Central America's bitter wars spread
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Over the weekend Guatemalan military police are reported to have detained 24 persons, including a former agriculture minister, for plotting to overthrow Rios Montt.Skip to next paragraph
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Next door in newly independent Belize, there is worry about being drawn into the struggle - concern that is heightened by Guatemalan troop maneuvers along the border. Belizeans fear Guatemala will attempt to seize their country - and Guatemalans have long claimed the territory should belong to Guatemala. Several hundred British marines guard Belize. A weakening economy could lead to internal dissent, also a major concern of the government.
To the south, Honduras, which was the tranquil oasis of the region, has suddenly become home base for civilian and some guerrilla opponents of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. It claims to be neutral - but with thinly disguised support for government forces in El Salvador and Guatemala and for Nicaraguan exiles within its borders, Honduras can no longer honestly be called uncommitted.
Its Army beefed up with US weaponry and training, as well as tactical support from Argentina, Honduras is ''every bit as much a part of the struggle as the other countries,'' says a Mexico City-based spokesman for the Frente Revolucionario Democratica, political arm of Salvadoran guerrillas. The Salvadoran guerrillas claim that the Honduran Army is actively supporting El Salvador's Army ''in a clear violation of its professed neutrality.''
A recent hostage drama in San Pedro Sula, in which more than 100 businessmen and two Cabinet members were held by Honduran guerrillas for a week, suggests the way in which Central America's malaise is thrusting into Honduras's own political scene. Guerrillas sought the release of political prisoners and an end to support of the Salvadoran government.
The US counts on Honduras to serve as ''the fulcrum,'' to quote a US official on the scene, of leverage against the leftist guerrillas and as a counterweight to left-leaning Nicaragua. But there is some evidence now that Hondurans are beginning to resent the growing US presence in their country.
Nicaragua appears to be drifting further left. Its war of words with the US and numerous Latin American countries is intensifying. Its Sandinista leadership , which styles itself as Marxist, came to power three years ago promising political pluralism. But that promise looks increasingly hollow.
Many original supporters of the Sandinistas, including some of the heroes of the war that toppled the archtypal dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza Debayle, have fled Nicaragua. Many of those early-supporters-turned-opponents are in Costa Rica. Others are rightists, or ''Somocistas,'' exiled in Honduras. Sandinistas feel increasingly hemmed in. Fighting between Nicaraguan troops and Honduras-based exiles in the Zelaya swamps of eastern Nicaragua has been intense.
Bitterly attacking the US for ''provocations,'' the Sandinistas are struggling to keep a sagging economy afloat while pushing ahead with domestic programs such as literacy and better housing. There has been progress on those two fronts. But public support for the once acclaimed Sandinistas is flagging. Some of this falloff clearly stems from growing unemployment, shortages of consumer goods, and inflation.
Economies across Central America are in trouble. Even Costa Rica - once regarded as the region's most affluent - is now in a deep recession. Urban guerrilla activities recently erupted in the Costa Rica's capital, and help explain why this traditionally antimilitary country has stepped up patrols in the Nicaraguan border region and signed an agreement with Washington for $2 million in US military aid and training.
Looming over Central America is concern that troubles here could escalate into a larger contest - like the famous domino theory in the 1960s about Southeast Asia. Mexico, whose border area has been invaded by Guatemalan forces looking for guerrillas, is clearly the most worried. Other Latin American countries are worried, too.
For Washington, the threat that the crisis could engulf the whole region, affecting operation of the Panama Canal, for example, is chilling - helping to explain why the Reagan administration has increasingly involved itself in the region.
Next: Can Central America find a political solution to its problem?