Guatemala's Fighters Struggle To Turn Arms to Plowshares


It's been several years since the people living around this rural village in tropical southern Guatemala have heard the crackle of gunfire from the country's 36-year civil war.

Still, when an Army convoy recently came upon a group of guerrilla fighters holding a political rally on a dirt road in this mountainous area east of the city of Escuintla, there were tense moments. Adults who had pushed small children forward to accept the pens and small rubber balls the guerrillas were handing out abruptly pulled them close, while some women cautiously retreated to the surrounding forest.

But the commanders of each side agreed the guerrillas would make way for the Army convoy, then shook hands on the deal. Though peace talks in Mexico City have stalled over a kidnapping by guerrillas, the commanders' gesture reflects the falling tensions throughout Guatemala's countryside as a final peace remains clearly in sight.

"From one minute to the next we all felt more peaceful seeing that handshake," says Dolores Bian Hernandez, a farmworker from one of the plantations along the Guanagazapa road. "It felt like such a very bad time for our country was really ending."

Across Guatemala but especially in rural areas, where most of the war's 140,000 deaths took place, people express satisfaction with the agreements on "substantial issues" already signed. The glitch in the talks doesn't seem to have altered President Alvaro Arz's commitment to a final peace accord by 1997.

But at the same time in places like Guanagazapa - a small village of a few dozen houses 10 miles from a paved road - there are continuing worries about what thousands of warriors from both sides will do as they attempt to adapt to a civilian life that some of the fighters have never known.

"They can shake hands and that's great, but that alone doesn't provide a job to anybody on either side," says Selvn Gaitn, Guanagazapa's mayor.

Talks on the final outstanding issue of "reinsertion" of 3,000 guerrillas into civil life occurred the first week in October. An accord reached last month between the government and a federation of guerrilla factions will reduce the Army by one-third, or 36,000 soldiers, over three years.

Under the thatched roof of the village's combination market-soda stand, people wonder if Guatemala will face new violence as ex-fighters with nothing to do form criminal gangs - something that happened in next-door El Salvador and Nicaragua after civil conflicts ended.

"The guerrillas aren't prepared for much else," says Jorge, a young man who never had to fight on either side of Guatemala's war.

Army officials say that as a peace accord has been anticipated over recent years, soldiers have gotten access to skills training, while officers have been offered university-level programs to prepare them either for continued military service or for conversion to civilian life.

"The problem is really for the guy [guerrilla] who's still up there in the mountains, and all he knows is his gun," says an Army major in Guatemala City who asked not to be named. "Most of the soldiers can return to their life, their family, but many of the guerrillas have lost their roots."

He says a new civilian national police force, to be created to take over the Army's internal security duties will be one job outlet for departing military personnel. Will former guerrillas have access to those jobs? "Well, they'd have to be able to read and write," he says, "And that's not a given."

Guatemalans worry about how former enemies - soldiers and guerrillas - will live together in the country's small communities. The talks on reinsertion addressed the prickly issue of amnesty, but no accord can guarantee peaceful coexistence.

Mayor Gaitn says he has an idea to help the healing process in Guatemala's postwar period.

"The country should take some of the money that's not going to be spent on fighting a war, and spend it on paving the roads to places like Guanagazapa, building schools, bringing in water," he says. "That would provide jobs to keep some of the former fighters busy - and at the same time the new services would be monuments to a new era of peace."

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