Is it safe for Guatemalan refugees to return home?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Last October, when a Miami TV crew landed here in a helicopter next to a school, most of the students ran out to greet them. But the Mayan Indian children from Guatemala hid in fear.

They associated helicopters with the military attacks on Indians that have occurred in their country, according to Neil Boothby, a psychologist who interviewed a number of the children.

The children and their parents who fled from Guatemala to this town -- named after Seminole Indians -- are Kanjobals, a Mayan group.

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Now this shy and generally quiet people, and other undocumented Guatemalans living in the United States, find themselves in a tug of war between the US government and human rights groups.

The federal government wants to force the Kanjobals back to Guatemala, contending it is safe now because violence has been reduced. Deportations are under way.

Last year in Guatemala there were 525 violent deaths of civilian noncombatants in the country's simmering civil war. This is compared with an estimated 3,573 in 1982, according to the State Department's most recent human rights report. The report also notes ``an increase in the number of kidnappings and disappearances in 1984,'' some of them involving Indians.

The report also states: ``There is considerable evidence that harsh treatment and/or torture is inflicted upon detained persons in Guatemala.''

Human rights groups say the situation is even worse. They contend vigorously that it is still unsafe for Guatemalans to go home.

Among other things, ``suspicion would befall them just because of coming back,'' says Aryeh Neier, vice-chairman of Americas Watch, a human rights group with offices in New York and Washington. Mr. Neier recently made two trips to Guatemala.

This tug of war over the Guatemalans in the US comes as three human rights groups charge in a just-released critique that State Department reports on human rights abuses in Central America are biased in favor of nations the US supports.

The 1984 State Department reports on human rights ``minimize'' abuses in Guatemala and El Salvador and are ``grossly exaggerating abuses'' in Nicaragua, according to a joint critique by Americas Watch, Helsinki Watch, and the Lawyers Committee for International Human Rights.

In addition, Arthur C. Helton, of the Lawyers Committee, charges that the use of federal immigration law has become ``overpoliticized.'' The State Department should not be allowed to give advice on political asylum cases to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), he says.

Florida is a focus in these disputes. Of the 5,000 to 7,000 Kanjobals who have come to the US, some 500 to 800 settled in Florida, many of them in this town, where most of them are farm workers.

Their lawyers in Florida are gathering extensive documentation for an all-out legal fight this summer to win political asylum for those who want to stay.

Under federal immigration law, persons can be granted political asylum if they have a ``well-founded fear of persecution'' due to their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.

In Monitor interviews here and in other south Florida towns with Kanjobals, some said they want to stay and others said they hope to return -- when it is safe.

``We haven't applied [for political asylum] because we are thinking of returning,'' said Edgar, in the livingroom of a comfortable house he rents here with several other Kanjobals. They are farm workers. (Last names are omitted because the Guatemalans interviewed still have family members in that country.)

Edgar explained the dilemma he and other Guatemalan Indians faced at home, living in territory fought over by guerrillas and the military.

``If we weren't in favor of the government, they [the government] would say we were with the guerrillas. If we weren't in favor of the guerrillas, they [the guerrillas] would say we were with the government.''

``If I didn't go with this side, they would kill me. If I didn't go with the other side, they would kill me,'' he said in explaining why he fled.

As many as 100,000 people have been killed and 38,000 have disappeared in Guatemala during the past 30 years of civil unrest, according to the British Parliamentary Human Rights Group. The group consists of more than 100 members of both houses of Parliament.

The years 1980-82 saw the highest levels of killings, by all accounts. And Indians were frequently the victims as guerrillas, which included Indians, clashed with the military in the Indian highlands.

James Cason, Guatemala desk officer for the State Department, says it is safe for the Indians to go home now because ``the violence levels there are way, way down.'' He refers to the State Department reports on human rights as proof.

``Although there are continuing and very serious human rights abuses, I think the situation is getting better,'' says Jim Thyden, director of the State Department Office of Human Rights.

He recently returned from a trip to Guatemala, including the Indian highlands. Some of the time he was accompanied by Guatemalan military personnel, he says. Though guerrilla activity has declined, he says, there is still a ``high degree of tension'' in the Indian areas.

State Department officials Cason and Thyden point to the scheduled election this fall of a civilian president for Guatemala as a further sign of improving conditions. But the US also pinned hopes of improvement on the last presidential election in Guatemala, in 1982. That election was followed by a military coup and continued allegations by human rights groups of killings and torture of civilians by government forces in the fight against the guerrillas.

State Department reports on human rights abuses in Guatemala rely heavily on clippings from local newspapers, a point noted by Mr. Neier of Americas Watch. Those newspapers report only ``a tiny fraction of the violence,'' he says.

Further, local newspapers often have few reporters in the more remote areas where most Indians live, he says. Thus much of the violence against Indians -- from guerrillas or the military -- goes unreported, he contends.

The State Department and Rona Weitz of Amnesty International say the violence in Guatemala is today more urban than rural.

But Ms. Weitz says, ``We have very, very strong concerns about the fate of people who have agreed to go back [from Mexico]. We know of people who have been persecuted.''

Most Guatemalans who have fled their country are in Mexico, many of them in refugee camps near the Guatemalan border. Others came directly to the US. The US position in deportation cases is that if the Guatemalans stayed for a while in Mexico, they only came to the US for work. And that is not a valid reason for getting political asylum, according to US immigration law.

But some Guatemalans here fled Mexico after the Guatemalan military attacked refugee camps in Mexico. Some also cited difficulties in making enough money to survive in Mexico.

The State Department has requested information about the fate of Guatemalans who have been deported or who returned on their own to their country from the US. Peter Upton, an attorney for the American Friends Service Committee in Florida, has provided the State Department with eight names and brief details of their reported deaths after their return.

While a number of Kanjobals interviewed here expressed concern for their safety if they return, one did not. Luis, a carpenter, said he could return safely. He said he came to the US because he had debts to pay and plans to return.

But he also said he worked with the military as a commander of the local civil patrol, then was accused by a fellow villager of being with the guerrillas. The military questioned him three times. ``I was very afraid,'' he said.

Human rights groups contend these civil patrols make life very difficult for Indians today. The Indians work 24-hour shifts, on a periodic basis. They are not paid for the work.

A Guatemalan human rights group has run into serious trouble. On March 30 of this year, Hector Orlando Gomez, one of its leaders, was kidnapped by armed civilians, according to Americas Watch. His mutilated body was discovered the next day. On April 3, another leader of the group, Maria Rosario Godoy de Cuevas, was abducted with her two-year-old baby and 18-year-old-brother while shopping in Guatemala City, the capital. Their bodies were found in a wrecked truck April 4. According to forensic analyses, all three showed signs of asphyxiation, indicating they may have been killed prior to the wreck, according to Americas Watch.

Still, 20 more families signed up in late April as new members of the group, the Committee of Mutual Support for the Families of the Disappeared, according to Neier of Americas Watch, who calls for an end to US aid to Guatemala.

President Reagan is seeking $10 million for military-related projects in Guatemala in 1986, in addition to nearly $80 million in economic and other assistance. The US must base its policies in Guatemala on a ``balance'' between US national-security needs and US efforts to curb human rights abuses there, says the State Department's Thyden.

Last of three articles. The first two ran May 28 and 29. Chart:Deportable Guatemalans in the US 1977 5,093 '78 4,089 '79 4,421 '80 3,785 '81 4,182 '82 3,994 '83 4,949 '84 4,910 Applications from Guatemalans for political asylum in the US

Denied Granted 1983 67 1 1984 758 6 Source: US Immigration and Naturalization Service

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