WHILE the world looks to the possibility of a Christmas peace in El Salvador, talks between rebels and the goverment in Guatemala have reached a deadlock, appearing to dash hopes for a December peace here as well.A clash over human rights issues has led to the first breakdown in negotiations since the dialogue between guerrilla leaders and Guatemalan generals began last April in Mexico. Following government rejection of a series of rebel demands regarding international human rights monitors and government indemnity for victims of past violence, the dialogue has evolved into a series of bitter public exchanges laced with accusations of bad faith and inflexibility. The impasse has appeared to breathe new life into the 31-year-old civil war: At least five soldiers were killed and dozens more injured in a battle Thursday in the province of Quiche, northwest of Guatemala City.
Search for middle ground The guerrillas have demonstrated a "total lack of creativity," said Guatemalan President Jorge Serrano Elias following a fifth round of talks late last month. The meetings will not continue, he said, until the two sides can bring their positions closer. "I represent a legal, constitutional regime and I therefore cannot accept any illegal demands," Mr. Serrano said. "It's time the guerrillas understand that once and for all." Guerrilla leaders, in a statement released shortly after Serrano's remarks, criticized the use of "legalistic pretexts to avoid substantive agreements" and "actions that would guarantee an end to impunity and full observance of human rights." In this atmosphere, Bishop Rodolfo Quezada Toruno, who heads the National Reconciliation Commission (CNR) mediating the talks, and United Nations (UN) observer Francisc Vendrell have been shuttling between the two sides seeking concessions that would allow talks to continue. Last Wednesday, Quezada, just back from a visit with guerrilla leaders in Mexico, said he may have found "middle ground" that he will present to both sides next week. When asked if the talks could resume by year end, he replied simply, m optimistic." The Guatemalan civil war, Central America's longest-running, has left more than 100,000 people dead and 40,000 missing. The peace talks designed to end the war came to a standstill after an Oct. 22-24 Mexico City meeting, the fifth overall and the third focusing on human rights. At the latest meeting, leaders from four rebel groups, organized under the umbrella of the Guatemalan United Revolutionary Front (URNG), demanded that a UN delegation be allowed to investigate rights abuses and that measures to reduce future violations be implemented immediately. The government delegation - administration officials and the chief of military intelligence - insisted that only after a peace agreement had been signed and the guerrillas had laid down their weapons could any such rights measu res be implemented. While not opposed to independent rights investigations, the government maintains that international participation in such work would be "unconstitutional" and conflict with the work of existing national institutions such as the human rights ombudsman. Observers say such arguments stalled the talks because of a lack of international mediation and the exclusion of national organizations. It took UN mediation to rejuvenate El Salvador's peace talks 18 months ago. Guatemala's Mayan groups say they will boycott any negotiated accords unless they are allowed to sit at the table when the talks focus on the rights of indigenous peoples. The breakdown has been particularly disappointing for Serrano, who will complete his first year in office in January. Ignoring what some felt were more pressing problems, like a rise in crime, he has focused on the peace talks.
War begins to heat up Now, as the process drags out and the war starts to heat up in the countryside, polls show public confidence is waning in Serrano and his campaign promise to quickly end the conflict. While many observers agree it would be politically damaging for either side to completely pull out of the negotiations, the talks will likely progress slowly, despite Serrano's September prediction that an end to the war was likely in six to eight months. "It's going to take a lot longer than six to eight months," says longtime Guatemalan congressman Jorge Skinner Klee. "It's unrealistic to expect [the rebels] to lay down their arms right now.... This is a country of violence, and there would be so much bitterness. I don't think the guerrillas can ever be incorporated back into society." He and others expect battlefield activity to grow more intense as negotiations lose steam. "We are stronger than the URNG, and naturally this creates a position of weakness for them at the negotiating table," says Gen. Marco Gonzalez Taracena, head of the military intelligence unit known as the G-2. Armed guerrillas number approximately 1,500 while the military totals about 45,000. Peasants living and working in the coffee farms around Palin, about 25 miles south of the capital, complained that they live in constant terror of being ambushed. "It is not right that while the government and the guerrillas are searching for peace through talks, combat continues so close to the capital," says the Rev. Erwin Garcia, a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese. "The church was hoping that the dialogue would be respected by both sides. But with the fighting of the last few days, this has shown us that the guerrillas do not have the political will to reach peace within this country."