Despite government action, rights abuses rise in Guatemala

Although the Guatemalan government recently announced measures it has taken to improve the country's human rights situation, the number of assassinations and disappearances has increased since September. Over the past three months, the somewhat relaxed atmosphere that had begun to permeate the country when civilian rule was installed two years ago has been pierced by news of killings and kidnappings.

Newspapers run daily stories of people gunned down in the capital as well as the countryside, and of families saying their relatives have disappeared.

Some of the cases include:

The discovery of the bodies of two university students from Quezaltenango, Guatemala's second largest city, with signs of torture. They were found a week after witnesses reported that unidentified gunmen kidnapped them.

The disappearance of three peasants who work with the land-reform movement of Roman Catholic priest Andr'es Gir'on. The body of one later appeared with signs of torture.

The shooting of two former police chiefs who worked in narcotics, two children of another ex-agent in Guatemala City, and a wealthy businessman.

The surge in violence coincides with an ongoing military offensive aimed at wiping out guerrilla forces, the conflict between the private sector and the government over a proposed tax increase, and the countdown for compliance with the Central American peace accord.

Some say the recent killings and disappearances are an extension of the Army's offensive. Others say the extreme right-wing is conducting a destabilization campaign in reaction to the tax law.

Amid this rise in violence, the government released a document that describes measures it has taken to improve the nation's human rights record. It says that 23 Army officials, 51 office personnel hired by the military, and 11 military commissioners employed in the countryside are currently undergoing trials for ``diverse crimes committed in 1986.''

``It is very important to note that the actual administration has applied the law to everyone and that Army officials are currently being tried,'' the document says.

But an amnesty law protects Army officials and all government authorities linked to politically related crimes during the regimes of Gen. Efra'in R'ios Montt (1982-1983) and Gen. Oscar Mej'ia Victores (1983-1986) - the two heads of state who ruled Guatemala before civilian President Marco Vinicio Cerezo Ar'evalo took office Jan. 14, 1986.

According to the government document:

Several security forces, ones widely known to be responsible for state-run repression under military rule, have been reorganized.

The national police has been revamped, as have the presidential military staff and the most-feared government apparatus - Army Intelligence.

The secret police was disbanded a month after President Cerezo took office.

Nonetheless, the surge in violence over the past three months has brought back fears and memories from the past.

In its campaign against leftist guerrillas in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Army killed thousands of peasants suspected of supporting the guerrillas. Union leaders, university students, and anyone else considered a leftist sympathizer were also targeted by the Army.

``Things are getting tense again; you can feel it,'' a labor union leader said earlier this month. Five of his colleagues have received death threats, and three of them have fled the country.

Unionists blame private business interests and the Army for the recent repression.

According to members of the labor movement, of Guatemala's only independent human rights organization (the Mutual Support Group), and of the Roman Catholic Church, the Army continues to conduct killings and disappearances as it did in the past.

But now, they say, the Army is more selective in who it targets and its tactics are more sophisticated and subtle.

The recent events have sparked a public outcry for an end to the violence. Other groups have joined the Mutual Support Group in demanding respect for human rights. Known by its Spanish acronym GAM, the group represents the family members of 2,000 people who have disappeared in Guatemala.

The country's principal labor organizations recently organized a 15-mile march to Guatemala City to demand an end to the persecution of union members and to repression in general. One member said he and his colleagues decided to stage the demonstration because ``the pressure has been getting worse. We had to speak out.''

Another group, which makes handicrafts, is comprised of the wives of 27 union leaders who were kidnapped in 1981. Their goal is to find out what happened to their husbands.

Although the women are members of GAM, they have begun to distance themselves, saying they find more support in their own group.

Over the past year, GAM has lost strength as the nation's leading voice in demanding respect for human rights and demanding that the government investigate the disappearances of their relatives. Internal problems have divided the group, and a government program that provides financial assistance to families who declare their relatives legally dead has drawn some people away from GAM.

GAM leader Nineth de Garc'ia said the state-run program had hurt the group's membership.

She also said members had also been discouraged from attending GAM meetings by a recent increase in intimidation tactics in the countryside. Supporters are told they could be killed if they participate in GAM's activities.

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