Step by violent step, Guatemala is moving closer to a new civil war: * Right-wing terrorists, trying to suppress opposition from political moderates, have stepped up violence against moderate leaders. Their campaign is backfiring, however, as moderates are throwing more support to leftist guerrillas.
* Leftists, with new support from many moderates, are increasing their own attacks against rightist groups. Clandestine organizations are beginning to stockpile weapons, possibly for a major offensive.
* Indians, who usually stay away from this political warfare, appear to be joining leftists in growing numbers, both fighting and sheltering rebels.
* New criticism is surfacing that the military-backed government of President Romeo Lucas Garcia is supporting rightist "hit guards."
Ironically, the government effort to improve its human-rights record and to better relations with the United States has triggered this new violent chapter in Guatemalan affairs. The government sponsored municipal elections in April, the freest in a decade. But one result was that right-wing terrorists, emboldened by the government's liberalization, went on the offensive.
Seventeen Christian Democratic leaders have been cut down since July, and all nine members of the party's directorate have received death threats.
"The far right is murdering our leaders," said Rodolfo Maldonado, finance secretary of the centrist Christian Democratic Party. "I believe that the left is gaining as a reaction of the people to the repression by the far right. We are on the brink of civil war."
President Lucas Garcia publicly has distanced himself from the right-wing vigilantes, but critics charge he is quietly encouraging the hit squads, as some of his rightist predecessors have done.
"I can't say the far right is absolutely connected with the government, but it is interesting that they act with impunity," Mr. Maldonado said. One military source agreed, saying, "I never heard of secret Anticommunisty Army [ ESA] members arrested or blown away by the government. You just never see that."
(The secret Anticommunist Army is the most active right-wing terrorist organization in this Central American nation of 7.2 million people.)
The nation's vice-president, Francisco Villagran Kramer, resigned Sept 1, protesting that the military and ultraright terrorists were operating without restraint. He fled the country and accused President Lucas Garcia of compromising campaign promises to reform the political and economic system.
A military source said popular support for leftists guerrillas is on the rise. "I see larger guerrilla groups. I see them in areas where they never existed before."
Moderate civilian leaders are beginning to make informal contacts with the leftist guerrillas, sources say.
The Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP) and the Organization of People in Arms (ORPA) are the most aggressive and powerful of the leftist guerrilla organizations.
Active for a decade, the EGP has had success in recruiting the Indians of Quiche Province, where a violet bougainvillea and colorful native costumes are the backdrop against which Army patrol search for guerrilla commandos.
"Nearly every guerrilla speaks Quiche [one of 23 Indian languages spoken in Guatemala] to get along with all the Indians t hey live with and fight with every day," said one young member who spent two years in Quiche's mountains teaching Indians before he took up fighting with the commandos.
The EGP sporadically attacks Army patrols and town garrisons. There is mounting evidence that Indian civilians in many towns are clandestinely feeding and sheltering the guerrillas.
ORPA has been "stunningly successful" in its efforts to indoctrinate the Indians along a wide swath of mountain terrain sweeping across the west and center of the country, a highly placed analyst said.
The group routinely raids small towns and holds rallies in Spanish and the local Indian tongues. After a few hours, the group picks up new recruits and returns to the mountains before the Army arrives.
Though they make up one-half of Guatemala's population, the impoverished Indians have been left behind by the nation's rapid but skewed economic development over the past 20 years. Four out of five rural children go hungry. Poor Indian farmers, unable to qualify for government credits, are forced to migrate hundreds of miles to make substandard wages on southern cotton plantations. There they are exposed to massive does of DDT.
The guerrillas still have a long way to go before they are a major threat to the well-armed military. Estimates of guerrilla strength run from 7,00 to 20, 000. The combined strength of the Guatemalan security forces is 24,000, not including the vigilante bands who pledge to support the Army should a full-scale war erupt.
The guerrillas' armaments are still insufficient for a major offensive; their major weapons are hunting rifles and .45 caliber handguns bought with money acquired through holdups and ransoms. They are beginning to stockpile from black market purchases Belgium FAL and German G-3 automatic rifles used by NATO.
However, that's still no match for the Guatemalan forces who are armed with Israeli-made Galil assault rifles and 105-mm howitzers. The Air force has been known to fire rockets from its fleet of helicopters at enemy positions and towns thought to be sympathetic to the guerrillas.
Since the Guatemalan and US governments cooled relations in 1977, the Lucas Garcia regime has bought huge stocks of weapons from Israel, Taiwan, and Yugoslavia.
Commenting on the irony of Guatemala buying weapons from a communist government to fight leftists, the military source said, "They're fighting for their survival. They'll buy their weapons from the devil."