GUATEMALA'S newly inaugurated President, Marco Vinicio Cerezo Ar'evalo, has taken his first promised step toward ending human rights abuses in his troubled nation: He has abolished the feared secret police and fingerprinted its 600 members. Those suspected of crimes are to be prosecuted. President Cerezo in effect has put on notice the military and police forces, without confronting them directly. The military remains the most powerful element in Guatemala today, far stronger than the elected government: Too broad a challenge to military or police could likely result in the unseating of Mr. Cerezo, which is why his decision to move against only one police arm, the secret police, at this time was appropriate.
It was also the correct human rights move. During his election campaign Cerezo had promised to end his country's widespread human rights abuses, reported since the late 1970s by Guatemalan exiles and international organizations and blamed on sections of the military, the police, and paramilitary forces. The secret police received a good share of the condemnation, and it deserved to be the first force to be disbanded. Other police or military departments should take note: They could be next.