Guatemala City — It was midafternoon. Inside the Cine Real, a scant mile from Guatemala's National Palace, seven employees were finishing their daily preparations for the movie house's late-afternoon show.
Outside on the sidewalk half a dozen youngsters were lounging against a billboard, waiting for the ticket booth to open.
At the nearby street corner, two policemen were enjoying a quiet afternoon conversation under the cloudless blue sky. Across the street, Miguel Santana was hawking cheap chocolates and chewing gum.
At 3:15, the peace was shattered. A dozen armed men burst into the theater through an emergency exit.
Ordering employees to lie face down on the floor, the intruders dowsed gasoline on the seats and set fire to the film projection booth and the screen.
The attack took ''less than two or three minutes,'' said Cine Real employee Hector Salas. The building was quickly engulfed in flames.
Guatemala's leftist guerrillas had struck again. Bent on bringing down Guatemala's military-dominated government, the guerrillas purposely have been causing a great deal of urban damage recently. Many businesses have been hit. Almost all the windows in a 15-story bank building were blown out one night in an explosion.
Few people have lost their lives in these strikes. But the tactic of striking in the urban centers, causing physical damage, is one that dramatically calls attention to the guerrillas and to their ability to carry out daring activities here in the capital.
The tactics are causing ''increasing worry,'' admits a Guatemala City police official. ''We're running here and there to catch up with the seditious characters, but usually we're too late.''
Although police and fire officials are having an increasingly difficult time of it, there is no evidence that the guerrilla tactics are gaining public support for the rebels. Indeed, the opposite may be the case.
Guerrilla communiques repeatedly talk of the repressive tactics employed by the military-dominated government here. They call on the public to join the struggle against the government.
Chocolate vendor Santana says, ''This won't happen. The people are tired of the nonsense of the guerrillas.''
''We may not always like the way the police and soldiers act,'' he notes. ''But we like the guerrillas even less, and part of the problem for the government is that it is striking out at a faceless organization. Who are these kids who bomb buildings?''
That's the question the government asks. For the most part, the EGP is an organization whose leadership is not known. It wasn't that way in the 1960s when rural guerrillas under Marco Antonio Yon Sosa and Luis Turcios Lima kept this nation on edge.
Tough-fisted military action then defeated those guerrilla groups, but at least 5,000 innocent Guatemalans lost their lives along with 5,000 guerrillas and their supporters.
This time, however, the guerrilla tactics are much more sophisticated. While Guatemala City officials were busily battling the Cine Real fire, for example, guerrillas took control of three radio stations in other sections of the city.
The suspicion here is that guerrilla leaders have been trained in Cuba and that the EGP is getting some arms from Cuba.
About 350 Guatemalans have been killed in the war so far. This includes individuals targeted for death by leftist guerrillas, government forces, and rightist ''death squads,'' as well as innocent civilians caught in their cross fire.
In the countryside, guerrillas openly attack police units, occupy towns for a time, and frequently release common criminals from jail. The guerrillas appear to mark people in uniform for death. And many police, soldiers, and others have been killed -- as many as 23 since the first of the year.
To counter this, the government of Gen. Romeo Lucas Garcia has ordered counter-tactics that go admittedly ''far beyond normal police work,'' in the words of a police official. ''But this is a war.
''Pro-government, right-wing ''death squads'' are responsible for some of this killing, and it is often hard to pinpoint the culprits in a given incident.
Independent observers here say the guerrillas, particularly in the countryside, are responsible for much of the killing. The observers say guerrillas are shedding their Robin Hood images as the struggle intensifies.
One of the reasons is that the government has proven ''a bit more effective in recent months,'' according to one longtime foreign observer of the struggle, ''in getting at the guerrillas. Since the first of the year, some 60 or so guerrillas and their supporters have been killed.''
In addition, government troops and police units have rounded up dozens of civilians, many of them simply suspected of sympathizing with the guerrillas, and later they have been found dead.
It is this latter tactic that has brought down a heap of international criticism on the Lucas Garcia government. To counter it, the government points its finger at the guerrillas and asks why world condemnation is not heaped on them, too.
Gen. Manuel Benedico Lucas Garcia, Army chief of staff and brother of the President, dismisses much of the world criticism. He cites over and over again the guerrillas' supposed links with Cuba and other leftist governments, including that of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. He said it again the morning of the theater fire.
But even as he spoke, guerrillas struck again -- killing the chief of the Immigration Department of Guatemala City's international airport and his bodyguard as the official was leaving his home.
As the movie house burned that afternoon, fire units from around the sprawling Guatemalan capital arrived. Some 20 fire trucks showed up to battle the blaze that eventually consumed the theater and threatened to spread to neighboring buildings.
At first firemen were afraid to open the theater doors for fear of a ''black draft'' explosion, which occurs when fresh air from outdoors mixes with burning gases inside.
Fortunately that didn't occur, said fire official Luis Franco, who was one of the first to arrive, ''because we found ventilators in the theater and opened them to allow the gases to escape.''
But even while the firemen were still dousing the blaze, guerrillas were striking elsewhere.
They occupied three radio stations - Radio Panamericana, Radio Tic Tac, and Radio Progreso -- and broadcast recorded messages attacking the United States government and its support of the Guatemalan government, and celebrating the anniversary Jan. 19 of the founding of the Ejercito Guerrillero de los Pobres (EGP -- Guerrilla Army of the Poor), the official name for the guerrilla organization.
It was perhaps the most dramatic day yet in 1982 for guerrilla activity, but typical of the EGP's new tactics.