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Refugees Outside Looking In

Thousands of Guatemalans want to go home, but worry its still not safe

IN early October, in the worst military violence against civilians here in five years, an Army patrol fired on a community of former refugees preparing to celebrate their first anniversary back in Guatemala after 15 years in exile. Eleven people died, including two children, and more than 30 were injured.

The government of President Ramiro de Leon Carpio quickly painted the massacre as an isolated incident. But the violence sent a shudder through the more-than-a-dozen resettlement villages, as well as the tens of thousands of refugees still waiting in Mexican camps to come back.

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Dealing with the return of refugees will be among the most vexing issues confronting the incoming president, Alvaro Arzu, who won election in a close vote Jan. 7. It is just one of the problems left unresolved - or in some cases created by - a guerrilla war that stretches back more than three decades.

The return of refugees is already taking much longer than international aid agencies had hoped. More than three years after the government signed a repatriation agreement, the United Nations says 32,000 refugees are still in camps in the neighboring Mexican states of Chiapas, Quintana Roo, and Campeche.

Last fall's massacre in the tiny village of Xaman in northern Guatemala has chilled the process. "We even had requests from returnees who want to go back to Mexico," according to Carlos Boggio, the director of the office of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Guatemala City.

But in a country where 2 percent of private landowners hold 65 percent of all farmland, the biggest problem is finding a place for the refugees to return to. Most of the land they left has been reoccupied. Despite the government's agreement to provide land-purchase credits to returnees, big plantation owners suspicious of the peace process have been unwilling to sell.

"The problem is that Guatemala is a small country, and there is simply not enough fertile land for a large population," says Juan Rodolfo Perez, a spokesman for the government's repatriation program, known by the Spanish-language acronym CEAR. "What little land that is cultivatable is in other people's hands."

But critics say what the government is less willing to admit is that many of the problems have been self-imposed - a result of a brutally successful anti-insurgency strategy.

In the early 1980s, the military implemented a scorched-earth strategy that razed hundreds of small villages in the country's isolated northern highlands, forcing thousands of mainly indigenous Indians over the border into Mexico. "One of the strategies of the '80s," says Juan Quinonez, a Guatemalan human rights lawyer, "was for the Army to pick out people they believed would be sympathetic to the military and move them from other regions of the country to the land left by the refugees."

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"The people there now have land because of the Army and, as a result, they are very sympathetic to the Army," says Mr. Quinonez, who is an adviser to a "technical commission" working out the details of an accord on the displaced people signed between the government and guerrillas last year.

Many within the military worry that the resettlement may simply recreate the security problems of the early 1980s. That worry may explain the violence in Xaman, say some critics, as well as what human rights groups and refugee advocates say has been a pattern of harassment by the military against former refugees.

A UN report last year, while condemning the Xaman massacre, found little evidence of a widespread conspiracy within the military. But coordinated or not, the effect of the violence, combined with a recently announced policy by the Mexican government that it will allow integration of Guatemalan refugees into that country, is likely to be dramatic. Of the 700 people who were scheduled to return in the final resettlement project of 1995 - the first coordinated return after the Xaman massacre - less than 150 actually came back.

The framework for the repatriation was negotiated in the wake of a peace accord signed in 1987 by Central America's presidents and which laid the groundwork for disarmament and free elections in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. Negotiated between the Guatemalan government and the Permanent Commissions, the 1992 return agreement initially received wide international praise. In it, the government promised to provide credit for returnees to buy new land if they couldn't reclaim their own.

But so far there's been little political will to press for a transfer of land from large landowners to returnees. "Guatemala depends on export agriculture," says CEAR's Rodolfo Perez. "If land is taken away from plantation owners, the economy would fall. The country would have nothing to export."

International refugee organizations say another problem with the 1992 accord is quickly becoming evident: The cost of repatriation is draining Guatemalan government funds. The cost to resettle just 2,300 families over three years has topped $15.7 million, according to the UN.

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