After brief decline, political violence in Guatemala is on the rise

Politically-motivated violence in Guatemala is on the rise, according to political analysts and diplomats. The rising violence follows a slight improvement in Guatemala's human rights situation since 1982, when killings and kidnappings reached a peak.

Guatemala's hard-line military government is trying to improve Guatemala's international image by calling for November elections. It plans to then turn formal power over to civilians.

Many observers were shocked by the killings this spring of two leaders of Guatemala's only human-rights group, the Mutual Support Group.

``The Mutual Support Group had as much international presence and support as any group and the fact that they were attacked is an indication of both the limits of the political opening and how little the Army really cares what the world thinks,'' says one academic researcher.

Army-related violence has been rampant in the small Indian municipality of Patz'un, where more than 100 Indians have been killed or have disappeared since the beginning of the year, according to church sources, local residents, and researchers.

Army violence and intimidation seem widespread in other parts of the countryside although not on as grand a scale as in Patz'un. ``The people here are terrified and confused,'' says an Indian man from the village of San Pedro la Laguna, where he says residents believe the Army killed one former mayor and two civilian military commissioners who had been chosen by the community.

In urban areas, armed, unidentified men -- whom most political analysts, the man on the street, and diplomats believe have direct or indirect links to the government security forces -- hit traditional targets: university and labor leaders.

In rural areas, the targets have been lay people associated with the Roman Catholic Church, and anyone remotely suspected of ties to or sympathies for the leftist guerrillas. The guerrillas were active in most of the Indian highland region until they were pushed back by the Army offensive of 1982. That was the worst period of abuses, when, according to Amnesty International, 2,168 Indians and peasants were killed within a four-month period under the military government of Gen. Efra'in R'ios Montt (1982- 83).

Theories on current violence vary. The government denies any responsibility. The government dismisses the killing of three faculty members and a score of students from the National University in Guatemala City. Three Indian social workers were kidnapped from the Roman Catholic University in the capital. It says they were killed because of involvement with the drug trade.

In cases where the kidnappers and killers wore Army or police uniforms, the government said the guerrillas were dressed in the official uniforms.

Many Ladinos, non-Indians of Spanish descent, believe the government's explanation or construct their own theories. They attribute the deaths to the inherent violence of Indian culture, claiming the Indians die as the result of drunken machete fights or old feuds.

Anthropologists, church officials, and political analysts dispute this characterization of Indian culture as violent. They note that the military's control of the countryside has superimposed a structure of violence that transforms ordinary conflicts into something more deadly.

Generalized terror is key to the Army's counterinsurgency effort, a political analyst in the capital points out. ``Even if the Army or civil-defense commander kills an innocent person, it doesn't matter. It helps intimidate the rest and keeps them from getting involved with the guerrillas.''

Political observers note that the Army violence is directed at areas suspected of guerrilla activity. A score of Army-related killings and disappearances hit the lakeside town of Santiago Atitl'an after guerrillas burned down the city hall in January, local residents say.

``Santiago is considered by the Army to be a center of the guerrillas,'' a church spokesman says. ``The Army's trying to keep their thumb on the place, keep it under control, and scare people. They're trying to show their power.''

Diplomats and other political analysts do not think that the elections will change the human-rights situation. They say the Army will remain the real power in the countryside, and counterinsurgency criteria will likely override any other consideration.

Most observers see the transition to civilian government as a slow process with the Army only gradually giving up authority over spheres that it deems critical -- such as control over the security forces.

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