A Game of Cat and Mouse : Guatemala’s Guerrillas Are Persistent and Elusive

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

Night and day, Maj. Francisco Marin’s troops scour the steep, wooded mountains north of here for the guerrilla bands of the Ho Chi Minh Front.

During a thunderstorm one recent evening, while Marin ate sausages and tortillas at a shabby restaurant in this garrison town, an army patrol was closing in on a mountain guerrilla camp several miles away. Marin shouted encouragment to his troops over a portable radio.

The next morning, the patrol reported that the guerrillas had melted into the darkness and rain without firing a shot--but that four soldiers had been hit by lightning and injured.

Marin, a cocky man of 39 with a bushy mustache and muscular shoulders, shrugged off the frustration. He is used to it.


The guerrillas rarely confront the aggressive government forces in open battle. Instead, they surprise small army patrols with hit-and-run attacks, ambush army road-building details, sabotage pipelines, fire on mountain villages from a distance, then fade away.

“It is a game of cat and mouse,” Marin said. “We take the initiative, and they take off. . . . We haven’t succeeded in surrounding them, as we would like to.”

In other parts of Guatemala where Marxist-led guerrillas are active, the story is much the same. Increasingly, since 1982, the army has dominated the war, but the guerrillas have shown a tenacious ability to stay alive, active and elusive.

Although the guerrilla war in Guatemala receives less international atention than those in El Salvador and Nicaragua, it is proving to be no less enduring.


With virtually no U.S. aid, the tough and sometimes ruthless Guatemalan army has reduced the guerrilla movement’s estimated strength from aas many as 6,000 fighters at its peak in 1981 to about 1,500 today.

But as the 30,000-man army has pushed the gurrillas deeper into isolated areas, it has been hampered increasingly by logistical problems. Officers complain of a desperate lack of vehicles, especially helicopters, for moving troops and supplies.

“If we had one-fourth or one-fifth of the helicopters that the United States has given El Salvador or Honduras, we would already have finished off the problem,” Marin said.

Early this year, the guerrillas announced what hey called a “new phase” of intensified action. They stepped up their raids and ambushes, and for brief periods they occupied several towns and plantations.


This activity has demonstrated anew the guerrillas’ presence in widespread rural areas, but it has falied to take the initiative away from the army, Guatemalan and foreign analysts say.

Marin and other commanders interviewed in four western provinces expressed confidence that the trend of declining guerrilla strength will continue. But some army officers admit that no final victory over the guerrillas is in sight.

“The problem we have is Mexico,” Marin said, “because through the Mexican border they receive arms and ammunition.”

Other military commanders also complained that he guerrillas are using the Mexican side of the long, rugged border as a refuge and a staging area.


Unpatrolled Border

“I’m sure they are,” a Western diplomat said, “because most of the border is not patrolled.”

In San Marcos province, adjacent to the border, Col. Jorge Isaacs said about 150 rebel fighters operate in the Sierra Madre between the provincial capital and the border.

“If they were isolated from the border, they wouldn’t have anywhere to resupply themselves,” said Isaacs, who is the army’s zone commander for San Marcos.


Maj. Cesar Najera, chief of army operations in neighboring Huehuetenango province, said virtually all the guerrillas operating there are based in refugee camps on the Mexican side of the border.

“There they are--they live and eat therr--and all of a sudden they come over and commit crimes here,” Najera said. When the army pursues the guerrillas, he said, “their racks go to the Mexican border.”

One of the bloodiest guerrilla attacks reported by the army this year, an ambush on Jan. 29 in which 13 soldiers were killed and two wounded, took place in Huehuetenango province. In all, the army lists 38 men lost in guerrilla clashes during the first four months of the year.

Last Year’s Toll


In 1984, there were 227 military deaths and 201 guerrilla deaths, according to a U.S. Embassy compilation. The combined total of 428 military and guerrila deaths was down from 1,168 in 1983.

The heaviest fighting between government troops and guerrillas was in 1982. In that year, the country’s four separate guerrilla armies joined in an alliance called Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity.

The army ays that the alliance was formed at the insistence of the revolutionary governments of Cuba and Nicaragua as a condition of aid for the Guatemalan rebels.

The strongest of the four groups has been the Guerrilla Army of the Poor, known by its Spanish initials EGP. It is divided into fronts named for international revolutionary heroes: the Cmdr. Ernesto Guevara Front, based in Huehuetenango province, and the Ho Chi Minh Fronta nd Augusto Cesar Sandino Front, both in Quiche province.


