Mendez: Cautious but Committed

PEEKING cautiously out of a doorway, Amilcar Mendez Urizar scans the dusty street in front of his open-air office. It's only a 50-yard walk to his home, but the outspoken rural activist is worried by the presence of a stranger sitting at the corner. ``A friend of yours?'' he asks a visitor. Relieved to have his conjecture confirmed, he adds: ``I just want to be sure.''

Such extreme caution has been second nature for Mr. Mendez ever since he survived an assassination attempt several years ago, when Guatemala was still under military rule. But even after three years of civilian rule, the schoolteacher says he feels more checked and controlled than ever.

Mendez knew he was asking for trouble last July, when he formed a grass-roots organization that emboldens peasants to stop supporting the Army's civilian patrols.

But he didn't expect to receive enough death threats to fill a folder, or gas bombs on his doorstep, or plain-clothed Army personnel on his trail.

Mendez's friends advise him to lie low. But the peasant leader says that if he stopped speaking out he would leave thousands of peasants vulnerable.

His sense of responsibility sometimes torments him. Last month, when he talked to President Vinicio Cerezo Ar'evalo about four abducted activists, he overheard the men's wives blaming him for their husbands' disappearance.

``They said, `None of this would have happened if they hadn't become involved with Amilcar,''' says Mendez, visibly pained. ``They're right. But it can't stop me from trying.''

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