Guatemala votes; Reagan policy tested

As voting began at the Ninth Avenue polling place, one of several in downtown Guatemala City, the lines were more than two blocks long.

Dozens of police in dark blue uniforms and soldiers in green camouflage stood guard. All carried automatic weapons.

Guatemala's March 6 presidential election was under way -- despite last minute bombings, and pleas from the far left for a boycott.

Whatever the result, not expected until later March 7, hopes of major change are modest here. The election might change things ''just a little,'' said one man who left before voting because the lines were too long.

Although by local measure the range of candidates runs from right to left-of-center, by any United States measure only the right wing is represented. And the the fact that the far left is not participating at all means the guerrilla war is certain to continue.

Nonetheless, the Reagan administration hopes the election will be seen as fair enough to convince skeptical Congressmen that this country deserves military aid to help put down its insurgency.

President Carter halted military aid to Guatemala in 1977 in the face of allegations of massive abuse of human rights by the Guatemalan government. Today , this country is shaping up as a real test of the Reagan administration's approach to human rights.

That approach is based on the theory that dialogue with a government is more effective than the Carter administration's policy of withdrawing military aid from nations accused of abusing human rights. But it remains to be seen whether such an approach can reduce the government's alleged role in violence against non-combatatants.

US officials say the US will relate military aid to progress on human rights, but in what way is not clear. Nor is it clear just how hard the US intends to push the human rights issue here or what it intends to do if the dialogue fails to bring results.

Latest US Embassy reports from here accuse the government of being involved in increasing abuse of human rights in its struggle against the guerrillas and their alleged sympathizers. Amnesty International, the London-based human rights organization, and other groups have soundly condemned the government for such alleged abuses.

Guatemalan politicians, military officials, businessmen, and others interviewed here express strong hope that the US government -- and the international press -- will pay greater attention to alleged human-rights abuses by the guerrillas, too. They feel that the government gets one-sidely blamed.

There is ample evidence that abuses occur on both sides. The number of politically motivated murders in Guatemala increased from an average of 85 a month in 1980 to about 275 a month in 1981, according to the US Embassy.

''Most of these victims were noncombatants,'' the latest embassy human-rights report states.

About a third of the victims were small farmers and other rural residents -- in areas where most of the rural population is Indian. But victims also included politicians, civilian government employees, businessmen, professionals, students , and others. In addition, police officers and soldiers have been assassinated while not involved in combat.

But the US estimate of killings is only a rough one that may not include killings in remote areas because it is based primarily on newspaper accounts.

The US charges that ''the greater number'' of these killings can be attributed to either the government or extreme right groups associated with the government. Both the government and guerrillas have tortured some prisoners, the US charges.

Amnesty International's latest report on Guatemala, issued last year, claims: ''The selection of targets for detention and murder and the deployment of official forces for extra legal operations can be pinpointed to secret offices in an annex of Guatemala's National Palace under the direct control of the president of the republic (Lucas Garcia).''

Rolando Archila Marroquin, deputy presidential press secretary, strongly denied this and related accusations of official involvement in noncombatant killings. He accused Amnesty International of failing to look at alleged human-rights abuses by the guerrillas.

Both he and US officials say that often it is not possible to discover who is reponsible for an apparently politically motivated murder. According to US officials, both sides have engaged in tactics that make it look as if the other side committed an atrocity.

Recent violence in this city tends to support the US Embassy's charge that both right- and left-wing violence is occurring:

* The rector of the University of San Carlos was assassinated last December after he made several attempts to stop the use of university facilities for leftist activities. Then the man who was to take his place was assassinated, perhaps by rightists who suspected the man of being a leftist.

* A businessman was killed at his plant by men who identified themselves as guerrillas and, according to local reports, made workers listen to a pro-communist lecture.

* After the daughter of a wealthy family here was kidnapped, a ransom was paid and the girl was returned. But, a friend of the family told the Monitor, the family found out who the kidnappers were. Not long after that the alleged kidnappers were killed.

''If the government is not keeping law and order, you take the law into your own hands,'' said this source.

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