Guatemalan tells how to survive in politics

Politicians are often jovial, outgoing people, and Vinicio Cerezo Arevalo is no exception. But the youthful, mustachioed, curly haired Guatemalan is markedly different in one regard: He has to hold some of his press conferences in secret. He can't go to the movies or a restaurant like ordinary people. He wears a bulletproof vest.

Three attempts have been made on Cerezo's life since 1974. He blames the first on a right-wing death squad. He thinks the last two were carried out by Guatemalan government police.

The first attempt involved an ambush that seemed to have been badly planned. On the second occasion, he escaped his pursuers by dodging into the house of a friend and then exiting through the basement. But in the last attempt, two months ago, the attackers were well prepared. They hit with everything from automatic weapons to hand grenades.

Cerezo is secretary-general of Guatemala's Christian Democratic Party (PDC), a small party whose members have traditionally run for elections and held positions on municipal councils. Many Americans would consider the party to be centrist, or somewhere to the right of center. Cerezo calls the PDC the country's "last chance."

Many other noncommunist political and labor leaders in Guatemala have been killed or driven into exile. International human rights groups have blamed the Guatemalan government and its security forces.

Cerezo says the government is driving more and more Guatemalans to the extreme left and may eventually destroy Central America's most populous and wealthy nation.

Under attack by the extreme right, Cerezo is regarded with suspicion by much of the left. Some leftists think he may make a deal with the Lucas government.

"It's absolutely impossible to make any kind of a deal with the government of Lucas," says Cerezo. "Even if a deal could be made, they might still kill you.

"We have to look for peaceful, democratic ways to change the government," he continues.

Getting rid of Cerezo and his party has not been a easy it might seem. Last year, the party began self-defense training. In order to keep the death squads guessing, party leaders constantly change residences and work schedules.

Cerezo's wife, Raquel Blandon, had to resign from a university position last year after a right-wing group put her name on a death list. Bodyguards accompany Cerezo wherever he goes. They take his children to school.

"You can never go to a dance or a nightclub or see the movies," he said.

Cerezo thinks the last attempt on his life was carried out by an elite police unit called "Comando Seis." On Feb. 14 more than a dozen men opened fire on him as he left the PDC headquarters in Guatemala City.

The bodyguards and politicians accompanying Cerezo returned the fire. Cerezo managed to run, leap, and crawl until he reached his own bulletproof van.

"They never expected us to react the way we did," he said. "Most of the other opposition leaders in Guatemala were killed without defense."

Cerezo is proud of his beige-colored van. He drove it to Texas last year to have the bulletproof windows and steel plates installed. Out of the 39 bullets and pieces of shrapnel that struck the van in this last incident, only two bullets -- apparently from high-powered rifles -- penetrated the vehicle's interior.

Two of the PDC men who were with Cerezo and who helped return the fire were arrested for allegedly initiating an attack against policemen. The y are still in prison.

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