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Military's Reign of Terror in Guatemala

AS he watches the repressive apparatus of East-bloc countries disintegrate, President Bush will soon receive a visit from a leader of a country whose structures of state terror are still in place. President Jorge Serrano Elias of Guatemala will tell Bush of his efforts to punish human rights abuses and end his country's civil war. But neither peace nor the rule of law is yet reality in Guatemala. If President Bush wants to encourage change in Guatemala, he must send a strong signal to the military leaders who still call the shots. Political violence in Guatemala has again reached levels that remind many observers of the early 1980s, when labor and political leaders were regularly shot dead on the streets of the capital in broad daylight. The US State Department's February 1991 report on Guatemala states, "Reliable evidence indicates that security forces and civil patrols [in 1990] committed, with almost total impunity, a majority of the major human rights abuses.... The security forces are virtually never held accountable for huma n rights violations." After an international campaign to investigate the murder of a renowned Guatemalan anthropologist, the chief of the homicide section of the police identified a military suspect. Last August, after the homicide chief had reported death threats and applied for asylum, he was gunned down only 150 yards from the police headquarters. In most cases, killers are never identified. Reporting on abuses is risky business for the members of Guatemala's besieged human rights groups. According to Americas Watch, seven human rights monitors have been killed over the past year - more than in any other country in the hemisphere. PERHAPS the hardest-hit of these groups is the Council of Ethnic Communities "We Are All Equal" (CERJ). Based in the highlands, the CERJ represents impoverished villagers who refuse to perform unpaid service for the Army in "voluntary" civil defense patrols. Since its formation in 1988, the CERJ has seen 12 of its members killed and six "disappeared." Two patrolers were detained for killing three CERJ members. However, the judge in the case fled the country under a death threat, and the threats to CERJ P resident Amilcar Mendez Urizar are more serious than ever. The judge and Mendez are now in California. After hearing countless promises from Serrano's predecessor, Vinicio Cerezo, US policymakers rightly have been unwilling to give the new president the benefit of the doubt. In December the Bush administration suspended delivery of military aid (which has been "nonlethal"). US Ambassador Thomas Stroock has been forthcoming in his criticism, and in February the US voted for stronger human rights surveillance of Guatemala by the United Nations. Both the US House and Senate have strengthened human rights con ditions on aid to Guatemala in their foreign aid-authorization bills for fiscal year 1992. Serrano has rejected United States human rights conditions, playing to a strong nationalist streak in Guatemala's military and right wing. In February, when the US offered $100,000 for aviation security along with a list of needed human rights improvements, Serrano refused the money. In July he told the press, "We do not need guidance.... It makes me really mad ... when someone from abroad comes here to pass judgment." Yet the arrests of some military members for human rights abuses have certainly been a result of US pressure. US military aid is not significant in material terms, but the symbolism of suspending it is important. Placing human rights conditions on balance-of-payments aid to the government begins to send a more tangible message that economic growth cannot come until security for all citizens is guaranteed. This message would be strengthened by a US vote against all loans to Guatemala from the multilateral lending institutions, except those that go directly to the poor, until tangible human rights improvements occur. If Serrano's agenda really is change, he should welcome US pressure as a tool to help him convince his armed forces to respect civilian authority.

Bonnie Tenneriello is a senior associate with the Washington Office on Latin America.

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