Weeks after year-end vacations started at schools all over Guatemala, inmates at one of the country's maximum-security prisons held a graduation ceremony of their own Monday. One of the students who completed elementary school, two who graduated from junior high and two of their teachers are all death row inmates. Educating prisoners, including those condemned to die for violent crimes, adds a new dimension to the heated public debate on whether to keep the death penalty in Guatemala, one of only two countries in Latin America that maintain capital punishment.
In a stuffy corridor, between two sets of iron bars, Gustavo Carranza hands out Ministry of Education-stamped diplomas to the students he has tutored for the past two years. Heavily armed guards survey the crowded hallway, while one inmate watches the graduation ceremony in a mirror he extends through the bars of his cell.
Carranza is known in Guatemala as one of the men sentenced to death for a much-publicized kidnapping and murder of a young Guatemalan woman. But inside this maximum-security facility, he's known as a man who gives selflessly of his time to run an education program where the state has failed to.
"Even though I am in jail condemned to die," he says, "I have great desire to help my fellow inmates. "We are demonstrating that in spite of the fact that we have been condemned to an unjust, cruel and inhumane punishment, we have the will to learn."
Along with Cuba, Guatemala is the only Spanish speaking-country in the region that still has the death penalty. Up until 1996 executions were carried out by firing squads. Now lethal injection is used. No one has been executed here in over four years, but there are some 30 prisoners on death row.
Mario Castaneda is a bus inspector and a resident of crime-ridden Guatemala City. He says the death penalty should stay.
"When I leave my house I don't know if I'll make it back home," he says. "If we didn't maintain it, there would be more violence; I think we should be tough on crime and keep the death penalty."
Castaneda is not alone. Polls consistently show that capital punishment is overwhelmingly popular here. Nevertheless, there is a growing debate on the issue, as human rights activists and European diplomats try to push Guatemalan leaders to abolish the death penalty.
President Oscar Berger has said he personally objects to the death penalty, but it is unclear whether he will propose legislation to abolish it. He says he is studying whether to send to Congress a bill drafted by his human rights commissioner to abolish the death penalty.
The Supreme Court, which can also propose legislation in Guatemala, already has sent a proposal to Congress to abolish capital punishment, but the bill is yet to be included on the legislative agenda.
In addition to invoking the more universal reasons for abolishing the death penalty, activists in Guatemala say this fledgling democracy is no place to be handing down death sentences.
Kristin Svendon is one of the activists.
"Guatemala's justice system, not only in the cases where they condemn people to death, have loads of weaknesses," she says. "In the sense that the professional level of judges is still very weak."
Ms. Svendon works for a death penalty abolition campaign at a research center in Guatemala.
"The official defense system is also weak in the sense that they lack resources, economic resources and human resources, to be able to proportion or give an adequate defense to their clients. Loads of people are condemned to death on very weak proof, almost all the cases are based on testimony only they don't have any technical proof," she notes.
Death row inmates say they hope their education program counts as good behavior when they appeal their sentences. But what they say they most hope for is that people outside the jail will learn something from their education program, too.
Fermin Ramirez, 44, didn't receive a diploma Monday. He's still working his way through elementary school after learning how to read and write in jail.
"As long as we are still alive we have hope, and we are going to use our time to study and not waste it so that society sees that we can rehabilitate ourselves here," he says.
Mr. Ramirez says that even if he never leaves this jail, and if his execution is carried out, he won't regret having learned to read. He says it will be a piece of his personal history that will live on after him, and that the idea fills him with pride.