AFTER 34 years of enduring the longest civil war in Latin America and six years of stop-start talks between leftist guerrillas and a military-dominated government, Guatemalans are seeing the first signs of peace.
The most visible signs are groups of United Nations observers, arriving daily since last week, who are here to verify compliance by both sides of peace accords agreed to earlier this year.
But the UN presence has also coincided with an outbreak of violence, the likes of which has not been seen since last year's coup against elected President Jorge Serrano Elias. Protests against a hike in bus fares last week escalated into massive rioting.
The unprecedented presence of these UN watchdogs in isolated areas is expected to improve a human rights record blamed for 100,000 deaths and the disappearance of 40,000 people in the last 30 years.
Human rights violations have actually increased since the signing of a human rights accord in March of 1994, according to the Human Rights Office of the Archbishop here.
Many of the abuses are committed against the Mayan Indian majority, whose lives have changed little since the Spanish conquest, and today have a literacy rate of only 45 percent. Guatemala remains the poorest country in Latin America after Haiti.
``The UN mission's arrival is the only concrete result of the peace process thus far,'' says Juan Leon of the Defensoria Maya, an organization defending the rights of the Mayan Indians.
``Their presence gives hope to people in the countryside where many are afraid and the repression has been very bad. But it is very important that the mission maintain its independence from the government,'' Mr. Leon says.
Guatemala's President Ramiro de Leon Carpio, formerly the country's human rights ombudsman, has been criticized for not cracking down on violations.
A push for peace
Some activists and analysts here warn that international pressure for a quick peace is leaving unresolved a wealth gap that lies at the heart of the guerrilla war led by the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG).
Tired of the wars in this region, the international community is eager to close the Guatemalan chapter, European and Canadian diplomats say. With Guatemala bordering Mexico, a North American Free Trade Agreement partner, continuing conflict here is seen as an impediment to regional trade.
Mediators secured signatures this year on accords regarding human rights, refugees, and a ``truth commission'' to investigate past human rights abuses.
The government and guerrillas also agreed to conclude negotiations on accords addressing indigenous rights, land reform, the role of the military, and the demobilization of guerrilla forces by the end of the year. Since the guerrillas called off peace talks in June, saying the government was not abiding by the accords it had signed thus far, that timetable is seen as unrealistic.
``The international community is setting the pace of the peace talks,'' says Argentina Cuevas, with the Guatemalan Conference of Religious Workers. ``But to speed up the process and sign a final peace agreement by December means sacrificing content. How can you discuss and resolve the issue of land tenure, the root of the problem here in Guatemala ... in just a month?''
Guerrillas under the gun
Outside pressures have also intensified for the rebels. For years, the URNG had its headquarters in Mexico, but the outbreak of an armed conflict in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas in January made the rebels' security situation more precarious. The Guatemalan and Mexican armies have increased coordination of intelligence activities.
In addition, the URNG has lost support of its international patrons in recent years, especially from Nicaragua and Cuba.
The main carrot the international community is offering to entice the government into signing peace accords is aid for development when the war ends.
When the two sides agreed in June to create a truth commission that will blame institutions but not individuals for past abuses, President Clinton immediately asked Congress to free up approximately $5 million that had been slated for military aid.
The aid was frozen in 1991 by then-President Bush.
With congressional approval in the US, the monies will be transferred to a ``Peace Fund.'' The use of these funds was not specified, but the Army is planning ahead in order to have control over future foreign aid.