Rural Guatemala: under Army's forceful thumb. Army-run villages, civil defense patrols aim to undermine rebel support
Saraxoj, Guatemala — ``An Ideologically New Antisubversive Community'' The stenciled entrance sign boldly proclaims the purpose of this newly built barracks-style village in the highlands of Alta Verapaz. And for Saraxoj's 150 indigenous Indian families, that purpose is reinforced by daily military ritual.
As dusk falls on the surrounding hills, village residents line up on parade before the flagpole. Their faces impassive, their voices flat, they chant in halting Spanish the passwords for their new lives -- the national anthem, the Army hymn, the Guatemalan oath of allegiance.
Saraxoj is one of a score or so of model villages clustered in a series of so-called development poles in the provinces of Alta Verapaz, Quich'e, and Peten. These villages are part of the Army's counterinsurgency campaign against leftist guerrillas in the rebels' former strongholds.
It is in these provinces, thoroughly militarized by the antiguerrilla war, where President Vinicio Cerezo Ar'evalo's bid to democratize Guatemala is likely to face its toughest challenge.
``Most of the people living here were subversives,'' says Lt. Ricardo Rene, in charge of the military outpost overlooking the model village of Chisec. ``But they are aware of the work the Army did to create these places, and they make an effort to collaborate with us [the Army] now.''
They don't have much choice. A few years ago, the peasant farmers and their families, herded into development poles, were living in isolated mountain hamlets. There, Army thinking went, they could too easily become guerrilla supporters either by choice or through coercion.
To undercut this threat, the Army decided to give these people what the guerrillas could only promise them -- houses with electricity and running water, schools, health clinics, and roads. But these benefits came on the military's terms. The peasants' original homes were burned, their crops and livestock destroyed.
``If they wanted to live,'' explains one high-ranking military officer, ``they had to come in.''
Inhabitants of the Saraxoj area, however, did not come in for more than a year after they had fled with the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (known by the Spanish acronym EGP) in the face of an Army drive in 1982.
``For 13 months we ate just roots,'' remembers Alejandro L'opez Jom, former leader of the EGP's civilian supporters in the region and now head of the local development committee. ``Fifty of us died of hunger,'' and eventually 1,200 gave themselves in to the Army.
There began what the bishop of Cob'an, Msgr. Gerardo Flores, calls ``a process of brainwashing.''
For the first six months, the refugees were kept near the military airstrip at Cob'an, ``being constantly told that they were responsible for the deaths of their friends, that the Army's violence was all their fault,'' says Msgr. Flores. ``They were given a guilt complex.''
After they were moved to another camp, he recalls, the message they were given was that ``they owed their lives to the Army, that the Army had saved them.''
Today in Saraxoj, Flores continues with a Roman Catholic metaphor, ``The people are grateful, but they are not people, they are zombies. The three phases they have been put through are clear: guilt, redemption, thanksgiving.''
Less dramatic, but even more pervasive, is the other element in the Army's strategy of social control: the civil defense patrols. These patrols operate in every village and small town in Guatemala. Although membership in these patrols is officially voluntary, in practice it is obligatory for all men between the ages of 16 and 50, according to church and human rights officials. An estimated 1 million men, armed with ancient carbines and shotguns, take their 24-hour shift as often as their local commanders tell them to.
The model villages and civil defense patrols have played a key role in the Army's success in removing civilians from the areas in which the guerrillas operate, and bringing past or potential guerrilla supporters under the Army's wing.
But this success has been achieved, as President Cerezo said shortly before his election victory last December, ``at great cost to the people.''
Model-village residents -- in their clapboard houses laid out in neat rows with names like Liberty Street or New Life Road -- enjoy facilities they had never dreamed of before. But ``they are paying the price of what they left behind,'' says Msgr. Jos'e Pablo Urizar, the Bishop of Quich'e Province.
``For the indigenous Indian, land is part of his being,'' he adds.
The civil defense patrols, meanwhile, are ``a burden,'' according to Msgr. Flores. The Guatemalan Episcopal Conference has repeatedly asked that they be disbanded.
But the Army is proud of its counterinsurgency campaign, and seems likely to guard its creations jealously. ``You can't cut everything down just like that, if we are to continue development work and continue recovering people'' from guerrilla ranks, argues one senior military officer.
Although Cerezo campaigned on the promise to make the civil defense patrols voluntary and to allow model-village residents to return to their homes if they so wished, he has not moved on either pledge since he took office five months ago.
``We are going to make the development poles into social services centers, rather than the concentration camps they might have been,'' he said. ``And we are going to start a process that could lead to consultations with the people about the civil defense patrols.''
``If I made violent changes, it could provoke reaction whose effects could not predicted,'' he added, defending his cautious attitude.
The hardest change, it seems, will be in the mentality of peasant farmers long subjugated to military authority in a combat zone. Their potential for popular participation -- Cerezo's key to democracy -- will need much nurturing.
Civil patrolman after civil patrolman, when asked what he would do if his tasks were made voluntary, gave the same answer: ``It depends on what the colonel says.''
And what one colonel says is clear. ``The development poles and the patrols have proved their efficiency in the struggle against subversion,'' he says. ``A democratic government might change their names, but their function will remain the same.''
Last of four-part series. First three appeared June 23-25.