While Guatemalans Talk Peace, Political Violence Is on the Rise
Human rights activists warn that trend is return to country's 'era of terror'
EVEN as government officials applaud this country's first-ever peace talks as the beginning of the end of Guatemala's 30-year civil war, students, labor leaders, and peasant activists are being abducted and murdered in a resurgence of political violence."Sometimes I sincerely believe that we are, little by little, returning to the era of terror we saw in the early 1980s," says Ramiro de Leon Carpio, Guatemala's human rights ombudsman, denouncing the rise in "selective violence." In the last six months, 587 people have been assassinated and 118 have disappeared, according to figures released last week by the Mutual Support Group, Guatemala's oldest human rights group. That group's leader, Nineth de Garcia, has been in hiding since June 13 because of death threats. Mr. Ramiro de Leon said last week that, although his office has not released new statistics, he expects his tally of this year's rights abuses to corroborate the Mutual Support Group finding. Some political observers blame the increase in violence on leftist guerrillas wanting to increase bargaining power at the peace talks. "For negotiating leverage, the guerrillas seem to be accelerating their violence," says Mario Permuth, a member of the National Reconciliation Commission, the group mediating peace talks. "They are trying to show us that they are still out there." Others, meanwhile, blame rightist fringe groups, civilian defense groups, and the Army, for the violence. These critics say the Army does not want the government to negotiate with people they have fought with for three decades. The military recently announced a major offensive against the insurgency. Between 1970 and 1986, Guatemala was wracked by an estimated 100,000 political killings and 40,000 disappearances. During the regime of Maj. Gen. Romeo Lucas Garcia from 1978 to 1982, hundreds of people, mostly those suspected of aiding the rebels, were killed monthly by officially sanctioned death squads. Now, after more than five years of civilian rule, beginning with the election of Marco Vinicio Cerezo Arevalo in 1985, no one welcomes a return to the grisly past. But since late April, when peace talks began in Mexico City between guerrilla and government leaders, labor and rights activists have been forced into hiding and peasants have been increasingly persecuted by paramilitary groups, rights activists say. Two members of the Council of Ethnic Communities, the country's largest indigenous human rights group, were killed June 24 by civilian patrol members under the Army's control in Quiche, a town north of Guatemala City. Civilian patrolmen also on June 7 kidnapped the group's leader and the human rights office representative in Quiche, but released them several hours later. "It is almost the same as when we had Lucas in power," says Andres Giron de Leon, head of the congressional human rights commission. "Threats seem to be my daily bread now, and only because I work for land reform and other legislation to help the poor." Congressman Giron sits on the board of directors of a pro-union political party called United Guatemala. Since the assassination April 29 of fellow board member Dinora Perez, 10 board members have fled the country or are in hiding, including Luis Zurita, the Social Democratic Party's vice presidential candidate in last year's election. Labor leaders say at least six leaders of the social security administration's union, which organized a strike earlier this year, have also gone into exile. The only government official openly to attribute the violence to fringe groups has been Vice President Gustavo Espina, who told reporters recently that security forces may be involved in the killings and that the culprits "are out of control." The remarks were rescinded by the presidential press secretary the next day. The key hope for the third round of peace talks, scheduled to begin later this month, is a cease-fire agreement. Getting a cease-fire pact signed is necessary to stop the violence, Mr. Permuth says. Beyond that, agreements on democratization and human rights will be next in line for discussion, he says. "We are at a turning point," says Rodolfo Quezada Toruno, a Roman Catholic bishop and official intermediary in the talks. "From both sides, we are seeing a serious, flexible, and eager attitude to reach some sort of agreement that will someday lead to the peace we all desire." President Jorge Serrano Elias, who took office in January, looks forward to a quick end to Central America's longest civil war. He has acknowledged the rise in violence, which he attributes to drug traffickers and criminals. In a June 30 speech to the country's armed forces, Mr. Serrano promised to use an "iron fist" to stop the increase in violence. But, despite hopes that a cease-fire will be reached at the next peace meeting, most liberal politicians and observers outside the government scoff at Serrano's push for peace. They say that until Serrano addresses social injustice, land reform, and inequities between an extremely rich and extremely poor population, there can be no peace. Amid the bloodshed, Guatemalans point to a key difference between the response to violence in the early 1980s and the response today: People openly protest. Thousands of workers, union members, students, and Indians marched June 21 to protest increased human rights violations. The killing of Oscar Oswaldo Luna, a student activist and union leader, on June 26 led to denouncements of the government and Army in local newspapers written by the Association of University Students and by the union for workers at the University of San Carlos, the country's main public university. "This act is part of a chain of assassinations and kidnappings against the university community and the people in general which reflects the true face of the government and the Army who want to silence the voice of protest and struggle of union and popular groups," said the statement, released last week.