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Guatemala Army Killings Raise National Debate

Popular outcry forces Army to relocate base, encourage citizens to confront military abuses

IN the wake of an Army massacre of unarmed Tzutuhil Indians last week, Guatemalans are voicing what was previously unspeakable. The bursts of Army rifle fire Dec. 2 that left 14 protesters dead and more than 30 wounded in this scenic lakeside town seem, ironically, to have shattered some civilian fears of military reprisals. The shootings have sparked a national debate about the role of an entrenched Armed Forces unaccustomed to public challenge.

With just weeks to go before the country's first open presidential runoff election under a civilian government, the killings outside a local Army outpost challenge the military's claim that, after waging a ``dirty war'' a decade ago, the Armed Forces now respects the country's majority indigenous population.

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While corpses still lay at the military base's entrance, villagers began to collect more than 15,000 signatures and thumbprints protesting the violence. Bus drivers and restaurant owners in the capital city hoisted black flags to honor the slain.

These and other actions have pressured the Army into relocating its installation. The rightist-dominated Guatemalan Congress has passed a measure condemning the Army killings and sending compensation to Atitlan, an area where leftist rebels have some support.

``Before the people always wanted to speak out, but there was no unity,'' says Abigal Valasquez, an Atitlan town council member. ``Now we know if we go out to protest abuses the people will back us, that's why the fear has vanished.''

Col. Gustavo M'endez, whose jurisdiction includes the military post at Atitlan, says the Army is not returning to its dark past. He worries that relocating the installation may set a precedent for other communities. ``Now everyone is going to want the Army to remove its bases everywhere,'' Colonel Mend'ez laments.

With high hopes, Atitlan residents overwhelmingly supported current Guatemalan President Marco Vinicio Cerezo Ar'evalo in 1985, as he rode to power on a crest of popular support, pledging to roll back the injustices of two decades of military rule. Walking on eggshells

But Mr. Cerezo has failed to defang the 43,000-member military or oversee prosecution of a single soldier for human rights violations, political analysts say. Government monitors say 276 Guatemalans were murdered in political incidents and 145 disappeared in the first nine months of this year. Many such disappearances are attributed by human rights groups to the military.

``It's been very difficult to limit the Army's influence in these years,'' says Edmond Mulet, a Guatemalan congressional deputy. ``Whenever the minister of defense or Army Chief of Staff gently mention something, the civilians [in government] say ... let's not confront them.''

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Few analysts predict the contenders in the Jan. 6 presidential runoff election, newspaper publisher Jorge Carpio Nicolle or Jorge Serrano Elias, a prot'eg'e of Gen. Jos'e Efrain Rios Montt, a dictator of the early 1980s, will make more concerted efforts to challenge military abuses.

Meanwhile, Atitlan and other indigenous communities have remained largely disenfranchised from the national elections. Indians hold no senior government posts and few legislative seats.

Native leaders throughout the countryside say the Army has prohibited Indians from organizing independently, since the indigenous swelled the ranks of guerrilla groups in the 1980s. Scorched earth

In response, the Army unleashed a scorched-earth policy, among the most brutal in Central America. Human rights monitors estimate 100,000 Guatemalans died, 40,000 disappeared, and some 400 villages were razed.

The repression worked, and the rebels today have little military clout. Yet the Army's grip on the Indian communities has not loosened. ``Killings, disappearances, illegal detentions are justified by the people who commit them by referring to the persistence of the war,'' says a United States Embassy official. ``But the guerrillas no longer pose a viable threat to the government.''

Although US Embassy officials have been increasingly vocal about human rights abuses in Guatemala, Washington has supplied nearly $1 billion in US economic and military aid to the Cerezo administration since l986.

Political analysts say international trends ensure that the military's star is declining and that its future role will hinge largely on the outcome of negotiations to end the 30-year old civil war. Rebel negotiators are focusing on military reforms, including a smaller Army, and an end to the draft and civilian defense patrols.

But despite the negative image created by slayings like the one in Atitlan, few diplomats predict the Guatemalan military will cease being the premier power soon.

A US official says, ``No matter what happens, the Army is still the most important institution and will have to be the conduit for Guatemala's development.''

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