Chimaltenango, Guatemala — 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.
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.
Some Americans believe that the guerrillas have been deliberately trying to provoke an "overreaction" from the Army and security forces. That is conceivable, but difficult to prove. A case can certainly be made, however, that because they have been unable to inflict much damage on the guerrillas, frustrated government troops have been lashing out at innocent people. If a guerrilla aim was to trigger an overreaction, it has worked.
In Chimaltenango, guerrilla activity has risen over the past year. Guerrillas attacked the police station in the town of San Martin Jilotepeque. Recently guerrillas ambushed an Army convoy on the Pan American Highway just outside the town of Zaragoza. At least one government soldier was killed and two wounded. Some people said that, following a serious ambush between Zaragoza and Comalapa, government troops killed several Indians working the road. The troops apparently felt the Indian road crew should have alerted them that the ambush was coming.
It appears that the Guatemalan guerrillas have been attempting, in part, to tie down the Army in order to prevent it from intervening in neighboring El Salvador. Guerrilla groups have boasted that they are doing as much.
This effort may have been only partly successful, however. On at least one occasion, the Guatemalan Air Force is reported by military sources to have bombed inside El Salvador in support of the Salvadoran Army.
At any rate, the Guatemalan Army seems to have its hands full inside Guatemala. In addition to increasing their attacks on the Army and police in recent months in Chimaltenango, guerrillas have also assassinated a number of plantation owners and government informers elsewhere in the country.
But neither the government nor the guerrillas seem capable at this point of decisive military action. The leftists do not appear to control any significant populated area. Even as guerrilla military activity increased in the department of Chimaltenango, it declined in some other areas where they have traditionally been more active. This has led some observers to conclude that the number of mobile, well-trained forces under the command of the left is limited. They seem to be years away from the stage reached in El Salvador last January when the left launched coordinated attacks on a number of towns.
At the same time, however, the Guatemalan Army seems to be incapable of penetrating the forests, mountains, and ravines where the guerrillas hide. A few examples:
* Near San Pedro La Laguna, on Lake Atitlan, everyone seemed to know at one point where the "bad people" were up in the mountains. The Army never went there.
* On Jan. 7 of this year, guerrillas attacked an Army convoy near Santiago Atitlan. According to a Roman Catholic priest, the Army retaliated by picking up 17 townspeople "who were not involved in anything." Their bodies were later found showing signs of torture.
* A tea plantation manager who reported guerrilla activity to the Army last year told an acquaintance he was shocked to discover the Army had no intention of going after the guerrillas.
"We can't go into the woods," an Army captain was quoted as saying. "There might be an ambush."
The troops decided instead to beat up some of the plantation workers. The workers were accused of collaborating with the guerrillas.
Press reports that have suggested that Indians are now swelling the ranks of the guerrilla forces may be exaggerated. Foreigners working with the indians in a number of places say that in many cases the Indians simply want to stay out of trouble.
"They're for whoever happens to be in town," is the way one person put it.
"Their strongest feeling is fear," said an anthropologist with considerable experience in Guatemala. "They're afraid of the left and they're afraid of the Army. . . . all they want is to farm their milpam [cornfield]. sometimes the Indians blame themselves for what's happening. Sometimes they say 'God must be punishing us.'"
But in some cases, they cast aside such fatalism. More out of a sense of desperation than anything else, they join the guerrillas.
In the department of Solola, north of Lake Atitlan, the guerrillas are reported to have made significant gains among the Indians.
In the department of Chimaltenango, the signs are not good for the government. In one town, women began attributing illnesses among their children to the entry of the Army into the area -- an irrational notion perhaps, but also a reflection of fear and hostility.
Some of the people talk of hearing animals roar at night. The last time this was supposed to have happened was just before the great earthquake of 1976. The quake left many towns in this part of the country in ruins.
But perhaps most ominous of all for the government, some of the supposedly passive Indians are showing signs of sympathy for the guerrillas. In one town, some said that they had heard that "there are people in the countryside fighting for the poor."
Could another earthquake be coming?