, and when, soon after, a local woman named Macaria Yat got separated from her 8-year-old child in the Easter week crowds, people clustered around Weinstock, accusing her of kidnapping the child. An ice cream vendor joked that the "gringa" was probably carrying the missing child in her suitcase. When the frightened Weinstock. a 51-year-old environmental consultant from Fairbanks, Alaska, tried to board a bus to leave the area, her two pursuers dragged her to the office of the village's justice of the peace, who called the police for help.

Yet not even two dozen policemen using tear gas—or the reappearance of the missing child—were able to pacify the mob of at least 1,000 who surrounded the one-story building, shouting that Weinstock was a child stealer and demanding her death. For the next five hours, Weinstock huddled inside with the justice, a Protestant missionary and the police chief, Jose Israel Morales. They slacked filing cabinets against the front door as people pelted the office with rocks, hacked at doors with an ax and even tried to set the building on fire. Chief Morales offered himself as a hostage if they would leave Weinstock alone, but the ploy (ailed. "They wanted to burn her to clean the village of her," Morales says. "They wanted the blood of the gringa."

They got it. The siege ended with Weinstock's being dragged outside and beaten unconscious with sticks and metal pipes. Only when Morales lied and announced she was dead did the crowd allow the fire brigade to carry Weinstock away. She was eventually flown by a U.S. military helicopter to a hospital in Guatemala City, about 115 miles south of San Cristobal Verapaz. Last week, still unconscious, she was flown to a hospital in her home state of Alaska.

Incredibly, Weinstock was not the first victim of the bizarre rumor sweeping Guatemala that foreigners are kidnapping babies and selling their vital organs. Just three weeks before, Melissa Larson, 37, an architectural draftswoman and jewelry maker from Taos, N. Mex., was picked up by police on suspicion of kiln stealing as she sipped pineapple juice at a market in Santa Lucia Cotzumalguapa, on the other side of the country from San Cristobal Verapaz. A raging mob gathered outside the prison, shouting, "Hang the gringa!" Larson was secretly evacuated to another jail that day. but the crowd, thinking she had been freed, burned the prison and battled police until armored cars were brought in. Larson spent 15 days behind bars in Guatemala City before she was released.

The rumors were fanned by Prensa Libre, Guatemala's largest newspaper, which published a story last month featuring a list of prices various organs were said to fetch on the international market (hearts for $100,000, corneas for $2,500). A threat of retaliation against American children was phoned in to the U.S. embassy in Guatemala City, and graffiti reading "Gringo child-stealers go home" has been scrawled on walls in wealthy neighborhoods.

Similar rumors have come and gone in underdeveloped countries around the world for about a decade—and in part, says Todd Leventhal of the U.S. Information Agency, "the rise in intercountry adoption contributes to keeping the fears alive." The FBI and the Department of Human Services among others, have conducted thorough investigations—but never turned up any evidence of a black market in children's organs. Nevertheless, says Mary Chamberlain, program director for World Child, a Washington adoption agency, the rumors continue to be "passed among people who believe Americans can bin am thing. We want to get the word out that this couldn't possibly be happening, but it's not easy."

In Guatemala the baby-parts frenzy has been intensified by political instability—and may in fact have been fueled by forces trying to destablize the 10-month-old civilian government of President Ramiro De León Carpio. Whatever its source, the mass hysteria is so alarming that 200 Peace Corps volunteers in rural postings have been withdrawn to Guatemala City. But the capital has not proved to be totally secure. On April 11 a 7-year-old American girl—the daughter of a wealthy businessman—was kidnapped from her school bus by gunmen. A ransom demand was made, and the U.S. embassy released a statement saying that the "kidnapping does not appear to be for anti-U.S. motives."

Americans residents, however, suspect otherwise. Kim Strombell, who has lived in Guatemala for three years. said. "The mood has changed. I won't be traveling much out of the city for a while." So do local observers who believe that right-wing elements in the military are orchestrating the mayhem. "I see a Machiavellian hand behind all this," said Mario Antonio Sandoval, a former government official.

Melissa Larson was mystified as to what triggered her arrest during a routine trip to view pre-Columbian ruins. "Of all the things to be accused of, this is the last I would have imagined," she said while she was in prison. "It's as far-fetched as it could ever get." In Fairbanks, friends of June Weinstock are equally confused. They say Weinstock is a seasoned and sensitive traveler who always tries to learn the language in foreign countries and had planned to live with a Guatemalan family for a month.

Meanwhile, the final tragedy of the hysteria may be that it prevents scores of Guatemalan children from leaving the country—not for medical exploitation, but to go to loving homes. Some 500 Guatemalan children were adopted by Americans last year; now would-be adoptive parents are finding that there has been a slowdown or even a halt to adoptions already in progress. That is heartbreaking news for couples such as Jim and Faye Heinicke of Old Bridge, N.J., who have already fallen in love with photographs of 7-month-old Mario Hernandez, who is living in a private home in Guatemala. The Heinickes were hoping to travel to Guatemala City to complete Mario's adoption. "We knew there could be problems, but nothing like this," says Faye, 36, who works part-time in a pet-food store. "It's really scaring us. I don't know what we would do if we can't get him here."

ELIZABETH GLEICK
EDWARD ORLEBAR in Guatemala, MEG GRANT in Miami, KRIS CAPPS in Fairbanks, MARY HUZINEC in Old Bridge

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