They came out of the night, 21 men shouldering ancient carbines and shotguns, filing through the mist, shrouded in blankets against the cold. Nebaj's civil defense patrol and hundreds of others in villages throughout the northwestern province of Quich'e have become an integral part of peasant life in Guatemala's Indian highlands. Perpetually present, they ensure the uneasy calm that prevails in the wake of a storm of Army violence which left thousands of suspected guerrilla supporters dead between 1980 and 1983.
Today, with the region thoroughly militarized, the guerrilla threat has subsided. Under the Army's watchful eye, the centuries-old rhythms of daily village life are reestabishing themselves. Ninety-five percent of Quich'e's population are indigenous Indians, descended directly from the Mayan civilization that flowered 1,000 years ago. Living mainly in scattered hamlets in the highlands, their lives still revolve around the central pillar of Mayan culture -- maize.
A veritable staff of life, maize is grown everywhere, from the level banks of Quich'e's rare rivers to the slopes of mountains so steep they can be reached only on all fours. Cornstalks, dry and brown now as the end of the rainy season heralds the harvest, surround each adobe hut and stretch across every hillside in swathes cut from the receding forests.
This is not the sweet and tender corn of American kitchens, though. It is tough, hardy maize raised on the rockiest lands, dried in sacks, then ground with water and lime into the only food some Indians ever eat -- tortillas.
But the earth is poor. Fertilizer is expensive. The yields are low. Fewer than half of Quich'e's 100,000 families own their own land, and they are lucky to have more than a couple of hundred square yards. The rest of the families sow rented land, paying the owner with half the harvest.
Rarely can a campesino feed his family for the year with the corn and beans he raises himself. Come September, he is obliged to leave his upland village for the Pacific coast in search of a month or two's work picking coffee, harvesting sugar cane, or weeding cotton fields on the plantations. He returns with perhaps $75, if he is fortunate, to buy salt and chili peppers to accompany tortillas, the occasional pound of meat, and the corn and beans he could not grow himself.
When they are not cooking this food, walking miles to collect water, or organizing their children to fetch firewood, Indian women spend much of their time at looms, weaving the traditional huipiles , or blouses, that few have abandoned in favor of Western dress. The intricate designs and colors of these huipiles differ from village to village, as do the crafts by which women and girls can earn their families a litle extra income.
In San Juan Cotzal, women stretch string the length of the village's cobbled main street, twisting cactus fibres into the twine that their daughters roll into balls. Around the province capital of Santa Cruz del Quich'e, women and girls use every spare moment, even as they walk, to weave simple straw bands that others will make into hats. This is not lucrative work. The two days it takes to weave 20 yards of hat material earns just 15 cents. But that represents another few ears of corn.
A deeply religious people, the Indians of Quich'e find consolation for their lives of subsistence poverty in the Roman Catholic Church. Quich'e Catholicism, however, is a very particular blend of church teachings and religious customs dating back before the Spanish conquest.
On Sunday, market day in Chichicastenango, the dim interior of the white-washed colonial church is thick with incense smoke. Kneeling on the flag stone floor strewn with rose petals, the faithful hunch around low altars set along the aisle and offer up sacrifices. Murmuring incantations in Kakchikel, one of the three Indian languages spoken in Quich'e, they light clusters of candles and lay among them careful piles of corn, marigolds, apples, and blocks of raw sugar. Some more prayers, a sprinkle of cane liquor, and the rite is complete.
In recent years, the Catholic Church has lost adherents to evangelical sects, whose temples have proliferated in Quich'e. During the height of the Army's vicious counterinsurgency campaign between 1980 and 1983, close identification with the church and the liberation theology its priests had espoused was often tantamount to a death warrant. Liberation theology advocates the need for the church to become involved in movements for social justice and the desirability in some cases of revolution.
After three Spanish priests were killed in 1980, the bishop and all but one of Quich'e's 27 priests left the region. The church is reestablishing itself today, but has become less vocal in its protests at the manner in which Quich'e has been militarized.
Every able-bodied man in every village in Quich'e is obliged to join his local Army-organized civil defense patrol, and to do a day's duty once a week. For many, this is an economic burden, depriving them of a day's work in their fields or the chance to work for another person.
On the social level, however, the trauma of the early 1980s and the continuing civil patrols have had an even more profound effect. With each man watching his neighbor, suspicion is pervasive, and the Indians find themselves divided, one against the other.
``You can feel the change in atmosphere a lot,'' says one indigenous lay Catholic worker, whose father and brother died at the Army's hands three years ago. ``You don't talk much about freedom, you don't talk much about understanding, and you don't talk much to anyone you don't know.''
But two years after ``the situation,'' as the Indians euphemistically call the reign of terror that they survived, life goes on with the same fortitude and fatalism that has borne centuries of hardship. The corn harvest is coming in now. Planting will begin with the rains next May.