CANDELARIA, GUATEMALA — SHORTLY after dawn on Jan. 12, as government soldiers relaxed at an Army outpost three miles away, more than 50 leftist guerrillas swept uncontested into this sleepy hamlet. For four hours, the increasingly active rebels of the Revolutionary Organization of People in Arms were the undisputed kings of Candelaria, a coffee ranch about 40 miles southwest of Guatemala City.
The guerrillas wielded American-made M-16 rifles. Many were baby-faced teenagers in tennis shoes and olive-drab uniforms. They set up roadblocks on both sides of town and torched three government vehicles.
About 200 villagers, along with the passengers from a long line of stopped cars and buses, were invited at gunpoint to a political meeting where rebel leaders railed at government abuses and hailed an imminent guerrilla triumph, according to locals who attended.
The rebels never fired a shot. Hours later, they slipped out of the village as easily as they had arrived, heading toward the slopes of the smoke-sputtering Vulcan de Fuego (Fire Volcano).
Guatemalan troops didn't arrive here until several hours later. Even then, they spent the night under the coffee bushes, seemingly unconcerned about chasing the rebels.
``The trail was fresh, but they didn't follow it,'' says an elderly man who chatted with the Army soldiers that night and the next morning. ``We told them the guerrillas went one way. They went the other way.''
Shaking his head, he adds: ``It was like a movie.''
Military experts and first-hand witnesses say passivity has become the Army's modus operandi in several rural areas, some of which are seeing rebel activity for the first time in nearly a decade.
In Chimaltenango, a large town 25 miles west of the capital, guerrillas recently held a factory for three hours. Troops at an Army base less than a mile away did not respond, witnesses say.
Further south in Patulul, near an area where the rebels have recently forced passing motorists to pay a $5 ``war tax,'' conducted town meetings, and blown up a bridge, an Army major boasted to one diplomat that he knew just when and where the guerrillas crossed the main road every day.
But his troops have done little to repel the rebels.
``It's almost as though there's a tacit agreement out there between the Army and the guerrillas not to do anything too dramatic,'' says the diplomat, ticking off half a dozen other places where similar incidents have occurred. ``You end up with bands of armed people basically dancing around each other in the countryside.''
The Army defends its action - and inaction - as a prudent response to a deceptive enemy. ``If we go in right away in full force, we're going to be ambushed,'' says a lieutenant at the small Army outpost in Alotenango.
With morale among the Army's 48,000 troops plummeting because of forced recruitment and rising casualties, it's not hard to persuade soldiers to avoid conflict.
Moreover, with its tainted image as a human rights violator, the Army may be avoiding combat that could cause civilian casualties.
``The Army wants to shed its image as a band of killers, so they're pussyfooting a little bit,'' says Guatemalan Congressman Jorge Skinner-Klee.
But the real reason may go even deeper. Several analysts with close military contacts maintain that the Army may be letting the guerrilla movement grow on purpose.
``This may be part of a strategy developed by the Army to gain more political influence,'' suggests Miguel Angel Balcarcel, a military analyst at the Association for Economic and Social Investigations. ``If the conflict remains small, ... then the Army naturally loses power. So the Army lets the guerrillas grow to be able to make more political demands.''
There is no doubt that the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG), the umbrella group that unites the three rebel fronts, has expanded in size, strength, and activity over the past six months.
The Army estimates that there are about 1,200 guerrilla combatants, up from 750 last year but still far below the 10,000 fighting in 1980.
The increase is attributed to a worsening economic crisis, more intensive rebel recruitment, and the increased use of ``part-time'' guerrillas.
URNG combatants, who stepped up their activity in November to coincide with an urban offensive launched by guerrillas in El Salvador, are also using new weapons. They have fired grenade launchers in several attacks, most recently in Pochuta, where bad aim caused two civilian casualties.
Within certain limits, military experts say, such a rebel resurgence could actually benefit conservative sectors of the Army. It would:
Justify the existence and preeminence of the military.
Establish an issue around which the right wing could rally and defeat the ruling Christian Democrats in the November elections.
Create the pretext for greater military control of the countryside, especially formation of new civilian patrols.
``In the measure that the guerrillas grow, there will more need for the civilian patrols,'' says retired Col. Jos'e Luis Cruz Salazar, noting the dwindling popular support for the dangerous and time-consuming patrols.
The growth of the guerrilla movement, he says, could be used to justify ``the rebirth of the absolute authority of the Army in rural areas.''
In El Salvador, forceful guerrilla attacks, combined with splits and corruption in the ruling party, helped sweep the conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) to power in the March 1988 elections. For both the extreme left and right in Guatemala, such a polarization would create a welcome redefinition of the conflict.
``There is a coincidence of interests between the enemies themselves - not a military coincidence but a political one,'' says researcher Edgar Gutierrez. ``Both want to create the sensation of chaos.''