Abuse in Guatemala

ON Sept. 29, another student leader turned up dead in Guatemala City. The same day, while Guatemala continued to suffer its worst wave of political violence in years, the nation's defense minister met with members of Congress to seek continued support for arms sales and military aid. The US should put a hold on lethal arms sales while human rights abuses are on the rise. Five kidnapped members of the university community have been found dead in recent weeks, and at least six more are missing. Two leading unionists, a Social Democratic Party leader, and a founder of the governing Christian Democratic Party have all been killed in recent months.

Grenade attacks have terrorized Guatemala City and blasted the offices of the Mutual Support Group for Relatives of the Disappeared. A member of that group was abducted in August. Since November, there have been at least three massacres in rural areas. The Army attributes these attacks to guerrillas, but human rights groups like Amnesty International suspect military involvement.

The violence is stifling political expression in Guatemala. Participation in the weekly meetings of the National Dialogue, convened this year to promote national reconciliation, has fallen off sharply. Exiles who returned to participate in the dialogue fled last May after receiving death threats. Several other groups participating have been threatened, as have the National Dialogue's staff. These threats were made credible by the murder in August of a man representing refugees in the dialogue.

The killing of Christian Democratic Party founder Danilo Barrillas, also in August, has for the first time stirred fear in the hearts of the political elites that have until now been less vulnerable. Members of the Guatemalan Congress now try to be home by 7 p.m. every night.

General Gramajo, the defense minister, and president Vinicio Cerezo argue that the violence is committed by sectors opposed to civilian rule. Time and again, President Cerezo and General Gramajo have told the US Congress that military aid and arms sales are needed to give rebellious elements a stake in the system. Time and again this logic has proven false.

US nonlethal military aid rose from $5 million in FY 1987 to $7 million in FY 1988, but that did not stop a May 1988 coup attempt. Soon afterward, the US ended a decade-long ban of lethal arms sales to Guatemala by licensing the purchase of 16,000 M16-A2 rifles. Congress then added $2 million to nonlethal military aid for FY 1988, and later approved another $9 million for FY 1989.

Not even this placated the officers who launched another coup attempt last May. A congressional aide once described this as a Pavlovian response - every time the military launches a coup attempt, we reward them with more money. Rather than help stem the violence, the US signals its tolerance of antidemocratic behavior.

No member of the military has been punished for human rights abuse under Cerezo, despite numerous documented cases. The Army acts with impunity in rural areas, where villagers are forced to participate in paramilitary patrols. Those who protest are often threatened, sometimes killed. Abuses go unpunished because nobody investigates them. Neither the government's human rights ombudsman nor the attorney general has any investigative capacity.

The only agency with resources to investigate crimes is the National Police, and they are part of the problem. Torture victims have ended up in the National Police headquarters, and torture is conducted in the Zone 18 police precinct, according to judges who have seen detainees. Military officers run the police, so there is little incentive to investigate alleged Army abuses.

The US has been too tolerant of abuse. Not only have military aid and sales racheted up, but since late last year there has been a series of joint US and Guatemalan military training exercises. This identifies the US with the Guatemalan Army in the eye of the Guatemalan public.

Congress should suspend arms sales to Guatemala until documented military abuses are investigated and punished, until forced civil patrols are ended, and until the intimidation and violence directed at opposition groups ends. In addition, military aid should be kept nonlethal until these conditions are met.

Strong human rights conditions from the US can help preserve the ability of Guatemalans to express dissent legally. Otherwise, it is likely that the country's insurgency - still not a serious threat - will grow, and armed conflict will escalate.

Recently, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher acknowledged that ``extremist violence has been on the rise in Guatemala'' and said ``we condemn these acts in the strongest possible terms.'' But unless such words are backed up with sanctions, they will ring hollow.

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