'Forget the Past,' New Leader Says : Families Call for Justice for Guatemala's Missing

Times Staff Writer

As a stream of Mercedes-Benzes deposited elegantly dressed dignitaries at the entrance to the National Theater for President Vinicio Cerezo's inauguration, several hundred Indians crouched quietly on the back steps.

"We are going to march in silence," a petite schoolteacher told the attentive group on the stairs. "Today, our silence will speak louder than all of the words in the world."

The animated dignitaries took their seats in the modern theater where Cerezo was sworn in last Tuesday as president of Guatemala, officially ending 16 years of often violent military rule.

The somber Indians, meanwhile, rose to their feet. With them, they carried a hand-painted banner:

"The Mutual Support Group demands that Gen. Oscar Mejia Victores and the army respond--what have they done with the thousands of Guatemalans who have been detained or disappeared?

"We ask the new civilian government--what measures are you going to take to bring our loved ones home? Will there be justice at last?"

For a year and a half, the Mutual Support Group has demanded to know what happened to their husbands, sons and daughters who disappeared under the Mejia dictatorship or those of the two generals who preceded him.

The group, known by its Spanish initials GAM, believes that military and security forces are responsible for the disappearances of the victims, most of whom were students, teachers, union leaders, lay religious instructors, peasants and even Christian Democrats, like Cerezo.

Cerezo, a populist politician, won the votes of poor Indians and workers, such as the members of the Mutual Support Group, who hope for sustained democracy in Guatemala. His inauguration apparently provides a small political opening for groups such as GAM to press their demands more forcefully.

But the Mutual Support Group could turn out to be a thorn in the side of Cerezo's civilian government, which is taking over the leadership--but not necessarily all of the power--from the military.

International human rights observers, who have not been able to operate freely in the country, estimate that 30,000 to 50,000 people were killed or disappeared during an eight-year counterinsurgency war aimed at wiping out support for leftist guerrillas.

The Mutual Support Group calculates that the number is much higher, saying that most people in the countryside have been too frightened even to report the loss of their relatives.

Cerezo, 43, himself the past target of at least three assassination attempts, already has said he will not lead a drive to prosecute military criminals, even though he will appoint a new attorney general and his party will control Congress, which in turn will name a new Supreme Court.

"We must forget the past," Cerezo said before taking office.

If he doesn't forget the past, it is widely believed here that he might face a military coup.

Apparently to make sure that Cerezo does not change his mind, Mejia, in a last-minute decree, declared a general amnesty, preventing prosecution for political and related crimes committed since Mejia's predecessor took power by coup in March, 1982.

But Mutual Support Group members say they will not forget the missing. Four days before Cerezo's inauguration, the organization held a demonstration of about 1,000 people in front of the National Palace, for the first time yelling "Assassins, assassins!" at military officials and police officers nearby.

'Right to Justice'

They say they will try to build enough political pressure to force investigations into the disappearances and deaths and to bring to trial those responsible.

"We are going to press very hard. We have a right to justice," said Mutual Support Group leader Nineth de Garcia. "There is supposedly a democratic opening. Vinicio says he is going to defend human rights. . . . He who says he is the defender of the people must fulfill the law."

Despite the nascent democracy, human rights work still is dangerous in Guatemala, and some believe that the stronger the Mutual Support Group becomes, the more dangerous it could be for its members. Two group leaders were killed last year.

On March 30, after leaving a meeting in Guatemala City, Hector Gomez Colito, 34, was abducted on his way home to the nearby village of Amatitlan. His body was found by the side of a road the next day, with blowtorch burns and broken teeth. According to an account given by his niece to a human rights group, Gomez's tongue was missing.

Five days later, another Mutual Support Group leader, Rosario Godoy de Cuevas, 24, her 21-year-old brother and 2-year-old son disappeared from a shopping center. They were found dead in an overturned car at the bottom of a ravine.

According to an official autopsy, they died of injuries suffered in the accident, but according to a report by Americas Watch, a U.S.-based human rights organization, Godoy had bite marks on her breasts and blood on her underwear, and her baby's fingernails were missing. Family members believe all three died from suffocation.

Travels With Bodyguard

De Garcia, 28, one of the group's current leaders, is a primary schoolteacher and the mother of a 3-year-old daughter. She always travels accompanied by a friend, another GAM member or a foreign bodyguard.

At least three group members who have received death threats recently have foreigners living with them, with the idea that they are less likely to be abducted or killed in the presence of a foreigner because that might create an international scandal.

De Garcia helped to found the organization in June, 1984, four months after her husband, union leader Edgar Fernando Garcia, disappeared. The group was inspired by a similar group of the mothers of disappeared in El Salvador. It is the first human rights group to survive for any length of time in a country where even the International Red Cross has not been allowed to operate.

The Mutual Support Group was closely tied to the Roman Catholic Church until about 150 members of the group occupied a church in November to dramatize their cause. Since then, the church's attitude toward it has been cool, although Archbishop Prospero Penados Barrio also has been a human rights advocate.

The group began with about 25 people at its first meeting and has grown to about 800 members today, despite the killings and repeated charges by the authorities that it is linked to subversives.

"There is a psychosis of terror. People think a long time before coming near us," De Garcia said.

Abduction From Cornfield

Most GAM members are Indians and peasants, people such as Paula Aguilar, 56, of the province of San Marcos, whose son, Edelfino Israel Miranda, was abducted from his home at 4 a.m. March 19, 1983, or Basilia Victoria Alvarado, 51, also of San Marcos, whose son, Rufino de Jesus Perez, 36, was abducted from his cornfield at 11 a.m. last June 10.

"They were in civilian clothes and armed," Alvarado said of her son's abductors. "They went to his field where he was about to fumigate, told him to put on his shoes and to get his papers. I don't know where he is."

The group's members talk about their missing relatives in the present tense and give current ages, even of those who disappeared years ago.

There is far less violence in Guatemala today than there was in 1980 to 1982, when the guerrillas were stronger and the counterinsurgency campaign was in full swing. But lately local newspapers have reported an increase in threats and killings by the self-styled Secret Anti-Communist Army, a clandestine organization believed to have ties to the military.

Last month, a Guatemala City schoolteacher, Eugenia Beatriz Barrios, 27, was abducted from a taxi in the capital. Her body was found by the side of a road the next day with her hands chopped off and a message from the secret group written on it: "More to come."

A few days later, a 64-year-old evangelical pastor was abducted as he left his temple in the province of Santa Rosa. He too was found dead with his hands hacked off, and although no one claimed responsibility for the killing, it was widely believed to be the work of the clandestine group.

Nicaraguan Threatened

The Secret Anti-Communist Army issued public threats against President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, trying unsuccessfully to keep him from attending Cerezo's inauguration, and the group made made threats against the newly elected Christian Democratic mayor of Esquintla in eastern Guatemala. During one week last November, 14 bodies were delivered to the morgue in Esquintla, all showing signs of torture.

De Garcia said she believes Cerezo will be able to avoid being completely controlled by the military, as previous civilian presidents have been, but says she is not sure he will be able to control the military.

"I think we will see more killings by (the Secret Anti-Communist Army). He (Cerezo) will blame the 'death squads' and say they are uncontrollable, outside the margin of the law," De Garcia said.

Nonetheless, she said, the Mutual Support Group will continue to press for prosecution of the military. Soon it plans to issue lists of "evidence" against military and police officers.

Herlindo Ichu, 53, says that the danger will not deter him from continuing with the organization. Ichu's 23-year-old daughter disappeared May 21, 1984.

"I love my daughter very much, and if by demanding her return my life is in danger, well it's worth it," Ichu said. "It is very painful."

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