September 2, 2001

Guatemala's president: Drought leads to 41 famine-related deaths

GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala (AP) -- President Alfonso Portillo said that a drought-fueled famine has contributed to the deaths of 41 people in eastern
Guatemala and that efforts to help people in the area has fallen short.

Portillo's comments Sunday confirmed reports by local authorities that a shortage of food in El Trifinio, a region on Guatemala's border with Honduras and El Salvador 160
miles east of Guatemala City, has contributed to the deaths of 41 old men and women and very young children in the last four months.

Most of the deaths have come in the towns of Camotan and Jocotan, home to 25,000 people, doctors said.

Health officials said Sunday that another 31 children have been rushed to area clinics suffering from severe malnutrition, which reduces resistance to diseases.

Three months of drought during what is normally the rainy season have devastated Central America and caused as many as 1.6 million people in the region to suffer from
hunger, according to a recent report released last week by the U.N. World Food Program.

Some experts say 80 percent of the basic grain crop has been lost to the drought this year. Local governments also blame illegal wood cutting for denuding hillsides, causing

The drought striking Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras, is the most urgent problem to hit the area since Hurricane Mitch killed 26,000 people in 1998, the
agency reported.

But Portillo said Sunday that the deaths "come as no surprise" and that a recent tax increase should help the government aid famine victims.

"Some 80 percent of that population is in misery and that's no secret," Portillo told reporters Sunday. "One can't say that this is the fault of the government."

After dozens of pledges not to raise taxes, Portillo signed a law raising Guatemala's sales tax from 10 to 12 percent last month, a move that sparked a string of violent protests.

Portillo said efforts by non-governmental groups to come to the aid of those going hungry in Camotan and Jocotan have fallen short, but that the added tax revenue will allow
him to organize a task force to tour the area and help its starving citizens.

               Copyright 2001 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.