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Guatemala's Army has firm grip on countryside despite elections

Guatemala's hardline, anticommunist Army is the real power in the countryside, say village priests, diplomats, and political sources. And December's runoff for Guatemala's first civilian president in some three decades is unlikely to usurp that power, these sources say.

But the candidates are promising to give civilians more power in the rural areas. Guatemala's likely president, Christian Democrat Mario Vinicio Cerezo Ar'evalo, is promising to put civilians in charge of committees aimed at developing the rural areas. These committees are presently military directed.

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Observers doubt Mr. Cerezo will challenge the Army on issues that it has defined as within its domain of ``national security.''

``The military head of the zone is the real authority,'' says a priest who works in the Indian highlands. ``It used to be the governor but now it's the military chief. If you want anything done you go to him.''

``That's why they [the Army] are willing to have these elections,'' the priest added. ``The Army has taken over all of the real power bases so now they can afford to turn the government over to the politicians and say play your games.''

The Guatemalan highlands are externally a place of great beauty. Plots of corn and beans, well tended by Indians in traditional colorful garments, dot pine-covered mountains.

But it is a place where fear is prevalent. The Indians are at the mercy of local landowners, usually the Spanish-descended Ladinos, say observers in the area. The Army uses the Ladinos to control the area where leftist guerrillas have built a strong base. Many of the highland Indians support the guerrillas.

Over the last two decades the Army has used a scorched earth campaign wiping out whole villages of inhabitants suspected of supporting the guerrillas. Many Indians fled up into the mountains until starvation and sickness forced them to return to the highlands where they surrendered to the Army.

The Army put these survivors into camps, called model villages, similar to the strategic hamlets used in Vietnam, say human rights observers. These observers have compared these model villages to concentration camps.

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But the Army says it wants to develop the highlands, an area traditionally ignored by the government.

Critics charge that the military's projects, planned by military-directed committees, are aimed at counterinsurgency rather than development. The United States Congress has stipulated that US aid cannot be used in these projects.

The Army also controls the countryside through civil defense patrols. All men over 18 are required to join the patrols.

The Roman Catholic Church criticizes the patrols as ``forced service'' which ``weighs most heavily on the weakest and most impoverished part of the country,'' referring to the Indians.

The Army maintains that the patrols are voluntary and that the Indians asked for military protection against ``subversives.''

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