Guatemala, charged with rights violations, searches for respect

Edgar Garc'ia was waiting for the bus one morning when he ``disappeared.'' Eyewitnesses told his wife that uniformed police from a tactical unit called the BROE had taken him away in a police van. Mrs. Garc'ia searched at police stations, army barracks, hospitals, and morgues, but found no clues about where her husband was taken that day last February. Ernesto Cuevas, a leader of the university students association, was pulled off his motorcycle in downtown Guatemala City last May by three carloads of heavily armed men. In broad daylight, the abductors shoved him into one of the cars and he hasn't been seen since. Witnesses say that two police watched the kidnapping without interfering.

Reports of such disappearances are recorded in Guatemala's newspapers almost weekly. The United States and some other Western governments say the human rights situation in Guatemala is improving, but a read through Guatemala newspapers might make one want to ask: compared to what?

The newspapers regularly carry reports of disappearances of persons and stories about bodies found at roadside with marks of torture.

In a report to the United Nations in November, Guatemala's Human Rights Commission said it knew of 713 ``extrajudicial killings'' and 506 disappearances of Guatemalans in the period from January to September of 1984. That would appear to be only slightly better than the same period of 1973, when the commission reported 780 killings and 534 cases of forces of involuntary disappearance.

Guatemala has long had a reputation as one of the world's worst violators of human rights. Many observers say the abuse was most intense from 1978 to 1982, when death squads, reportedly run by the government, attacked almost anyone opposed to then-President Romeo Lucas Garc'ia.

Many observers say that human rights violations under Mej'ia Victores do not compare to the level of atrocities of the Lucas era. But human rights groups say political violence continues in Guatemala and that the government itself is deeply involved.

In light of this rights situation, there is a division of opinion in the international community about whether to condemn or to encourage the 17-month-old military government of Gen. Oscar Mej'ia Victores.

The Reagan administration in the United States, with which Mej'ia Victores is particularly eager to have good relations, says the human rights situation in Guatemala is improving. It has renewed Guatemala's economic line of credit, including provisions for military purchases, and this year may move to restore military aid, which had been suspended by the Carter administration.

Other countries quietly applaud General Mej'ia Victores for holding elections for a Constituent Assembly last July, and by announcing that presidential elections could be held within the year. They are also encouraged that he has publicly supported the Contadora nations' efforts to work out a peace plan for Central America.

But last month Pope John Paul II sent a letter to the Guatemalan Roman Catholic Church expressing concern about violence -- especially kidnappings and disappearances.

And Amnesty International's lastest human rights report charges that much of the violence in Guatemala is committed by government security forces or by paramiliatary groups that are directed by the government or that act with its complicity. Many of the attacks are targeted against unions and university groups, the report claims.

Government spokesman Ramon Zela- da says it is not government police or troops, but ``other forces trying to discredit the government,'' who are responsible for rights violations.

Common criminals are known to disguise themselves in police uniforms, and it is these people who are committing acts of violence, say government sources. Officials also blame leftist guerrillas for some of the violence, although many of the victims of violence are leftist or liberal critics of the government.

The National University, in fact, has been especially hard hit by violence. In mid-March last year, five student leaders disappeared, along with campus workers active in the union.

Last fall the university experienced another wave of violence. On Oct. 26, a economics professor was murdered, reportedly by a death squad. The next day, as the dean of the economics department was driving to the professor's funeral, he, too, was assassinated. During the next three weeks, five students disappeared; their bodies were later found, tortured.

Rights groups say that the worst era of urban political violence occurred under Lucas Garc'ia. After a coup against him in 1982 installed born-again Christian Gen. Efra'in R'ios Montt as president, killings in the capital decreased dramatically, rights groups say. But as urban violence decreased, the Army's scorched-earth war went into high gear in the countryside.

Between 5,000 and 15,000 Indians in the northern highlands were killed, say Amnesty International, Americas Watch, and other human rights groups. Whole villages thought to support the guerrilla movement, which was powerful at the time, were massacred.

Today some Guatemalans are feeling they must take a public stand against the violence or the situation will never go away. Nineth Garc'ia has helped to form a women's human rights group similar to the Salvadorean group, the Committee of Mothers and Relatives, Disappeared and Murdered of El Salvador, that recently was awarded a peace prize by the Robert Kennedy Memorial Foundation.

Early last June the Group of Mutual Support for the Appearance with Life of our Children, Husbands, and Brothers organized and grew rapidly.

``In just one week we had 25 people,'' Mrs. Garc'ia says. ``Still many people were scared to join us.''

The leaders of the Guatemalan group feel that by maintaining a high profile they are assured some safety -- especially now, the women say, when the government is trying to improve its international image and get foreign aid again.

The group has published full-page advertisements in the local papers. A recent one carried two full pages of pictures of children asking for a Christmas present of the return of their disappeared fathers. The group has also organized special religious masses and has met several times with the Guatemalan chief of staff. The government has agreed to set up a commission to investigate the 324 cases the group has presented, but the women say they aren't satisfied.

``We don't expect anything out of it,'' said one of the women. ``We know he [Mejia Victores] isn't really interested. If he really cared, he'd do something.''

The women are becoming more frustrated by what they call a lack of government action. On Oct. 12, the women's group helped to sponsor a march through Guatemala City to the National Palace. Nearly 1,000 people marched, and a special mass was offered for the disappeared at the cathedral. It was an unheard of event for Guatemala.

At first the group was careful not to blame the government for the disappearances but it seems to be losing patience. But lately it has grown bolder.

The women have gone to the Constituent Assembly, demanding government action. And in private meetings with government officials, the women say they expressed their belief that the government was responsible for disappearances.

``At first we didn't blame the government because we thought that if we didn't blame them, they would appear,'' says one of the wives. ``But there comes a time when you have to tell the truth.''

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