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Guatemalan Towns Call For Removal of Army

Residents seek relief from crossfire between Army and rebel fighters

TAKING advantage of freedoms afforded under civilian rule, Guatemalan towns are expelling abusive security forces and taking law enforcement into their own hands, with mixed results.

The town of Joyabaj, in the central state of Quiche, asked in early February that a nearby military outpost be shut down because it was causing both "physical and moral danger" to the residents. Hundreds packed the central square Feb. 6 to protest the Army presence, a demonstration fueled by the kidnap and assassination a month earlier of a farmer, Rogelio Grave Ralios, allegedly by the military.

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The Indians here in the pueblo of San Lucas Toliman, located on the southern tip of picturesque Lake Atitlan, have lived without phones, movie theaters, and smooth roads for decades. Fifteen of their friends and family members have disappeared in the last few years, and they had to hide in their homes when a two-hour gunfight broke out between Army and rebel patrols in the center of town three years ago.

But when villagers discovered the body of a well-liked police department volunteer on a road four blocks from city hall last summer and the Army admitted he was killed "by mistake," many of the town's 14,000 people held an uncharacteristic demonstration in the central square. The protest forced the government to shut down the town's semipermanent military garrison and send 30 soldiers and eight police officers packing.

"If the Army's here, the people are concerned that the guerrillas are going to come back," says Mayor Mario Maldonado de Leon. "In places like [the highly conflictive state of] Quiche, where guerrillas are very active, an Army presence might be necessary, but not in a town such as this."

The military has dominated Guatemala's political system for most of this century, increasing its role in society in the early 1980s by becoming entrenched in government administration and by taking partial control of the social security system, certain police functions, and the administration of local governments.

The first Guatemalan town to break old patterns of behavior was Santiago Atitlan, which has successfully policed itself since December 1990, when the town demanded the military be removed following the Army massacre of 13 Indians. Following suit, other towns have asked that the military be evacuated.

Evacuating the military "is something new and important," says longtime Congressman Jorge Skinner Klee. "Everyone knows that if you have a garrison in any town in any place in the world, you'll have problems. But there's too much history here to remove the military altogether and they're not about to go away," he says.

Defense Minister Jose Garcia Samayoa says "the villages that request the closing of bases are basically being manipulated by the guerrillas ... because for the guerrillas, [the bases] are a problem. I don't believe the people are the ones asking for this.... When the URNG [Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity rebel front] is totally dissolved and not ambushing these towns or attacking them, then we will see whether it is possible to remove these military bases."

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But for now, the military has announced plans to beef up security in the countryside, where a 31-year-old civil war drags on despite nearly a year of peace talks to negotiate a cease-fire.

"A country without an army is in danger of becoming a colony or a focus for social agitation," says Guatemalan Army spokesman Capt. Julio Yon Rivera.

The defense minister adds that there has been an increase in the number of requests for Army-trained civilian patrols, but the Army has hesitated to respond so as not to jeopardize the peace talks.

In Joyabaj and elsewhere, however, residents also are demanding the dissolution of the civil patrols, created during the government of retired Gen. Efrain Rios Montt in the early 1980s to act as the Army's eyes and ears in the countryside.

"Since the civil defense patrols were created, their members have violated the dignity and rights of the majority of the population, and furthermore, they have threatened many with death and have accused others of being guerrillas," said a statement presented to the government's assistant human rights ombudsman, Cesar Alvarez Guadamuz, by San Lucas Toliman resident Miguel Sacunqui.

On March 2, a Guatemalan court sentenced to death Esteban Ajsivinac Patal, who says he was a civilian patrol member at one time, for the 1991 murder of farmworker Lucas Pu Us. The case, the first in which a self-proclaimed civilian patrol member has been convicted and sentenced for a human rights violation, is currently under appeal. If the appeal is denied and he is put to death, it would be the first legal execution in Guatemala since 1985, when a civilian government was elected.

The Army itself continues to be accused of a variety of abuses, including the recent killings of four Indian refugees from Quiche. The four, including a nine-year-old boy, were killed in Ciudad Peronia on Guatemala City's outskirts when a truck with several drunken armed men, some uniformed, allegedly pulled up to their shack after 1 a.m., battered down the tin door, demanded liquor, and then opened fire. In that case, two soldiers were sentenced to 30 years in prison, but in higher profile and more publ icized cases like the murders of two United States citizens, innkeeper Michael DeVine and anthropologist Myrna Mack, the government has been unable to convict and jail the military perpetrators.

"The security forces are virtually never held accountable for human rights violations," says the US State Department's 1991 report on Guatemala.

While the 91 men of Santiago Atitlan charged with patrolling their town armed only with sticks have gained the upper hand in that village, a rash of robberies and assaults in San Lucas Toliman resulted in a return of eight police officers, but no military men, two months ago.

"I doubt these people can patrol themselves because there will always be some poor girl raped or some poor guy beaten up," Mr. Klee says. "Some small towns will get away with it, but there will always be a role for the military. We've had an Army since independence and always will."

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