Guatemala's Civil Defense Patrol Under Fire for Rights Violations
SAN ANTONIO SINACHE, GUATEMALA — ON her farm in the highlands northwest of Guatemala City, Tomasa Riquiac, a tiny, barefoot Indian woman, points out the unmarked graves of her husband and four friends. They were killed by civilian patrolmen in 1982 for refusing to become one of them, Mrs. Riquiac says matter-of-factly.
``Patrols used to pass by here all the time,'' she says. ``I know it was them, but what can I do?''
Guatemala's civilian patrols are a decade-old this year, still a powerful force of 500,000 men in a country of 9 million. But, as religious and political leaders have begun to hope, the groups' power is on the wane.
A new presidential peace plan and investigations by Guatemala's fledgling human rights office into alleged abuses by patrol members could spell the end of the controversial defense units.
Both sides in Guatemala's 30-year-old civil war met for the first time April 24 and 25 in Mexico City to talk over President Jorge Serrano Elias's peace plan. The plan would demilitarize the country, convene a National Assembly to draw up a new constitution, and force the left-wing guerrillas to lay down arms. The ensuing cease-fire would erase the need for civilian patrols. A second round of talks is to begin May 24.
``Of course, [the military] will take away the weapons of patrol members who don't need them in the case of peace,'' says Col. Homero Garc'ia, head of Army information. ``At the moment that the aggression ceases, we'll need to enter into a process of neutralization of all the people.''
Former President Romeo Lucas Garc'ia, during whose regime hundreds of people were killed monthly by death squads and guerrillas, formed a Civil Defense Patrol in 1981. The ragtag groups, carrying rifles, clubs, or machetes, guarded villages against guerrillas, acting as the eyes and ears for troops.
By 1983, there were close to 1 million registered civil patrol members helping the Army fight a growing insurgency of about 8,000 guerrillas. Numbers of patrolmen and of guerrillas have steadily decreased since a civilian government took office in 1986.
``The civilian patrols were useful at one time,'' says C'esar Alvarez Guadamuz, the country's assistant human-rights ombudsman. ``Guerrillas would have taken everything over.''
But now, observers say, there are only about 2,000 armed guerrillas who have lost much of their popular support. With the drop in guerrilla numbers, patrol members have acted increasingly on their own to settle scores rather than carry out counterinsurgency operations.
Mr. Guadamuz's office says during the past year 599 people were killed for political reasons, while another 233 people ``disappeared.'' Most such killings and disappearances were carried out by civilian patrols, he says.
``After 10 years, these people feel pretty invulnerable,'' concurs a US official in Guatemala City. ``They feel like they have the Army's approval whether they really do or not.''
Some Guatemalan politicians, who are not so sure the peace plan is going to work, say the Army - which has had nothing to do with negotiations thus far - is reorganizing patrol members and training them to take on the guerrillas if the peace process fails.
``The Army is waiting for Serrano to be a failure and they are getting the civilian patrols organized for future use,'' says Congressman Edmond Mulet, former chairman of Guatemala's congressional defense commission.
Colonel Garc'ia, the Army spokesman denies this, saying ``Whatever is necessary to achieve the goal of peace, and whatever support the president needs in his peace plan, will have the total support of the Army.''
Civilian patrol members have come under increasing fire for rights abuses past and present.
``Reliable evidence indicates that security forces and civil patrols committed, with almost total impunity, a majority of the major human rights abuses during 1990,'' says a US State Department human rights report on Guatemala released in February.
Abuses have also occurred against those not wishing to serve on the civilian patrols.
``It is a form, realistically, of servitude, of slavery, because these groups have never been truly voluntary,'' says Juan Jos'e Gerardi, chief of the Roman Catholic Church's rights office.
For the past year, Mr. Alvarez and other rights lawyers have combed the countryside, searching for graves and interviewing anyone who might know what happened those apparently killed or kidnapped by civilian patrols.
``The patrols are allowed to exist under the Constitution,'' Alvarez says. ``The best we can do is compile evidence of human rights abuses for the government and fight for prosecution.''
Although patrolmen have been blamed for abuses since 1981, no patrol member has ever been charged and sentenced. But rights workers could be forcing change. A judge recently issued arrest warrants for 14 civilian patrol members for the killings of two farmers in Chunima in February, and another last October.