Guatemalan refugees ignore government's plea to return

The Guatemalan government's campaign to encourage the return home of refugees who fled violence between the Army and guerrillas remains unsuccessful. Out of an estimated 100,000 refugees settled in the Mexican border province of Chiapas, only a few dozen are known to have returned. Those remaining refuse to budge until the political climate in their country improves.

''I'd rather die here than go back,'' said Juana Pablo, a mother of seven children. ''If the situation really changed, I might. But it hasn't - the killings, no medicine, no food. We are better off here.''

Since January, Guatemalan President Efrain Rios Montt, who was deposed this week in a coup, had been publicly asking the refugees to return.

''Radio stations in the Guatemalan provinces that border Mexico have been broadcasting radio pleas to the refugees, inviting them to come back and promising government protection and assistance,'' says Pedro Juarez of the Commission on Human Rights in Guatemala.

''The Guatemalan government also sends civil guards and missionaries to the camps, to invite the refugees to return.''

Few have heeded the messages. A series of kidnappings and murders of refugees this spring, allegedly committed by Guatemalan soldiers, were the main deterrent. Many camps are not safe, being less than 1 kilometer away from the border, which Guatemalan troops and helicopters violate regularly.

Another reason refugees are reluctant to go back is the fear that the Army will enroll them in civilian patrols, perhaps forcing them to kill friends suspected of helping guerrillas, said Kiki Suarez, a representative of the San Cristobal Committee for Aid to Refugees in Chiapas.

According to the Agency of Help to Guatemalan Refugees, an aid program sponsored by the Roman Catholic Church, some of the refugees who returned to Guatemala died.

''Around Feb. 12, Guatemalan civil guards convinced a family of six refugees to return,'' says a spokesman who requests anonymity. ''They were killed in the district of Ana Huista and their bodies thrown in a river on the second night after their return.''

There are about 35 officially recognized Guatemalan refugee camps in Chiapas. The Mexican government estimates 36,000 refugees have entered Mexico since the Guatemalan Army - under the cover of an antiguerrilla campaign - started killing Indian populations in early 1982.

Private refugee organizations claim that this figure includes only Guatemalans registered by Mexican authorities. The real number of Guatemalan refugees in Mexico surpasses 100,000, they say.

General Rios Montt, a self-proclaimed born-again Christian leading a country that is 90 percent Roman Catholic, launched the counterinsurgency operation in his country's highlands after coming to power in a coup in March 1982. The -counterin- surgency campaign was ostensibly aimed at four rebel organizations with an estimated total strength of 4,000 to 6,000.

However, human rights organizations and Guatemalan refugees report that government troops not only hunt guerrillas, but conduct large-scale massacres of Indians.

On June 11 last year Guatemalan soldiers reportedly invaded the Indian village of Las Pacayas, in Alta Verapaz Province, setting fire to huts and leaving at least 60 men, women, and children dead. According to refugees interviewed, dozens of villages were hit.

''I fled last August because the soldiers burned our village,'' says Juana Pablo. ''I come from Ixcan. The Army came and started burning everything and killing people. They killed my husband and burned our house. But they did not kill me, thank God, and I was able to flee with the children.''

The Guatemalan Army has followed a policy of tierra arrasada, or scorched earth, burning villages and harvests and regrouping Indians into new settlements it controls. The campaign has the nickname ''beans and guns'' - beans for those who submit, and bullets for those who don't, refugees say.

The Guatemalan government claims that those killed in the -counterin- surgency campaign have been rebels killed in combat and victims of the guerrillas. Former President Rios Montt had said peasants were fleeing Guatemala only to avoid punishment after collaborating with rebels, or to escape being caught in cross fire between the Army and the guerrillas.

However, his calls for the refugees' return reflect growing embarrassment at their number - which has mushroomed from about 2,000 in January 1982 to at least 36,000 today.

''And refugees are still coming,'' says a spokesman for the Agency of Help to Guatemalan Refugees. ''About 1,200 refugees arrived in June and July in the central border zone. In that (area) up to 200 Guatemalans enter every day, and about the same number is denied entry.

''It is difficult to say, however, if they are all refugees, since in that area many Guatemalans come to Mexico on a daily basis to shop,'' the spokesman said.

Until now, the Guatemalans by and large have been welcomed in Mexico.

''Mexico has a very old tradition of asylum,'' said Mario Vallejo of the Mexican Commission for Aid to Refugees (COMAR).

But there is little work for the Guatemalans in Chiapas, a mountainous area of lush jungles and large coffee and cotton plantations. Most refugees are farmers, but Mexico has no land to give them. They have had to survive on aid.

However, Mexico is hesitant about permitting foreign relief organizations to operate in its territory. Any aid to the refugees - including United Nations aid from the High Commission on Refugees - must reach them through COMAR. The organization is supposed to forward it to the camps.

The COMAR effort has been hampered by corruption, incompetence, and bureaucratic haggling. Some camps did not receive aid for months and while it should include various foodstuffs for balanced diets, it is often only corn and beans.

The Mexican immigration department seems to have an ambivalent policy. According to Mr. Vallejo, ''The immigration services have been registering the refugees and giving them permits to stay and work.''

But private relief organizations and refugees say immigration services have made it tough for refugees to find work and have submitted them to many kinds of annoyances.

''Until July, immigration officers refused to give work permits to the refugees and forbade them to leave the camps, arresting them if they disobeyed, '' says a relief agency spokesman. ''Then they changed their mind and gave permits to some.''

Plans to move them further inside Mexico, to teach them Spanish and job skills needed here, and to assimilate them were not carried forward. The presence of the camps is a constant source of incidents with Guatemalan forces who violate the border, claiming to be searching for guerrillas.

When they have tried to work in the ranches at harvest time, Guatemalans have been accused of depressing already low wages. Mexican officials say that handicrafts made by refugees compete with those of poor native Mexicans at a time when the country is in the middle of its worst economic crisis.

While officials deny that guerrillas live among the refugees, they worry that Guatemalan violence might overflow into Mexico.

There were rumors in May and June that Guatemala was pressuring Mexico to send the refugees home. ''We were told that both governments were working on such a plan,'' says a relief agency spokesman.

Mexican authorities deny this. ''The refugees are welcome to stay,'' says Mr. Vallejo.

For the time being, the uneasy status quo along the border will continue.

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