Bad old days return to Guatemalan village. Killings and disappearances rise after brief respite
Santiago Atitl'an, Guatemala
Santiago Atitl'an is an Indian village popular among tourists for its handicrafts and picturesque location. Ferry boats shuttle tourists across the lake to Santiago twice a day. But most do not see the violence, the fear, and the undeclared but widely practiced curfew that begins at nightfall.
The curfews are necessary because of a new wave of violence both here and in other parts of the country.
Though killings and disappearances diminished when the country's new civilian President, Marco Vinicio Cerezo Ar'evalo, took office two years ago, the last few months have seen a resurgence of both.
Here in the small town of Santiago, 11 people have either disappeared or been shot to death since the last few days of 1987.
The situation in Santiago is one example - of many - that shows the extent of military control in the countryside despite two years of civilian rule. Army control is most obvious in the provinces where Guatemala's three rebel armies, about 2,000 guerrillas, operate: mainly in the western highlands and in the north.
Because Santiago is located near a guerrilla stronghold, it has been a target of the military's recent counterinsurgency campaign.
Violence in Guatemala's western highlands reached its peak in the early 1980s, during the regime of Gen. Romeo Lucas Garc'ia. The general was the country's sixth military president in 30 years and considered the nation's most brutal head of state.
Civilian President Cerezo was expected to bring an end to Army oppression.
In fact, Santiago Mayor Antonio Ixbalan says, the killings and disappearances did stop during President Cerezo's first year in office. The town's central square, according to residents, once again became a social gathering center for the townspeople in the evenings, and the children played in the streets at night.
``There was tranquility. We had faith,'' Mr. Ixbalan said. ``But it [the violence] has started again.''
Since the wave of killings and abductions began, the people have been afraid to leave their homes after dark. According to the mayor, things are in a ``dangerous state.''
This has led many of those with the economic means to leave the area, says a health worker. The flight of teachers has already forced two schools to close.
When asked who is behind the acts of violence, most Guatemalans shrug their shoulders and say they don't know. But as one villager said, ``the people don't want to say because they are afraid they are going to be killed next.''
The underlying root of the problem here seems to be a test of will between the townspeople and the military. The people in Santiago have traditionally resisted the Army's presence and its strategies to combat the guerrillas, particularly the formation of civil defense patrols.
Immediately after Mr. Cerezo took office in 1986, Santiago residents dismantled the civil patrols. But last November, the military ``suggested'' at a town meeting that patrols be started again.
The people refused.
But when the killings and disappearances started again, some 500 people from Santiago signed up for patrol duty.
A religious source in Solol'a Province said two governments run part of the province: the civilian and the military. But the ultimate authority is the Army commander of Solol'a and not the departmental governor, the source said.
The counterinsurgency campaign of the late 1970s and early 1980s was so brutal that now just the sight of a camouflage uniform instills fear.
Cerezo's government has worked hard to shatter the image left by almost 30 continuous years of military rule and to create a new one of democracy and freedom.
Indeed, civilian rule has brought some positive changes. Roads are being built, schools are going up, and drinking water is reaching new towns. Foreigners who live in rural villages say there has been a marked increase in development activity since Cerezo took office.
And in some places, the military seems to have changed some attitudes and actions toward the townspeople. A resident of Solol'a said, for example, that troops based there no longer prowl the streets and abuse women after drinking binges. ``Now parents don't worry about keeping their daughters off the streets when the soldiers pass through,'' he said.