Guatemala Peace Fails To Silence Army's Guns

Still feared, soldiers fight a rise in crime

Eight months after Guatemala's powerful Army left this small town, the soldiers are back. But this time they're here as invited guests.

Shouldering the same M-16 and Galil machine guns they once used to hunt guerrillas, groups of a dozen soldiers patrol the dusty streets of San Juan Alotenango.

The soldiers are keeping watch against a new enemy - crime. It is a scourge that has engulfed postwar Guatemala, as it did neighboring El Salvador and Nicaragua when these countries made a similar transition from war to peace. "A power vacuum was created," says the vice minister of defense, Gen. Mario Rolando Terraza. "This allowed crime to proliferate."

The growing involvement of Guatemala's notoriously abusive military in combating crime concerns human rights monitors here. They say Army participation in a war on crime could create new human rights problems and stunt progress in reducing the military's bloated influence in society.

"It's very worrisome, given their past record in fighting a different kind of crime ... the insurgency," says Ronalth Ochaeta, a lawyer who directs the human rights office of the Archbishop of Guatemala City. "The Army acted without any regard for human rights," he says.

The Army and allied paramilitary units are thought responsible for the majority of an estimated 135,000 civilian deaths and disappearances during the 36-year civil war.

Under the peace accords signed last December, the military is to be reduced and stripped of its role in internal security. Twenty-thousand new police are to be deployed by the end of 1999, replacing an existing force that is widely seen as corrupt and ineffective. Until the police are ready, leaders say they will rely on the Army. "We're talking about several years," says General Terraza.

It is a reality that is tough for human rights activists, who have long sought to trim the Army's influence, to take. They now warily accept a temporary Army role in public security, albeit under strict civilian oversight. "These are the contradictions of the peace process," says Mr. Ochaeta. "Everyone wanted the armed conflict to end, but the institutions were not ready yet."

Public controversy about the Army's war on crime erupted last month, after United Nations observers here exposed abuses by an antikidnapping squad composed of members of an elite presidential guard thought to have directed political assassinations during the war. In several hostage rescue operations, say UN monitors, members illegally detained, tortured, and murdered suspects. The government denies any laws have been broken.

"If this country wants to effectively repress crime, it is indispensable to do so without resorting to criminal methods," says Jean Arnault, who heads the UN mission here.

Arnault's point is a tough sell here, where public approval has grown for harsh treatment of criminals. Guatemalans overwhelmingly support the death penalty. In rural areas, dozens of suspected criminals have been killed this year by angry mobs.

Scrutiny of government methods creates a dilemma for President Alvaro Arz, who has staked his political reputation on improving public security. He faces criticism from conservative groups who want a tougher crackdown on crime, especially against the kidnapping-for-profit rings that have terrorized middle- and upper-class families.

In San Juan Alotenango, a town of 20,000 inhabitants and four policemen, there is no such debate. The Army was brought back at the request of town officials, who say a spree of highway robberies and muggings by armed gangs has all but ended since the soldiers returned at the beginning of October.

"We feel protected now," says Mayor Jos Serapio Civil. "Without security, the people do whatever they want."

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