The Revolutionary Armed Forces is strongest in the western jungles of Peten, Guatemala’s huge northernmost province. Its actions this year have included hjolding up tourist buses on a jungle road to Guatemala’s famous Mayan ruins at Tikal.

City Hall Burned

The Revolutionary Organization of Armed People is most active south and west of Lake Atitlan and from the lake through San Marcos province. In its most spectacular action this year, the group burned the city hall at Santiago Atitlan, an Indian community on the southern shore of Lake Atitlan that is frequented by foreign tourists.

The weakest of the guerrila organizations is that of the Guatemalan Workers Party, a Communist-led party that has been outlawed since 1954. It is based in Guatemala City. Killings by security forces and death squads have virtually wiped out its urban base.


In 1982 and 1983, the Guatemalan army spread out through the provinces, reinforcing its presence wherever guerrillas were strong. It began driving the rebels out of populated areas and into the mountains and jungles.

In many areas, especially north of Nebaj, in Quiche province, Indian peasants went with the guerrillas to the hills.

Church and human rights groups accused the military of burning down villages and slaughtering thousands of peasants suspected of collaborating with the guerrillas. The army accused the guerrillas of doing the same.

To keep guerrillas out of villages, the army began organizing local militia groups called Civil Self-Defense Patrols. Today, most men in most Guatemalan towns belong to such patrols, which report to military zone commanders.


The patrols are made up of perhaps 90,000 men, more than 1% of the population, which is estimated at 7 million. They have been the army’s most effective tool for drying up the civilian support on which the guerrillas depend.

Patrols are charged not only with keeping guerrillas out of town but also with keeping their own members away from “subversive” influences.

“Each one is keeping an eye on the others, and that makes it very difficult for them to get involved in things that would support the left,” said a foreign analyst who travels frequently in the countryside.

Pedro Cobo, 40, is the chief of the Civil Self-Defense Patrol in the vilage of Acul, about seven miles north of Nebaj. In 1982, Cobo was a guerrilla, as were many of the men from Acul.


Like many villages in the area, Acul had been controlled by guerrillas of the Ho Chi Minh Front. When the army began moving into the area, the guerrillas burned Acul and took its residents with them into the nearby mountains, Cobo said.

The guerrillas used the people to cultivate mountainside plots of corn, to make camp, to cook and to provide other support. Cobo said that he and other men were pressured to take up arms as guerrilla fighters.

As the army pursued the guerrillas into the mountains, destroying their crops and camps, life in the mountains grew harder.

“There wasn’t anything to eat, no food or medicine,” Cobo said. After hearing of a government amnesty offer, he fled from the guerrillas and turned himself in to the army.


More than 400 families in Acul have come back from the mountains. The government gav them wood and corruated metal roofing material to rebuild their town. Cobo said only five Acul families remain with the guerrillas.

“We are now with the army,” he said. “If we see the guerrillas, we will fill them with lead.”

The army detachment that had protected Acul pulled out in early March, leaving the civilian patrol in charge. But soldiers still patrol the mountains outside the valley.

The army has established more than a dozen new villages like Acul. They are part of a program called Poles of Development, designed to draw peasants away from the guerrillas and into government-controlled areas. Forty-two such villages are planned in north-western Guatemala, but the project has been slowed by lack of money.


“It’s not going to be fully realized because they have budget problems,” a foreign diplomat said.

The Reagan Administration had planned to give the Guatemalan government about $1 million in aid for the Poles of Development program, but the plan has been suspended. Critics say the new villages are camps aimed at regimenting peasants as part of the war effort.

The Reagan Administration is now asking Congress to approve $10.3 million in military aid to Guatemala for fiscal 1986. To avoid controversy, the Administration has said the aid would not be used for lethal military equipment but for items such as road-building and medical equipment, helicopters and spare parts.

U.S. military aid to Guatemala was suspended in 1978 because of a controversy in Congress over human-rights violations in the country. A $300,000 grant alst year for officer training was the first U.S. military assistance to Guatemala in seven years.


Gen. Oscar Mejia Victores, the latest in a succession of military rulers, has scheduled a presidential election for next fall. The Constituent Assembly, which was elected in 1984, has just promulgated a new constitution that will take effect in January.

A foreign diplomat said the installation of a civilian government will allow the army, now preoccupied with administrative problems, to concentrate its efforts on fighting the guerrillas.

The guerrillas probably would like to block the transition to democracy, the diplomat said, but “they don’t seem to have enough horses to do much about derailing the elections.”