AFTER nearly seven years of silent service, thousands of weary Indian peasants are daring to challenge the very heart of the Guatemalan Army's counterinsurgency: the ubiquitous civilian patrols. Over the past 10 months, rural peasant leader Amilcar Mendez Urizar has encouraged more than 6,000 men in 200 villages in Quich'e Province to exercise their constitutional right and not serve in the ``voluntary'' watchdog patrols, which they see as a form of forced military conscription.
The Mendez movement is not large, considering that an astonishing 800,000 unpaid peasants still serve in what is the most extensive civil-patrol network in the world. But it is sending tremors through the Guatemalan Army, which has used these patrols - called Voluntary Committees of Civil Defense - both to fight the leftist guerrillas and control the rural population.
The Army has reacted to the movement with a swift and systematic campaign to bolster the civilian patrols and cripple Mr. Mendez's grass-roots organization, the Council of Ethnic Communities ``Runujel Junam'' (CERJ). Runujel Junam means, in native Quich'e dialect, ``all equal''
The Army high command began its campaign in January when it publicly paraded self-proclaimed ex-guerrilla Miguel Angel Reyes Melgar. He accused CERJ and other human-rights groups here of collaborating with the Marxist-inspired rebels of the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity.
Last month, the government flooded the airwaves with commercials promoting the patrols. Meanwhile, Army civilian-affairs officers were dispatched to villages in Quich'e Province, offering development projects and resolving disputes with patrol leaders to convince villagers not to abandon the civilian patrols.
Three weeks ago in the village of Lacam'a, Army officers showed townspeople a video of Mr. Reyes calling Mendez a ``guerrilla in disguise,'' says villager Manuel Callel Morales. In another nearby hamlet, the Army arrived with frightening footage from Vietnam. According to a rural developer who works there, an officer asked the crowd, ``Would you like this to happen to you? Of course not. That's why civil patrols are so important.''
But the most disturbing incident, Mendez says, was the abduction of four CERJ members from their homes in April by armed men in uniform. There has been no sign since of the abducted men.
President Vinicio Cerezo Ar'evalo promised Mendez on May 17 that he would have a response over this incident within a month.
``This campaign hasn't stopped since January,'' says an exasperated Mendez. ``How can you strengthen a democratic process when you're using methods that are totally anti-democratic?''
For the Army, the question is not democracy, but counterinsurgency.
The patrols have played a crucial role in ensuring success in the Army's war against the leftist rebels. Not only do they serve as a front line against guerrilla groups, but they help the Army control the countryside and deter independent independent rural organizations like CERJ from taking root.
Formed by decree under Gen. Efra'in R'ios Montt in August 1982, the patrols mushroomed from 25,000 rural Indians to nearly a million in two years, dwarfing the 30,000-strong Army. The Army drafted nearly every adult male in the countryside who had not gone into the Army, joined the guerrillas, or fled the violence. The new civilian Constitution, drafted in November 1985, has since declared these patrols ``voluntary.''
But in the rural highlands, where most of Guatemala's 4 million pure-blooded Mayan Indians try to preserve their ancient culture, little has changed.
The Army still rules with an iron fist there, despite its claim that the leftists' rebel force has been stripped down from 10,000 fighters in 1980 to 800 today. And peasants still stream into Mendez's home with fresh complaints about forced conscription - sometimes even involving teenagers under the legal 18-year-old age limit.
The Army sees the continuance of civilian patrols as its insurance against a rebel resurgence.
``The [patrols] are an obstacle for the guerrillas,'' says chief military spokesman Col. Luis Arturo Isaacs Rodriguez. He taps a map that diagrams how the Army thinks the guerrillas will try to open up southern Quich'e as a supply route for their fighters in the northern mountains.
By organizing peasants to leave the patrols in southern Quich'e, ``Amilcar [Mendez] is - without realizing it - collaborating with the subversion,'' says Colonel Isaacs. ``We have to increase our force not to destroy [CERJ], but to help people avoid going down that road. We no longer think that we have to eliminate the group.''
Nevertheless, the Army apparently hopes to speed up CERJ's demise with its own public-relations blitz. The campaign is already having some impact. While no CERJ members have buckled and rejoined the patrols, the stream of rebellious peasants has slowed to a trickle.
But as long as the patrols continue to exact such high economic and physical costs, Mendez says, it is inevitable that an increasing number of peasants will be willing to risk leaving the patrols.
In conflictive zones, the patrols are often the first line of defense against a rebel attack. But the peasants are so poorly equipped for combat that Army critics call them ``cannon fodder.'' An estimated 100,000 people patrol each day, but Isaacs says the Army has handed out only 8,000 rifles. The rest carry sticks and machetes.
In more tranquil parts of the country, peasants complain that patrol duty takes valuable time away from farming. In some smaller villages, they sometimes have to trudge around on 24-hour shifts at least once a week.
Moreover, peasants who migrate to the southern coast each year to harvest sugar and cotton are often required to pay a replacement patroller around $2 for every 24-hour patrolling period they miss. Though illegal few peasants resist such payments.
``We no longer want to be in the patrols because it affects our health, it affects our work, and it brings us no benefits,'' says Manuel Mej'ias, who quit the civil patrol last November. The patrols' only beneficiary, he says, is the Army.