The band of Guatemalan Indians marched down the twisted highway, carrying two long poles with tiny Guatemalan flags fluttering in the breeze. Some of the 15 men were in traditional dress, a checkered kilt; others wore ragged trousers and large cowboy hats. Two carried World War II vintage rifles, the rest were armed with machetes.
A year ago, travelers might have thought they had encountered a squad of antigovernment guerrillas. But today, it was certainly the civil defense patrol, a key element in the Guatemalan government's remarkably successful campaign against leftist insurgents.
After only 10 months in power, Guatemala's President, Efrain Rios Montt, has proved himself the success story of Central American politics.
A year ago, the senior Army officers ruling Guatemala were looting the national treasury, their death squads murdered dissidents in the streets, and Marxist-led Indian guerrillas controlled much of the western highlands. But many things have changed since young Army officers staged a coup, following the fraudulent elections of March 1982, and brought Rios Montt, a retired general and born-again Christian, to power.
Reports of Army atrocities still abound, and more than 30,000 Guatemalan refugees have fled to Mexico. But the general level of violence in the country has abated, and it has won the regime substantial support.
''It's more peaceful now,'' are the words often heard.
There is less confidence in the ability of Rios Montt to clean up the government. When he made government officials vow publicly that, ''I will not lie, rob, or abuse,'' a local newspaper discovered that 95 percent of 1,000 citizens polled doubted it would make any difference.
In the western highlands, Army advances have reduced guerrilla activity to a level far below that of a year ago. By escalating the previous regime's terror campaign against villages suspected of supporting the revolutionaries, Rios Montt showed the Indian peasants that the guerrillas could not protect them. But for those who would support the government, he held out amnesty, food, and security - an offer the rebels cannot match.
Small-scale public works projects on a food-for-work basis have helped to create a base of support in Indian communities. By ending the grandiose, graft-ridden, showcase projects of the old regime, Rios Montt is diverting funds to the local level, where they boost employment.
The government claims to have enlisted 100,000 men, most of them Indians, into the obligatory, Army-organized civil defense patrols. Although the rationale offered for the patrols is protection against the guerrillas, this has never been the main threat facing Indian farmers. The real appeal of the civil patrols is that they serve as protection against the Army that organizes them.
By keeping the guerrillas away, the Army is less likely to make brutal reprisals. But peasants coming from the highlands told the Monitor the patrols now are responsible for many killings, often on Army orders. Indians from Todos Santos Cuchumatan said they and many of their neighbors are leaving farms for the departmental capital, Huehuetenango, because they fear the patrols.
Despite Rios Montt's claim that subversion has diminished by 90 percent, in January the guerrillas proved him wrong: The Army reported 28 dead and 20 wounded in ambushes. Fighting continues principally in the region bordering Mexico, where the Army says it is finding guerrilla camps and inflicting heavy casualties.
The government denies any responsibility for reported recent massacres and raids into refugee camps in Mexico. Murder of four refugees by 100 armed men in civilian dress coming from Guatemala drew a stiff reaction from the Mexican government.
Several villages near La Libertad were abandoned recently by refugees who said in Mexico that they feared more violence from the Army. The Guatemalan government attributes the exodus to a ''false evangelical preacher,'' who had a vision of the events.
However unexpected, the emergence of a born-again military dictator, Rios Montt, has tapped powerful sources of political strength. One was disgust among junior military officers at the venality, incompetence, and brutality of superiors who were forcing them to fight a losing war. Now, they are winning the war and even making some headway against their own institution's horrendous reputation. These achievements seem to have turned the officer corps into a bulwark against another coup d'etat.
Rios Montt is a dedicated member of the Church of the Word, a California-based fundamentalist group. His religion-based populism finds wide support not only in the 20 percent of Guatemalans who have converted to the evangelical Protestant churches. One of his first messages of his nationwide Sunday radio and television talks called on the men of Guatemala to stop spending their families' food money on liquor and prostitutes - an appeal touching the needs of many Guatemalan women.Rios Montt is appropriating truths about Guatemalan society that until now have been expressed only by the left. He has thundered at official corruption, calling the last regime the ''robbery of the century.'' In a speech to businessmen Jan. 28, he said Guatemala was divided into the 5 million exploited making less than $500 a year and the 2 million exploiters making more.
Rios Montt's vision is to reform Guatemala based on his Christian beliefs. But to do that he will have to turn his born-again dictatorship into a born-again electoral democracy - not easy after decades of fraud and right-wing destruction of the political center. To date, he has kept largely discredited right-wing parties at bay by banning their activities and announcing a prolonged timetable for return to constitutional rule.
New laws regulating political activity take effect March 23, the first anniversary of the coup, with elections for a constitutional assembly scheduled for 1984. AlRios Montt retracted a declaration that he would leave power in 1985 , he maintains that he will not be a presidential candidate.
The Reagan administration is pleased with these developments and in January lifted an embargo on sale of spare parts for helicopters for the Guatemalan military. It also expects to renew credit and other aid.
Guatemala's depressed economy is the worst threat to Rios Montt's rule. Although Guatemala carries a low foreign debt, the collapse of tourism and low prices on coffee, cotton, and sugar left it with a $350 million balance-of-payments deficit in 1982 and a 3.4 percent drop in its gross national product.