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Guatemala's Indians Become the Battlefield

Army, rebels vie to control peasants in bitter civil war that has driven thousands from homes and fields

JACINTO COBO is trapped on the treadmill of Guatemala's civil war. The barefooted Ixil Indian, sewing another patch onto his worn-out pants before his obligatory 24-hour shift with the civilian patrol, recalls the times he has tried to flee the violence and repression - only to be pulled back inexorably into the heart of the conflict.

Back in 1981, when the Guatemalan Army tried to eliminate the leftist guerrillas by torching nearly every village in this highland valley, Mr. Cobo and his family sought refuge in the mountains.

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Like tens of thousands of other internal refugees, they avoided the Army destruction only to run into the rebels of the Guerrilla Army of the Poor.

Cobo points to a towering mountain ridge four miles to the east. Up there, he says, the rebels ruled. They instructed the illiterate peasants in communist ideology, assigned them crops to cultivate, recruited fighters, and - such is the logic of war - executed some who tried to escape.

Cobo, his wife, and five children grew corn for the rebels. Or they tried. Relentless Army bombing raids often forced them to abandon their crops and forage for leaves and roots to survive.

Exhausted and malnourished, the Cobo family yearned for relief. Army helicopters bombarded them with leaflets promising food, land, and amnesty if they turned themselves in. Finally, in 1988, seven years after they first took flight, the family slipped out of the rebel settlement in the dead of night - undetected.

But their odyssey, so common in Guatemala, is far from over. No matter how hard they try to flee the Army and the guerrillas, they cannot escape the war.

The reason is simple: The Cobo family and Guatemala's estimated 120,000 to 500,000 internal refugees have become the battlefield themselves. They represent a vast terrain of potential support upon which victory or defeat for the government and rebels will ultimately rest.

The ultra-conservative Army and the Marxist-inspired rebels agree on virtually nothing. So after nearly three decades of war, 100,000 deaths, and 40,000 ``disappeared'' at the hands of government security forces, the two sides are now engaged in a tug-of-war for control over the ragged peasants caught in the middle.

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The guerrillas have long valued their civilian base as a source of economic support and justification for their cause. But with little to offer save distant dreams and dismal conditions, they have jealously guarded their supporters, killing some who betrayed the cause.

GOVERNMENT forces have centered their military strategy on depopulating guerrilla zones and establishing control over the displaced civilian population. Following the basic axiom of counterinsurgency warfare, ``Drain the sea so the fish will die,'' the Army seems to spend less energy pursuing the guerrillas than it does coaxing and coercing civilians out of the mountains.

These are the same civilians, ironically, that fled the Army's 1981 ``scorched-earth'' campaign, a brutal sweep that killed thousands of civilians, displaced tens of thousands, and left only three of 42 villages standing in this lush highland region known as the ``Ixil Triangle.''

``The Army's real strategy now is not so much to take territory or to hunt down the guerrillas as it is to control the population,'' says one researcher who has studied displaced civilians in the Ixil region.

Using aid as bait, the government lured nearly 70 percent of the internal refugees back into its control in 1983 under an amnesty program. It promised more than the peasants could have hoped: safety, food, land, housing, and generous loans to help them begin anew. A 1987 Army offensive flushed out more civilians, leaving only a few thousand in the guerrilla zones high in the mountains.

``These poor people are the amorphous mass used by both sides,'' says a worker for the Special Commission for Attention to Refugees and Displaced Persons (CEARD), the civilian agency overseeing internal refugees' return.

``The suffering for the displaced does not end when they return to civilization,'' he says, noting that these peasants have been in the remote mountains for the past nine years. ``The Army sees them as instruments of war.''

Once back in Army hands, the indigenous peasants must pass through a three-stage ``reorientation'' process:


The Army holds them for three days to six months, questioning them about their connection to the guerrillas. A former rebel collaborator, Domingo Reymundo Ceto, says the Army forced him to lead an expedition back to the conflict zone to help pinpoint rebel camps. Another ex-guerrilla says Army officers made him memorize anti-guerrilla phrases to repeat to journalists, hitting him with a rifle butt when he resisted.


