Progress Slow for Guatemala Civilian Rule

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Times Staff Writer

The pattern of disappearance and murder was distressingly familiar.

Late last month, Camilo Garcia, an impoverished hill farmer who had settled in Guatemala City, was awaiting a local jitney when a carload of men in civilian clothing approached. The armed men bundled him into a car and Garcia was never heard from again.

Two days later, Garcia’s wife, Marta Odilia Raxal, and her mother, Maria Sisimit, went looking for him. Friends say the two women received a telegram from the police summoning them to come and retrieve Garcia.

They, too, disappeared--only to be found dead and buried, half-naked and suffocated, along a country road near San Jose Poaquil, their hometown. Garcia’s fate is still unknown.


Atrocities Recalled

The incident recalls numerous death squad-style killings in Guatemala during the last decade, the kind of atrocity that was supposed to have ended with the accession of Vinicio Cerezo Arevalo, a civilian, to the presidency here about 13 months ago.

No one doubts that there are fewer such murders since Cerezo took office, but they still occur, and among other setbacks, they have tarnished Cerezo’s first-year image.

Cerezo’s performance on human rights and other social issues is being watched closely as a gauge of whether civilian government can truly make a difference when it replaces military rule in Central America. In the region, Guatemala’s democratic experiment is unique. The changeover from military dictatorship to electoral democracy, in contrast to events in El Salvador and Honduras, was home-grown and occurred without the midwifery of the United States.

Also, Cerezo, a black belt in karate and a survivor of three assassination attempts before he won election, was considered to be of a tougher mind than other new civilian leaders.

Slow Approach

But despite his rough-and-ready image and the self-made nature of his regime, Cerezo’s first year has been marked by a slow approach toward change not unlike that taken by leaders in neighboring democracies.

Offending the military over human rights issues is taboo. So is land reform. Resistance among the wealthy impeded changes in tax laws, even though Cerezo swept into the presidential palace with a huge plurality that, many assumed, gave him a mandate to move boldly.


“He came into office with a vote of hope. Those hopes are not being fulfilled,” said Ricardo Wilson, publisher of a newsletter in Guatemala City.

“The honeymoon is over,” a Western diplomat added. “He will have to start performing or lose support.”

‘Miracles Not Expected’

Cerezo himself appears defensive about his record.

“The people know we were not elected to make miracles and didn’t expect them,” he said in a January speech.

Activities attributed to death squads continued last year, though at a lower rate than before. The U.S. Embassy here estimated that kidnapings and “possibly politically related deaths” numbered 210, less than half the number registered in 1985. Figures from the Mexico-based Guatemala Human Rights Commission were higher, but also less than in recent years.

To curb human rights abuses, Cerezo made one bold move by disbanding the Department of Special Investigations, a 600-member police unit notorious for alleged rights abuses. An indication of the former department’s reputation: Many here consider a recent wave of street crimes to be the work of the now-unemployed policemen.

Policy Questioned

Cerezo also blocked the rise of an army general whose human rights record was in disrepute. He sent him abroad as an ambassador, a tactic commonly used in Latin America to resolve sticky personnel conflicts in government.


Human rights activists maintain that despite these actions, the institutions and people mainly responsible for official violence are still in office. They note that Cerezo rejected calls to prosecute military officers for past misdeeds.

Nor did Cerezo disband the D-2 intelligence units of the armed forces, which at one time produced hit lists for the “dirty war” against leftist guerrillas. He also backed down on a promise to create a special commission to investigate past abuses. Instead, Cerezo refers human rights complaints to the country’s ineffective court system.

The hands-off policy has brought Cerezo into conflict with members of the Mutual Support Group, the only human rights organization operating inside the country. The support group, known widely by its Spanish initials GAM, collects data on missing victims of the past as well as testimony about new victims.

Investigations Urged

“It is easy to say we should live in the present and forget,” said GAM leader Nineth Garcia, whose husband disappeared two years ago. “But our loved ones weren’t given sweets. They were killed cruelly. We want investigations.”

Garcia pointed out that the dead women and missing man in the most recent disappearance case belong to families that had been persecuted during army crackdowns in the countryside before Cerezo took power. Garcia is disturbed that the government is treating the case lightly.

“They don’t want to believe that the killing goes on,” she said.

In response to inquiries about the incident, Cerezo has said that it was the work of “someone trying to stain the name of the government.”


Cautious With Military

The cautious approach to human rights reflects Cerezo’s care in dealing with the military.

He upheld an amnesty declared by the outgoing government that protected the military from human rights prosecution.

Under military pressure, he also retracted a peace overture to the leftist rebels. During a visit to Spain, he had offered to open negotiations with the rebels. At home, military reaction was immediate. The armed forces published photographs of soldiers tortured by the insurgents and said that no dialogue could be held with such people.

On his return to Guatemala, Cerezo dropped his offer to negotiate.

The military also pressed Cerezo to fire the civilian chief of police whom he had appointed early in his term. The public excuse given was that Cerezo’s appointee had failed to curb rising street crime. His successor, a colonel, has done no better. But in contrast to the treatment of the civilian police chief, no calls have been raised for his ouster.

Careful With Business

Cerezo has also taken care not to offend the business community in Guatemala--which, along with the military, wields immense influence.

For example, indications that Cerezo would undertake a land reform program faded quickly. About midway through 1986, he announced an agrarian reform proposal, which, to avoid frightening big land owners, was called “integral development.”

The proposal soon degenerated into vague promises to finance land purchases. The administration also fell back on proposals to make small farms already in existence more productive.


Cerezo did succeed in placing a tax on exports, but only after loosening foreign exchange rules that gave exporters an earnings bonanza.

Lowest Latin Taxes

Guatemalans still pay Latin America’s lowest tax rates, and the government does not collect nearly enough to cover its expenses. Instead, it prints more money, fueling an estimated 33% inflation rate last year.

By common agreement, Cerezo’s main success in the past year has been in improving Guatemala’s image abroad. The country is no longer an international pariah. It receives foreign aid from Europe and the United States. Last week, it played host to a meeting of European foreign ministers that will lead to new aid programs for Central America. It also discussed peace proposals for the region.

Last year, Latin American nations defended Guatemala in international meetings against charges that human rights abuses were continuing. Such a defense never occurred before Cerezo took office.

The contrast of his success abroad and disillusionment with him at home is not lost on Cerezo’s administration.

Foreign Popularity

“We are more popular in foreign countries than we are here,” said Julio Santos, Cerezo’s spokesman.


There is some question as to how popular Cerezo is with the U.S. Administration, however. Cerezo has proposed a policy of “active neutrality” toward Nicaragua’s Marxist-led Sandinista government. In practice, that translates into a coolness toward the contras, the anti-Sandinista rebels supported by the United States.

Although U.S. officials here maintain that relations with Guatemala are unaffected by the policy, Guatemalan officials think otherwise. They point to a meager $2 million in military aid delivered by Washington last year as a sign of U.S. displeasure. Cerezo will be looking for more on an visit he is expected to make to Washington this spring.