Distrust, Suspicion Mark Return of Guatemalans

As refugees end exile in Mexico, disputes with government continue

A FIELD of marijuana flourishes in a jungle clearing. Everyone knows it is here. Nobody wants to deal with it.

A feud over eradicating the marijuana has been a major obstacle to the resettling of 2,500 Guatemalan war refugees who returned in January. Most fled to Mexico in the early 1980s during a counterinsurgency campaign, often described as the most brutal chapter in Central America's longest-running civil war.

Two years of peace talks and a pact guaranteeing safe passage and credits for land have encouraged some refugees to come home. Another 8,100 of the 45,000 refugees in Mexican camps are planning to return between May and August.

But this first camp, although benefiting from organizational skills learned in exile, has taken only halting steps toward self-sufficiency.

"The government and the community have been more inclined to power games than getting down to the practical steps of setting up the community," says Michel Gabauven, the head of the local office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, who is funding the return.

Little corn has been planted. The process of distributing land to the refugees has been delayed. Government food supplies are intermittent. Sanitary conditions in this remote area near the Mexican border are marginal.

At the heart of the land distribution problem is the marijuana dispute. The issue literally exploded in February when two repatriates set off a small bomb at the edge of the field. Observers say the bomb was not a mine set by the Army, as first claimed by the refugees, but simply an explosive device designed to scare people away from the crop. Clearing issue

The refugees will not begin planting or move forward on distributing land until the government clears the area of marijuana and any other explosive devices.

"We can't work in the fields if there are bombs there. Besides, the marijuana is on the best land for growing corn and beans," says Baltazar Gaspar Tomas, a community council member.

Government officials, including President Jorge Serrano Elias, promised over a month ago to destroy the illegal crop. But it is still here, and both sides are arguing over whose responsibility it is to rid the fields of the marijuana.

Late last month, unknown campesinos (peasants) were seen working in the field. "We believe the government or the Army is waiting so that the narco-traffickers will have time to harvest the crop," says Catalino Tejax, a member of the refugees' Permanent Commission here.

The marijuana issue exemplifies the distrust the two sides have for one another. The government and the Army suspect the refugees have been infiltrated by leftist rebels. The area where the repatriates have returned is just a few miles from the site of intense fighting between rebels and Army forces.

Another round of peace talks was set to begin on May 5 in Mexico City, but progress to date has been slow. Indeed, the conflict has escalated in recent months. Almost nightly, Army helicopters pass low over the camp, their lights off. "The adults see a rerun of the nightmare and terror that they fled from 10 years ago. They stand frozen, " says Sister Julie Cutter, a Roman Catholic nun working in the camp.

Recently, helicopters hovered over the camp, dropping anti-guerrilla propaganda leaflets.

"The purpose of the leaflets is to alert the people not to be tricked by the guerrillas," says Capt. Julio Alberto Yon Rivera, spokesman for the Guatemala armed forces. And, the helicopter overflights, he says, are necessary because the refugees are in a direct line between the main Army base and two strategic outposts on the frontline of the war.

Refugee leaders have asked that the flights be rerouted around the camp. But the request is not likely to be granted. "The Army has had a hard time resupplying its camps. They have to bring in provisions by air. If they come in during the day, the helicopters get shot," says an analyst with good Army contacts. Organizers lauded

Despite the war-zone tension and political posturing that has caused resettlement delays, observers do credit the refugee leadership for being well-organized.

"They've done a fabulous job with the school. They have blackboards, desks, and notebooks. And it opened a little more than a month after arriving," says Sister Cutter. Indeed, the center of the camp is abuzz with the cacophony of some 770 children crammed into dozens of huts. Nearby, in a clear area amid a graveyard of felled trees, older children play a lively match of volleyball.

Later, over a meal of corn tortillas, refried beans, and maize tea, Mr. Gaspar explains: "The best part of being in Mexico was learning how to organize and learning first hand about democracy. In Mexico, the authorities told us we had to elect a representative of the group," he adds. "If you needed food, or transportation, or medical care, you went to your representative. He then arranged a solution with the Mexican authorities."

Another community leader, Santiago Antonio Martinez concurs. "In Mexico, we learned what our rights are and how to defend them. We don't like being called collaborators with the URNG [Guatemala National Revolutionary Union]. The problem is that the Army isn't used to people talking back to them and sticking up for their rights. We know now that our unity - plus international support - is a guarantee of safety. United we won't suffer what we suffered in the past."

But Captain Yon Rivera insists the international community is being duped into supporting a rebel strategy. "Why did the refugees choose this spot in all of Guatemala, which happens to be right on the war front? Why here where there is no electricity, no water, no road? Why do they insist on being so independent from the Guatemalan government? This is the start of `liberated rebel territory' a state within a state."

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