Guatemala City — In Guatemala City, the leading candidate in next March's presidential election lives behind steel reinforced walls in a poor section of town. Bulletproof shutters cover his windows, and his aides peer through a small slit in his front door to screen visitors. Gun-toting bodyguards stay with him at all times; sentries are at the four corners of his block outside.
This heavily protected leader is Vinicio Cerezo Arevalo, the popular secretary-general of the Christian Democratic Party, the only remaining center-left party in Guatemala (aside from one segment of the Social Democratic Party) that has not yet gone underground.
Cerezo lives a besieged life because he is in perpetual danger of assassination from right-wing "death squads." Diplomats and informed observers have linked the hit men to the government of Gen. Romeo Lucas Garcia.
Three times in the past two years the squads have attempted to murder Cerezo. In the past 10 months, 76 of the party's officials have been killed by unknown triggermen.
Assassination by rightist gangs is so prevalent in Guatemala that Amnesty International and the Council for Hemispheric Affairs in Washington have called the country's human-rights situation the worst in the Western Hemisphere. Amnesty International accused the Lucas Garcia government this year of complicity in the murders of more than 3,000 Guatemalans since it took power in 1978.
The targets were mainly moderates -- students, intellectuals, professionals, peasants, and Indians. Some Guatemalans say they were victims of a government campaign to destroy the political center in the country and force the citizenry (and the United States) to choose between the far right and the far left. This policy, over the past 15 years, has claimed the lives of some 35,000 Guatemalans.
The violence lately has touched foreigners, who for years were off limits to gunmen. American reporters, for example, now face grave danger in the country.
Secret police recently roughed up the Central American correspondent for Time magazine, Bernard Diederich, at the Guatemala City airport during a stopover because, they claimed, he was talking with "subversives." Alan Riding of The New York Times is another journalist who has given up working trips to Guatemala because of death threats.
Last May the Lucas Garcia government banned a CBS reporter, George Natanson, from the country two weeks after CBS Evening News ran a critical report on human rights in Guatemala. American correspondents are fearful because, as one asserted:
"You don't fool around there. If there is a warning, you leave. These guys are thugs. It's as if the Mafia took over the American government and ran it as a gang."
During one recent four-day weekend, Guatemala City saw buses burned, Army trucks and police cars blown apart by land mines, a prominent businessman gunned down, an oil pipeline outside the city severed, a Chevron gasoline depot set afire, and a number of soldiers and rebels slain.
The increasing tempo of assaults was a sign of the growing strength of the rebel leftist movement, which at one time had seemed fragmented and ineffectual.
Today, as a consequence of an uneasy alliance forged between four different insurgent factions, the movement has grown powerful. The four branches, with views ranging from democratic socialist to Marxist-Leninist, are:
* The Revolutionary Organization of the People in Arms, primarily an Indian organization (Indians are 50 percent of Guatemala's population).
* The Guerrilla Army of the Poor.
* The militant wing of the Guatemala Labor Party, the local communist party.
* The Rebel Armed Forces.
Worsening economic conditions have fuled the insurgency. In 1978 the World Bank issued a study of the country and found that one-third of the rural population was undernourished. Guatemala's illiteracy rate trailed only Haiti's , and its death rate from all causes came in just behind Nicaragua's and Haiti's. Land maldistribution put 80 percent of the soil in the hands of 10 percent of the people.
This year, tourism has fallen 30 to 50 percent below last year due to a worldwide tourist boycott organized by American unions, the United Auto Workers among them. Economic conditions in Guatemala are more harsh in 1981 than they were in 1954, when the US helped to stage a coup that toppled the constitutional government of Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, who had overseen the only period of reform in Guatemala's modern history.
Ever since the 1954 coup, Guatemala has remained in the hands of military officers. They have thwarted democratic change, though they still permit a presidential election every four years, which enables them to claim "democratic" credentials.
But only occasionally has the military actually accepted the election results. In the last two contests, in 1974 and 1978, there are strong suspicions that the military fixed the outcome to defeat liberal opponents and assure its own nominees victory.
I visited Cerezo at his one-story "fortress" off a dirt street in downtown Guatemala City, where he lives with his wife and four children. A tough-looking sentry, after a careful check through the peephole, permitted me to enter. We walked past four other burly men holding submachine guns and rifles and standing in an inner courtyard. The sentry took me down a short pathway to a small study. There Cerezo stood, a youthful, short, solidly built man in a open-necked short-sleeved shirt. His manner was informal but intense. During our conversation his children occasionally stuck their heads in his office. I asked him first about the election.
"We require two conditions from the government to contest the election," Cerezo replied. "First, an end to repression by underground right-wing groups; and second, legal reforms in the electoral system to guarantee that the people's vote will be respected."
If he does not receive these assurances, he went on, he will not enter the election and will be forced to lead his party into "nonviolent protest" or some other "peaceable resistance."
"If we lose this opportunity, Guatemala is going to have a civil war like that in Nicaragua and El Salvador." He was highly discouraged about the right-wingers in the Guatemalan government.
"They are the hardest people in Central America. Their strategy is to present the Reagan administration with just two choices -- leadership by the extreme right or extreme left. Currently they want to charge us with working with the Communist guerrillas by pushing us out of the country. We are avoiding that by staying here."
Cerezo was ambivalent toward the guerrillas. "We accept and respect the fight of the guerrillas," he explained, "but the changes they want are not the ones we want. We want a pluralistic society. They want a totally socialistic society."
Still, he said, "the strength of the guerrillas is growing. If the 1982 elections prove fraudulent, then the guerrillas by late 1982 will be strong enough to dictate terms." The only means now his party has to force a role in the elections, he continued, is "to put together the right combination of international pressure and strategic decisions within the country." Then "we are confident we can take power by the vote and we will have a mandate to dismantle the security police and end repression."
I told him that few people I spoke with in Guatemala gave him much of a chance. Most said the government would kill him first. ("He's a dead duck," one Guatemalan told me. "It's just a matter of time before he's murdered.") Cerezo conceded to me that he's afraid of that possibility, "but more for my family and others than for myself. You have to try. I think the country needs a better future, a better time.You have to put your life in danger if you want to make changes, to be a leader." At the end of our conversation, one of Cerezo's bodyguards armed with a Bowie knife drove me back to my hotel.
Most foreigners in Guatemala City confirmed to me the seriousness of Cerezo's assessments.
Said one: "The sense of insecurity in this country has increased for everybody, rich or poor, Indian or Ladino." Another observed: "Everyone knows the guerrillas are getting better armed and smarter, while the government is growing more repressive and dumber."
In June the Reagan administration decided to push for resumption military aid to Guatemala, rejected in 1977 by the Guatemalan government because it did not want to comply with US Congressional human-rights standards. A mission headed by former CIA deputy director Vernon Walters left for Guatemala to "work out arrangements" for renewing military assistance.
In early June, the State Department approved the shipment of jeeps and trucks , as well as spare parts for the nation's fleet of Huey helicopters, to Guatemala. These come under the heading of "nonlethal" equipment, which is not subject to Congressional human rights review.
The US House subcommittee inter-American Affairs held a hearing in early August on the question of resumption of military aid to the Lucas Garcia government.
For Cerezo and other opposition leaders, these developments diminished the possibility of a presidential race in 1982, since the US would give no firm indication that it planned to tie the resumption of military aid to a guarantee of a free ballot next March or to an end of repression.