From thatch-roofed outposts on stilts and sandbagged bunkers, Guatemala's civil patrols guard rural towns against guerrilla incursion 24 hours a day. Some 10 percent of the population participates in the government's massive effort to involve the people in the defense and reconstruction of the country.
''The patrols are not militia,'' said Col. Mario Enrique Paiz Bolanos, director of civil affairs. He said the mandatory program was formed ''to give a sense of nationalism.''
Guatemala has been without substantial US military and economic aid since a 1977 Carter administration report critical of human rights violations. Left alone to devise a solution to its long-term war against an estimated 2,000 to 4, 000 largely leftist guerrillas concentrated in the northwest highlands, the government launched a psychologically sophisticated and well-organized plan to win popular support.
The growth of Guatemala's civil patrols began in 1982, after Brig. Gen. Efrain Rios Montt came to power and initiated a violent campaign against leftists in the highlands, killing 2,700 suspected leftist sympathizers. Some 70 ,000 refugees fled over the border to Mexico.
Once the area was secured, Rios Montt launched the national campaign ''frijoles y fusiles'' (beans and bullets). The civil patrols grew into a force that now exceeds 750,000. The force does help the government maintain control in northern provinces.
But along with the expansion of the civilian patrols came more human rights problems. There are reports of patrols turning into vigilante-style groups, threatening and killing villagers they suspected of being subversives. However, Brig. Gen. Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores, who deposed Rios Montt last August, has continued the civil patrols.
The patrols are organized into shifts that work 12 hours every five to 10 days. While the Army goes into the mountains to attempt to rout out guerrillas, the patrols serve at road checkpoints, standing guard at roadside gates made of slender tree trunks. They search passing cars and strangers to try to prevent guerrillas from entering towns for supplies or to gain recruits.
Only 1 out of 100 guards is armed, according to Colonel Bolanos. Guns are passed along with changing shifts, and many patrols carry rifle-shaped blocks of wood to symbolize their participation.
''The man standing guard is no longer indifferent because the guerrilla is his enemy,'' said a Western social worker in Coban, a town 68 miles north of Guatemala City. ''The population, by the mere fact of the patrols, has gotten on the side of the Army, where before, perhaps, they were indifferent.''
''We, all of us in the republic, are guarding against subversion,'' said Jesus Ivanas Hernandez, a father of seven children. He lives in a town of 1,600 with 225 patrols in the highland province of Alta Verapaz. ''They tried to win us over, take our rifles. They are our enemy,'' he said.
One of the duties of the civil patrols is to provide information to the Army, according to Luis Sieckavizza Alarez, civilian adviser to the Army. ''It is a very good system for the Army, '' he said.
Participation is mandatory for men age 18 to 50, and boys and women are encouraged to help. ''The women should help her husband and she can do this by informing her husband of what she hears in the market so subversion will not return,'' said Lt. Suchi Lopez Garcia, the senior commanding officer in Quiche Province.
He addressed a group of some 1,700 civil patrols standing in lines, pretend rifles by their sides and straw hats protecting them from the harsh noonday sun. They had gathered for a speech congratulating them on their part in the recent period of reduced guerrilla activity.
''Guatemala is free because of the intervention of the laborers,'' Colonel Garcia told them. ''It's your work. It's your government. Through you, the people, we are going to have the infrastructure to work, to build,'' he said, referring to a voluntary work program organized within the civil patrol system. Men are paid in food and commodities for work on roads, schools, or other projects needed by the community.
It remains to be seen whether the civil patrols can strongly assist the government in bringing Guatemala's guerrilla movement under control and whether the activities of members will cloud or eventually help the government to improve its human rights record. It also remains to be seen whether the government will follow up with social programs that could turn these security units into bases of popular government support. The US Congress voted against resuming military aid to Guatemala and suspended $13 million of economic program aid because of the country's human rights problems.