Many of the internal refugees are then put in a ``reorientation center'' for 90 days. According to Pedro Ram'irez, a government worker at the Xemamatze center in Nebaj, the purpose is to ``change their ideology.'' Though run by the civilian agency CEARD, Xemamatze is controlled by the Army. An Army officer arrives three mornings a week to lecture on the evils of communism and the virtues of freedom and democracy.

Over the past year, only a trickle of people have been processed through the Xemamatze center, a reflection, experts say, less of the declining number of returning civilians than of the Army's resumption of near-absolute control over the displaced population. (See story at right.)


The displaced are then relocated into heavily regimented ``model villages.'' Forty such villages now dot the Ixil area. These include both first-generation villages developed in 1984-85, like Acul, and second-generation villages built in the past year, like the Cobos' impoverished roadside settlement, Cambalam.

The stark difference between the two communities shows a shift from the government's early emphasis on supporting internal refugees economically to a policy of providing little support, but maintaining the same absolute political control.

In Acul, a settlement set in a Swiss-like mountain meadow, the indigenous families live side by side in tightly-packed rows of houses. It is a complete change from the centuries-old tradition of living in scattered, hillside lots close to crops and animals. The concentration of homes facilitates Army control and makes it difficult for rebels to contact civilians.

But Acul does have electricity, running water on every street corner, some cement houses, a bustling school, and small herds of goats and cattle. This is what the government had in mind at first when it called these villages part of a ``development pole.''

TWO miles down the road, however, Cambalam is a picture of neglect. There is no electricity, no livestock, not even running water. The 180 children have no school, and the huts have no protection from seasonal rains. The government has promised housing materials and potable water, but not until next year. With a presidential election approaching in November, everything seems to be put on hold.

But the neglect also reflects Guatemala's economic recession, intensifying nationwide conflicts, and most of all, the blind spot displaced civilians occupy in the minds of their countrymen and international agencies.

Guatemalan refugees in Mexican border camps receive much more attention from the government and international groups such as the United Nations' High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). When refugees return from Mexico, they are accompanied by UNHCR representatives who hand out money and materials. They are considered so privileged by Guatemalan standards that some natives sneak out of the country so they, too, can come back to get the bounty of the international groups.

But the internally displaced are largely left in the hands of the Guatemalans. The Italian government did propose to donate about $8 million to the Ixil area between 1989 and 1991. But with Eastern Europe's changes drawing funding away, only $3 million appeared, little of which has been seen in the model villages.

None of it has trickled down to Cambalam, where Jacinto Cobo and his wife, Juana Busaro, sit on the dirt outside of their 10-by-10 foot plywood hut. The smoke-belching, wood-burning stove that cooks their only food - six tortillas and a tomato per person per day - takes up one-half of the room. The other half, difficult to make out through the smoke and ashes, is occupied by a five-foot bed on which all seven family members huddle together at night.

Beyond the hut is a 25-square-yard plot of young corn stalks. The Cobos own a piece of property 30 times larger just one-half mile up the mountainside. But since the Army won't let them live beyond the settlement's borders, they have no way of staving off the wild boars that devour entire fields of corn in a single night.

Unlike the earlier waves of displaced people and the refugees returning from camps in Mexico, the Cobos have received virtually no help. The only way for the Cobos to make ends meet and begin paying their debt (they owe the government $16), is by migrating periodically to the southern coast to pick cotton and cut sugar cane. Cobo earns only $1 a day in that back-breaking work, but by the end of a month he can bring home about $10 to help keep his family afloat.

But there's a catch. Before he can leave for the coast, Cobo must get approval from the head of the local civil patrol - the unofficial ruler of the community due to his close contact with the local Army lieutenant. All 22 adult males in Cambalam are required to patrol the area for 24 hours every three days, though technically the patrols are voluntary. Of the 11 times Cobo has asked for permission to leave, he has been rejected 10 times.

His wife, Juana, shakes her head. ``It's not against the law to refuse to serve in civil patrol,'' she says. ``But here the law is not in charge. The Army is.''

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