With presidential balloting less than a month away, Guatemala's bitter civil war is escalating as four major leftist guerrilla groups join in a unified command.
The combined guerrilla command signals a new phase in Guatemala's continuing civil strife. It is the first time that the country's leftist guerrillas have come together against their common enemy -- the Guatemalan government.
The joint guerrilla organization has yet to be tested. It remains to be seen whether the four groups, with their individual leaderships and characteristics, can meld successfully.
But the Guatemalan government reports this week that the guerrillas have been stepping up their activities in an apparent attempt to disrupt the March 7 general elections.
Guerrillas, for example, attacked three towns Feb. 8 in Huehuetenango Province, bordering Mexico, and destroyed all registry records -- an action that will prove tremendously disruptive in the frequent disputes over land titles.
But the guerrillas are not responsible for all the violence. Some of it clearly springs from rightist death squads. Many incidents in Guatemala City are routinely ascribed to ''unidentified gunmen.''
Three dozen persons were killed by such gunmen in the past week, including well-known industrialist David Zaid Villalobos on Feb. 9 and respected editor Roberto Hiron Lemus on Feb. 5. Both rightists and leftists are thought to have been angry at Mr. Zaid and Mr. Hiron, who were regarded as moderates.
Mr. Hiron, however, also served as publicity chief for Gen. Angel Anibal Guevara, the ruling coalition party's candidate for the presidency. He was accused by a guerrilla group of ''having sold out to the forces of reaction,'' a charge that leads some observers to believe Mr. Hiron was targeted by the guerrillas.
Meanwhile, in announcing formation of the new umbrella guerrilla organization , the Guatemalan guerrillas took note of the killing of newspapermen in recent months, charging they had been killed by ''the Army and the numerous repressive organs of the government.''
The new organization, called the Union Revolucionaria Nacional de Guatemala (URNG), said that the guerrillas are winning their struggle against ''the rightist Army-backed government'' of Gen. Romeo Lucas Garcia. It added, ''Now more than ever before we are sure our effort will be crowned with victory.''
The URNG statement was issued in Mexico City where several of the guerrillas have offices.
In the presidential campaign, opinion polls do not give a clear edge to any of the four candidates. Observers suggest that each has a possibility of winning - but they give General Guevara, as representative of the incumbent government, and Gustavo Anzueto Vielman, representing former President Carlos Arana Osorio, a retired general who led Guatemala in the first half the 1970s.
With only a month before balloting, campaigning is intensifying. But the candidates are surrounding themselves with bodyguards and small armies of armed men for protection.
''A climate of fear exists in our midst,'' said an associate of Alejandro Maldonado Aguirre. The Maldonado Aguirre candidacy has attracted a good deal of support and interest from centrists and moderate leftists. At this writing, however, his candidacy seems to have peaked and his prospects are declining.