Guatemala embassy incident may signal start of armed civil strife

A return to the civil savagery that tore this country apart during the mid- 1960s is seen here as a likely result of the escalating violence of recent weeks.

Seizure of the Spanish Embassy Jan. 31 by angry Indian peasants led by leftist agitators, and the bomb blasts and fire that followed at the embassy, were the most notorious incidents in the current wave of violence.

But the trouble did not end at the embassy. In five days since the incident, clashes between government forces and terrorists have left nearly 25 persons killed.

"We are at the abyss, looking down," comments newspaper editor Alvaro Contreras Veliz of the Prensa Libre.

His words are echoed by a longtime foreign observer who said, "This time neither the terrorists nor the government is going to yield. Both mean business. And that means a civil conflict like that of the 1960s."

Although many details of the embassy incident remain elusive, it is clear that neither the government units that stormed the embassy after its takeover, nor the occupying peasants and students, used restraint. At least 37 persons were killed at the embassy in an explosion and fire there.

Evidence collected to date suggests that the Guatemalan government of Gen. Romero Lucas Garcia failed to heed pleas of Spanish Ambassador Maximo Cajal y Lopez to allow a period of negotiation after the takeover.

And there is strong circumstantial evidence that General Lucas's operatives seized an Indian survivor of the incident from his hospital bed, then left him dead at the University of San Carlos.

"This was meant to be a warning to the terrorists that the government means to wage total war against them and will hold no mercy on those who try to terrorize the country," said a local political figure close to General Lucas.

Ambassador Cajab was another survivor, and he fled the same hospital immediately after the kidnapping of the young Indian.

The Spanish government, shocked by the events in Guatemala City, broke relations with Guatemala and accused the Lucas government of basic human-rights violations.

This hardening of the situation suggests to many observers that Guatemala is on the verge of a major escalation of violence, with little hope that either side is interested in compromise or in finding a solution to the struggle.

Army and police forces are strong numerically and have shown themselves capable of strong attacks on leftists, holding no mercy in reprisals.

The element of surprise is on the terrorists' side -- as was evident in the embassy takeover.

Four readily recognizable terrorist groups claim that the government has steadily abused human rights and that nothing short of an outright overthrow of the government will solve the situation. The leftist terrorists number probably no more than 500 active fighters, plus another several thousand sympathizers who would serve in noncombatant roles.

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