In Guatemalan Town, Life Revives After Army Exodus
SANTIAGO ATITLAN, GUATEMALA — IT'S evening. And there's laughter in the streets of Santiago Atitlan. A ragtag soccer match goes on until nearly midnight. Women chat by candlelight in the marketplace. Children race between the men congregating on the porch of the municipal building. Five months ago, there was a deathly silence over the town at this hour. "The Army was the government then. Now, for the first time in 11 years, we're governing ourselves," says Diego Chiquival Chavez, lifetime resident and a social worker.
Officially, Guatemala forsook military rule in 1985. Earlier this year, the second civilian government in a row was installed. But, practically, the 30-year battle against guerrilla insurgents means many rural areas remain under de facto military control.
Until recently, Santiago Atitlan - viewed by the Army as a rebel stronghold - was no exception. In 1980, the Army arrived at this lakeside village to "protect" the Mayan descendants from leftist insurgents. But the Army brought an unofficial curfew and terror. Murder, kidnapping, rape, and robbery became common.
"We were averaging four murders or disappearances a month - about 1,200 victims over 10 years. Ninety-eight percent were at the hands of the Army," says a local religious leader.
Last Dec. 2, 2,000 unarmed residents gathered outside the garrison demanding to know why soldiers had tried to rob and abduct a shopkeeper. The Army answered with bullets. Fourteen Atitecos died. On Dec. 20, in an unprecedented act, Guatemala's President ordered the Army out of Santiago.
People go out at night now; deaths and disappearances have stopped. "The fear is gone. We have maybe 5 percent of the crime we had five months ago," says newly-elected Mayor Salvador Ramirez.
He and others say the Army armed local gangs, which terrorized the town into bringing back Army-run civil patrols. (In most of Guatemala, the Army uses so-called volunteer patrols to supplement its counterinsurgency effort. Several years ago, Santiago was one of the few rural towns to exercise its constitutional right to refuse participation in these patrols.)
"We don't want the Army or the [rebels] here. If the guerrillas come, then the Army will follow. We want to live and work in peace," Mr. Ramirez says.
Since the massacre, residents run their own voluntary patrols, and a new unity is apparent. This isolated town, which depends on agriculture, tourism, and fishing, is also reaping economic benefits. Farmers are planting again - in plots abandoned because they were in "guerrilla territory" and on the land where the Army garrison stood.
Town officials no longer lurch from one Army-induced crisis to another. They are busy with more mundane problems, such as getting a new water pump. The mayor is now director of the provincial mayors' association, and has been asked to join a national group. "What the Atitecos have done has not been lost on the rest of the country," notes Robert Carlsen, an American anthropologist who has studied the town for six years.
Nor has it been lost on the Army, which asserts that the President does not have the authority to prevent it from reentering Santiago. "In the entire national territory there is no place that's off limits to the armed forces," an Army spokesman says.
"The Army," notes a local religious leader, "has a real stake in this not working."