Guatemala repression breeds new rebels
At first glance, all is harmony. One is struck most by the grace of the Indian women and children as they glide through the marketplace of this highland town, balancing all sorts of objects on their heads.Skip to next paragraph
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The beauty of the women's woven blouses is dazzling. These seem to be people at peace with themselves.
But Chimaltenango, one of Guatemala's 22 administrative departments, is this country's main battleground. It is where the leftist-led guerrillas, the rightist-led Army -- and the secret police -- are most active.
It is also where many members of a largely Indian population are being pressed to the breaking point. Their grace, dignity, and seeming impassivity are the masks with which they greet the world. But behind placid exteriors lie feelings of confusion and turmoil -- and in some cases, terror.
Even a cursory reading of the cautious Guatemala newspapers indicates that something has gone terribly wrong in this department of some 200,000 people. Day after day recently, bodies of tortured Indians have been found -- three here , one there, then 13 on one weekend alone. According to the press, the killers are always "unknown." They always escape.
Sometimes those who perish are ordinary farmers. But the main targets of the death squads seem to be town mayors, teachers, health workers, and labor and cooperative leaders. It is almost as though any Indian who is educated or has anything to do with organizing people risks losing his or her life. While often of modest means, some of these people have begun to demand more economic and social justice.
Independent observers who have visited Chimaltenango are convinced that it is members of the Guatemalan Army and security forces who have been responsible for most of the dozens of assassinations that have occurred in this part of the country over the past few months. To many of the Indians, the main culprits are the government's secret police --plainclothesmen widely known as the Policia Judicial,m or judicialesm -- and the Army, in that order.
What is happening here seems to go a long way toward explaining why some of guatemala's traditionally conservative Indians have been joining the Marxist-led guerrilla movement. One of the four main guerrilla groups, the Organizacion del Pueblo en Armas (ORPA), seems to have taken the lead in recruiting among the Indians who make up as much as half of the population of Guatemala. The rest of the populaton consists largely of Spanish-speaking people of mixed European and Indian descent, and it is they, for the most part, who run the government and Army. The Indians, descendants of the ancient Mayans, have long been divided by more than 20 languages.
This is not just another confusing struggle in a banana republic that is of little importance to the outside world. For one thing, Guatemala is no banana republic. Located next to oil-rich Mexico, it is the most wealthy and populous of the Central American nations. It is expected to become a medium-size oil producer in its own right. As US Secretary of State Alexander Haig sees it, Guatemala is a key country on a Soviet "hit list."
The Reagan administration is expected to consider giving military aid to the military-dominated Guatemalan government. But a sizable number of US congressmen are prepared to fight such a move on the grounds that the Guatemalan government is among the most repressive in this hemisphere.
"The people think it's either the government or the rich who are responsible for the killings," said a person who has had frequent contact with the Cakchiquel Indians of Chimaltenango. "They are starting to say, 'it's only the poor -- not the rich -- who are getting killed.'"
"The judicialesm come in one day and throw a man in the trunk of a car," said this observer. "The next day, the man turns up dead."
The government security forces, according to another resident of the area, "don't do any investigating. They torture. . . . Innocent people get killed."
Far from imposing law and order, the killers have created uncertainty, contributed to economic hardship, and riven some people to seek refuge in an already crowded Guatemala City. They have also apparently played into the hands of guerrillas seeking recruits from among those who remain.
When a guerrilla "bomb" exploded on a street corner in one town recently and sent propaganda leaflets flying, members of the municipal council rushed in panic to tear the leaflets into tiny pieces. They feared that otherwise they might be accused of fostering "subversive activities." such an accusation could cost a man his life.