MEXICO CITY — LAST week the Guatemalan military attempted its return to Santiago Atitlan - twice testing the mettle of 20,000 residents, who had rejected militarization of the community. Only last December, the people of this Mayan town had rallied to protest the killings of 14 townspeople by the Army. What followed was the unprecedented ejection of the Guatemalan Army from the town by newly-elected President Jorge Serrano. The massacre and subsequent expulsion culminated 11 years of what residents describe as systematic abuse by the Army. Since then, the town has set itself apart from this country's 30-year-old civil war. Neither guerrilla nor Army soldier is welcome.
But on May 23, a patrol of 40 soldiers and two officers landed several miles outside of town at about 5 a.m., according to locals and an American tourist interviewed by phone. Analysts and locals say the Army initiative pressed the limits of President Serrano's order for the Army to vacate the town, which had followed the massacre. The Army's moves also came as the United States Congress was cutting military aid to Guatemala.
Spotted by farmers, the soldiers were met at 8 a.m. about 1 mile from the town center by about 1,000 unarmed townspeople.
"We told them we didn't want the Army nor the guerrillas here," says Diego Chiquival Sisay, a member of the security committee. "The officer said the mayor had given them permission to enter." Mayor Salvador Ramirez was not present and later denied giving the Army permission, Mr. Chiquival says.
A standoff ensued. At midday, the provincial governor, the local representative of the national human rights office, and a judge arrived to mediate. At about 3 p.m., the officers of the patrol signed an agreement to respect the presidential order.
The next day, May 24, two Army patrols from another base arrived in the nearby village of Mirador, which Chiquival says is part of Santiago.
"They were intimidating Atiteco campesinos who were trying to cut wood," he says. This day, however, a large portion of the 20,000 people living in Santiago Atitlan met the troops. After three hours of dialogue, the soldiers agreed to leave.
"We had information that there were aggressive elements in the area," says Col. Homero Garcia Carrillo, a spokesman for the Guatemalan Army. "By law, we have the responsibility to protect every part of the national territory."
The Guatemalan Army has been fighting a leftist insurgency for three decades. It considers Santiago Atitlan a guerrilla stronghold. For 11 years, the townspeople claim they were systematically murdered, raped, and robbed by the Army, which had a base in town. On Dec. 2, soldiers fired on 2,000 unarmed townspeople outside the Army garrison, killing 14. National and international outcry as well as local protests forced the base closure.
The incident prompted the US to cut off its $2.9 million in military aid to Guatemala. Last week, the US House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs voted to continue the military aid cutoff and, for the first time, to restrict Economic Support Funds to Guatemala in the 1992-93 foreign aid bill. The full house is expected to vote on the foreign aid bill next week.
Meanwhile, the people of Santiago Atitlan have formed their own security patrols and declared their town off limits to guerrillas and the Army. The patrols carry no weapons; only whistles, the national flag, and a white flag of peace.
Until about 20 years ago, "the town was very factionalized by religious differences," says Robert Carlsen, a University of Colorado anthropologist who has studied the town for six years.
Now on the second of each month, in remembrance of the December massacre, several thousand residents gather in front of the Roman Catholic church for meetings that are two-parts religion and one-part civic forum. "We've come together in a way I wouldn't have believed possible," notes a religious leader who requests anonymity.
But others are concerned. "If the world forgets us, the Army will return," predicts a resident.