Guatemalan rights group urges inquiry. It wants President to set up independent group to look into disappearances

Guatemala's only functioning human rights group faces an uphill battle in its attempts to find out the fate of people who disappeared during the brutal regime of former military governments. ``All we hear are unfulfilled promises,'' said Nineth Montenegro de Garc'ia, head of the Mutual Support Group. Known by its Spanish acronym GAM, the group represents the family members of some 2,000 disappeared people in Guatemala.

GAM is scheduled to meet with President Marco Vinicio Cerezo Ar'evalo today to press its demands for an independent commission to investigate political disappearances under his predecessor Gen. Oscar Mej'ia V'ictores.

President Cerezo, Guatemala's first civilian leader in 20 years, is prohibited by law from prosecuting the military for human rights abuses committed during its counterinsurgency campaign.

Before General Mej'ia turned power over to Mr. Cerezo in January 1986, he decreed a general amnesty absolving military personnel of all rights violations. Because the military retains much power, Cerezo has avoided prosecuting the military. During the Army's war to eliminate leftist guerrillas, human rights observers say more than 50,000 Guatemalans have died or disappeared since 1980.

Although GAM has achieved international recognition since it was formed in 1984, observers say it has little popular support inside Guatemala. Some Guatemalans, political observers and civilians, say the group is politically motivated and funded by international leftist organizations. GAM denies the accusations.

Others point out that GAM represents only a tiny minority, mostly peasant Indians from the countryside long ignored by the political process anyway. They also say GAM has been unable to mount any wide base of support or to more actively pressure the government on current political killings.

Cerezo announced the formation of a human rights commission on April 7. He said commission, made up of four government members, would produce its findings within three months. When that failed to materialize, some 175 GAM members marched into the National Congress, demanding to meet with Mr. Cerezo.

Garc'ia says GAM is frustrated by and angry at the government's lack of response. ``It's been three years of vigils and demonstrations and still no one has responded to us. We are not asking about animals, we are asking about human lives,'' Garc'ia says.

No one wants to investigate the military for any involvement in human rights crimes, political observers say.

``The ability of police and the judiciary to investigate is nil,'' said a human rights attorney in Guatemala who requested anonymity. ``It's not just a lack of technical training and corruption. Any investigation is not really relevant here because [the government has] already agreed not to mention anyone in the Army or police as being responsible.''

GAM leaders say they still receive telephone threats and are under constant surveillance.

``We are very sorry,'' said H'ector Gramajo Morales, defense minister and head of the armed forces, when asked about human rights abuses. ``But we did not begin this problem. The Army as an institution defended the state of Guatemala, and in the actions of defense a lot of casualties were suffered by the Guatemalan people. We only reacted against the terrorists in order to control the seizure of power by them.''

Jorge Lu'is Archila Am'equita, president of a separate congressional human rights commission, said that he had received ``no response from the executive'' on how Cerezo's commission was to function.

``The problem revolves around reaching an agreement about whether to include international members on the commission,'' Mr. Archila Amequita said. GAM wants an international observer, such as the Inernational Red Cross, on the commission.

GAM sees two other problems:

Cerezo's commission has not reported its findings within the three months promised.

The government has delayed naming a human rights attorney-general even though the National Congress approved the budget for the position.

Political observers all say that GAM has little chance of getting what it seeks from the 17-month-old civilian government.

Meanwhile, GAM refuses to take ``no'' for an answer. It has just bought a house in a suburb with funds from the $50,000 Carter-Menil Human Rights prize received last year that will serve as its headquarters. As part of its work, GAM distributes food rations to needy members every two weeks.

``We are decided and we are firm,'' said Ester de Herrarte, an executive member of GAM whose son disappeared May 15, 1983, after being taken away from his home by heavily armed men. ``We will continue until we find them.''

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