Guatemala City — JORGE QUEX isn't sure what he's going to do. ``I'll either have to hide here in Mexico,'' he says quietly, ``or try my luck in the United States, but to return to Guatemala would be pure suicide.'' Mr. Quex is one of more than 100,000 Guatemalan refugees in southern Mexico who may soon face repatriation. The fear that Mexico may send the refugees back to Guatemala has many like Quex planning an alternative. Since 1980, an estimated quarter-million people have fled the violence of Guatemala to seek refuge in Mexico, Belize, Honduras, and the US. Mostly indigenous Indians, they left what the human rights group Americas Watch has termed ``genocidal'' Army repression of a population the Army deems sympathetic to Guatemala's guerrilla movement.
Since 1980, more than 200 Army massacres have been reported to Amnesty International, along with countless individual killings and disappearances. Concentrated mostly in the northern highlands of Guatemala, survivors fled north to Mexico, setting up small camps along the border, hoping to escape the violence. But for many, things only got worse.
Initially, Mexican officials, concerned with the great number of refugees coming over the border, turned many of them back. The Roman Catholic Church in Mexico reported that in 1982, ``one group of 416 refugees was loaded into buses by [Mexican] immigration officials and sent back across the border where they were killed by the Guatemalan Army. Only a few children survived.''
Although the refugees had to deal with mass deportations for only a short while, they had problems with the Guatemalan Army. The liberal Mexican magazine Por Esto reported in 1984 that the Guatemalan Army crossed the border more than 60 times in two years. The Army attacked refugee camps, killing more than 28 people -- both Guatemalan refugees and local Mexicans -- creating an atmosphere of fear in the border area.
Deportations of individual refugees by Mexican authorities have also added to this insecurity and caused many to flee to the US.
Although Mexico has improved conditions for the refugees over the last two years, the fear of repatriation is likely to force many to seek refuge in the US and Canada.
Mexico and Guatemala are now discussing returning the refugees to Guatemala: Mexico, because of a worsening economic situation, and Guatemala, to enhance its international reputation tarnished by the Army violence of the early 1980s.
With a new civilian President -- the second in 32 years -- Guatemala is trying to overcome its pariah status. Internationally, there was much hope that true democracy had arrived when Vinicio Cerezo Ar'evalo was inaugurated last January and that the Army would return to the barracks. But within Guatemala, many people feel this may be impossible. Even President Cerezo has stated that he holds only 30 percent of the power, while the Army retains 70 percent, according to an interview with the international press.
Many Guatemalans have called on Cerezo to bring the Army to justice in an Argentine-style cleanup. But he has chosen not to do so, saying, ``I cannot jail the Army officers who turned power over to me.''
Although the US Embassy in Guatemala City reports that the number of human rights violations has dropped significantly from the 1980-83 period when the violence was at its height, violations continue. According to the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission, 196 people have been killed and 62 people have disappeared in the first seven months of Cerezo's tenure. The commission says these documented figures cover only a third of those who have been killed and disappeared.
This is no secret to the refugees, who listen daily to the radio news out of Guatemala City. Their awareness of Guatemala's problems has discouraged many refugees from returning.
The Army began its major counterinsurgency offensive in northern Guatemala in 1982. In an effort to destroy the guerrillas' base of support, the Army killed thousands in the countryside, destroyed villages, and sent survivors fleeing across the border.
The current phase of the Army's counterinsurgency program consists of model villages (based on the Vietnam model of strategic hamlets); civil patrols (obligatory service for more than 900,000 men from ages 15 to 55 as a surveillance and defense force); and periodic Army sweeps of the countryside.
Although Cerezo has said that it is safe for the refugees to return, the Army continues to make statements alleging that the refugees are subversives, according to the Mexican newspaper La Jornada. This contradiction has sent a signal to the refugees in Mexico that Cerezo is not in control.
``There may be a democracy inside the National Palace, but the Army still controls the countryside,'' says refugee Jorge Quex.
In a June letter to Cerezo, printed in La Jornada, refugee leaders in Mexico wrote, ``For you [Cerezo] it is very easy to say that we should return home because there is democracy, that we should forget the past.... [But] we can never forget when the Army came to burn our villages.... We can never forget how the Army killed. We know that in Guatemala the situation has not changed ... because the Army continues to give orders and has more power than you.''
Cerezo, who condemned the model villages during his election campaign, is now officiating at their inaugurations, the Guatemalan press reports. And, in a recent Newsweek interview, Cerezo defended the model villages as important to Guatemala's rural economy.
Because Guatemala has been unable to guarantee the safe return of the refugees, Mexico has said that the refugees' return must be voluntary. Mexico would prefer that the refugees return to Guatemala, not only to reduce tensions between the two countries as they increase their economic ties but also because of Mexico's struggling economy. Although all money for the refugees in Mexico is supplied by international sources -- particularly the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the World Food Program -- popular opinion throughout Mexico is that ``the refugees are a drain on our economy,'' as one cabdriver put it, ``and what little we have should be spent on Mexicans.''
This is one of the main reasons that Mexico has relocated 27,000 refugees to Campeche State. They are resettled in underpopulated areas on land considered undesirable, thus giving landless Mexicans the land that the refugees had cleared and cultivated.
The Mexican government used force in moving the refugees in the early part of the relocation. This was documented by an Americas Watch report entitled Refugees in Mexico: 1980-1984.''
On Dec. 18, 1985, 10 days after Cerezo's election, the Mexican military surrounded Chajul refugee camp and gave its 400 residents 15 minutes to pack their belongings and begin the trip to Campeche, according to written testimony from the refugees. When the refugees resisted, a scuffle ensued, they said. Several refugees were beaten and one Mexican official bruised.
Within Guatemala, most religious and development workers involved in the areas that the refugees fled agree that the refugees should not return at this point, though they all seem to disagree as to why.
In a recent incident, UNHCR officials accompanied 101 refugees to the border where the refugees voluntarily crossed back into Guatemala. According to the UNHCR, the Guatemalan Army promised that the refugees could return directly to their villages. But several days later the Army said that these same 101 were being held and ``observed'' at a military base and would be sent later to the model villages.
``The people aren't so much afraid of [something happening to them] on the day they return, because the Army wants to show that it's safe to return,'' a Protestant missionary observes. ``They're afraid of six to eight months later when their body is found after some kind of `hunting accident.'''
Guatemala has offered no plan to assist returning refugees.
One development worker pointed out that the Guatemalan government has redistributed many refugees' land in an effort to repopulate previously troublesome areas with less politicized people. Upon the refugees' return, they would have no place to go except to the model villages. Another consideration is Guatemala's poor economic situation. As the costs of basic grains soar and the government has fewer funds available, the government is financially unable to help the returning refugees survive until the first harvest. In some areas of northern Guatemala, it takes up to nine months for the corn to be ready for harvesting.
In a visit to villages that refugees left in Huehuetenango State, those remaining explained that the price of fertilizer had gone so high that ``we can't afford it, and expect to harvest enough corn this year to keep us about seven months.'' When asked how they plan to eat the other five months, they responded, ``We have to go to Mexico and find work there, but it's quite a risk,'' because of the Mexican immigration officials at the border.
Across the border, in Mexico, the refugees say that all they want is to return to their land, ``to the place where our umbilical cords are buried. But it's not safe yet. We must wait still.''