GUATEMALA CITY, GUATEMALA — When Guatemalan President Alvaro Arz won his office with a scant 4 percent victory margin last January, there was little expectation for what the former mayor of Guatemala City could accomplish.
Central America's oldest civil conflict was dragging on, with guerrillas demanding a war tax of rural landowners and top military brass accustomed to virtual free rein thumbing their noses at civilian society with their well-known but unchallenged dealings in contraband, kidnapping, and car-theft rings.
Nine months later, Mr. Arz has national and international political observers taking notice and Guatemala's skeptical public applauding.
With the signing Sept. 19 of an accord with the country's leftist guerrillas Arz is on track to making good on his pledge to sign a final peace agreement by year's end and finish Central America's last cold-war-era conflict, one that over 36 years has cost more than 100,000 lives, torn families, and left the state weak and ineffectual.
More astonishing still to Guatemalans accustomed to presidents either unwilling or unable to challenge the country's hidden powers, Arz moved the same week against corrupt military and customs officials, smashing a crime and contraband ring he estimates was raking in about $200 million a year - or the equivalent of 10 percent of Guatemala's budget. He fired 17 top officials, including two generals - one of whom was the vice-minister of defense. Last week 12 more officials were fired in the corruption probe, while a former attorney general and 23 additional top officials were added to the suspect list.
"People knew these networks existed, and there had even been investigations of some of these same people in the past," said Defense Minister Julio Arnoldo Balconi, in an interview with the Monitor. "The difference is the determination" to force change.
Even before his recent actions, Arz raised eyebrows by firing 118 national police for corruption shortly after he took office, and then by abolishing a military court that flagrantly perpetuated impunity in its jurisdiction over civilian cases involving any member of the Army.
Citing those moves, one United Nations official here says, "The public is stunned by [Arz's] political will. They see the government moving much faster and much deeper than they thought possible."
Despite those accomplishments, however, the hard part may have just begun. Among the challenges Arz and Guatemala now face will be achieving a peace that doesn't follow the pattern set by Central American neighbors Nicaragua and El Salvador, where many former belligerents slid into criminal activity - "doing what they'd learned to do best," as one diplomat here says, "using arms, intimidating people, violating others' rights."
The country also needs urgently to develop a judicial system that can administer justice in the prickly situations that will arise as refugees and several thousand guerrilla soldiers try to carve out new lives.
But the real test, says Csar Parodi, a legal expert with Guatemala City's Myrna Mack Foundation, which focuses on strengthening human rights and challenging official impunity, "will be if these once-untouchable officials are tried and their sentences are made to stick."
Although many Guatemalans worry that the courts and corrupt judges will break the unusual momentum for change, others insist there are signs of cooperation from the judicial branch as well. General Balconi says there is "evidence of all our institutions moving in the right direction."
Arz's drive to get things done had him pushing for results even before he was elected. During his campaign the aristocratic, center-right politician wrote an exploratory letter to rebel leaders. In December 1995, they and some of candidate Arz's advisers met for the first time in San Salvador.
"There were five meetings before the [January] election, and although there was never any pre-accord the interchange was very fruitful," says Gustavo Porras, a former guerrilla commander who became a peace adviser to Arz and now heads the Guatemalan government peace negotiating team. "By the time [the two sides] had our first official meeting in February, we were ready to go."
Still, despite a countrywide desire to reach an official peace, the government's actions are not meeting with unanimous support. Some right-wing business leaders and political commentators criticize Arz for what they consider the inconsistency of taking tough and laudable action against organized crime while conducting negotiations with the guerrillas, whom they accuse of the same crimes the military mafia is accused of: contraband and drug trafficking, kidnapping, and murder.
The two sides have agreed to meet again this month to address reintegration of some 3,000 rebels into Guatemalan society. Those talks will take up the issue of amnesty, which promises to be prickly.
The rebels refuse the amnesty concept, since they say it implies the forgiving of crimes, while they insist their rebellion was an honorable pursuit to positively change the country. Human rights advocates worry a general amnesty would let rights violators from both sides off the hook.
But Balconi says there is already a "consensus" against a general amnesty. "Whatever form of amnesty is decided should not increase divisions but should contribute to reconciliation," he says, specifically citing a few well-known cases where the military is accused of violating civilians' human rights.
Mr. Porras insists Guatemala has two factors going for it that its neighbors didn't: a cease-fire that has held since spring and a relatively intact infrastructure. Guatemala's disadvantage, though, is that foreign aid coffers don't have near the money they did when Salvador and Nicaragua needed funds for peace-accord implementation.
President Arz will probably win more backing than he might have gotten otherwise for an estimated $1.5 billion in peace implementation because of his high profile against corruption.
Some Guatemalan economists say the president should direct some of his energies toward fiscal reform and increasing the country's comparatively low average tax burden. That way Guatemalans might pay a little more of the cost of peace themselves.