COLUMN ONE : Cracking a 'Culture of Death' : Guatemala has endured decades of political violence. But new President Jorge Serrano is trying, with mixed success, to curb the abuses.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It never seems to end. Day after day, year after year, Guatemala is awash in murder, torture, kidnaping and fear, whether the government is in the hands of power-grabbing generals or elected civilians.

The statistics are appalling. As of the end of August, at least 548 people had been killed this year in political violence and 114 others had been kidnaped. Another 124 people had been attacked, tortured or threatened for political reasons. These figures are far greater than the numbers for the same period in 1990, which was seen then as an exceptionally brutal time.

As grim as the figures are, they don't fully measure the tension in this country, the largest in Central America; fear infects nearly every sector of society.

Police and military personnel investigating human rights cases have been threatened or killed this year, as have journalists, human rights workers and ordinary citizens protesting intimidation. Even scientists studying episodes of the institutional violence that seems to define Guatemala's national character have been murdered or threatened with death.

Guatemala has "a culture of death," said President Jorge Serrano in an interview. "It is the history of this society, not just of the military. . . . Everybody believes they can work outside the law."

Yet for the first time in the history of Guatemala's bloodletting, there is a sign, albeit tentative, that this culture of death is being challenged, that a wall of immunity that has protected institutional killers and corrupt officials is being breached.

In the face of the high level of political violence that has occurred during Serrano's eight months in office, he has orchestrated the first arrests of high-ranking military officers, including a senior base commander, for murder. The president also has replaced intransigent and allegedly corrupt military men as minister of defense and army chief of staff and made the first serious effort to negotiate an end to 30 years of guerrilla warfare that have been used as an excuse for human rights abuses carried out by security forces.

And most important, the American-educated leader has abandoned the policy, practiced by his various military and civilian predecessors, of denying that human rights abuses are a serious problem in this country.

"Human rights are not a matter of image, but a matter of fact," he said in a 90-minute interview in the presidential palace.

From the beginning of his administration, Serrano said, "our policies were very clear . . . in terms of human rights and the fight against impunity (immunity to investigation and prosecution). . . . If there is a political crime (of violence), it will be treated exactly the same" as a common crime.

Still, there are doubts.

Some of them arise from a case in which Serrano ordered the arrest of seven servicemen, including the commander of a major naval base, for killing 11 truck drivers and customs agents Aug. 9. The president calls this the most significant example of his willingness to take on the military.

The circumstances of the affair remain cloudy, but Defense Ministry officials say that the accused servicemen were investigating smuggling operations and that the 11 victims were part of a contraband ring. Others say that the killers were part of the operation and killed the victims in retaliation for being double-crossed. In any event, the killings are described by most sources as nonpolitical.

That is the problem, according to critics. While they see the arrests as encouraging, they also believe that Serrano acted against the military in a case of common criminal activity, while ignoring other serious actions having a political background.

"He has made a point," a European ambassador said, "but he still has no grip on the armed forces. To the contrary."

Still Out of Control

There are abundant examples that Serrano still cannot control, let alone punish, security forces for serious cases of human rights abuse and corruption.

One of the most serious cases was last month's killing of Jose Merida, chief of the national police homicide investigations unit. Merida had been probing several sensitive murder cases, including the slaying of anthropologist Myrna Mack in September, 1990.

Mack was involved in the recovery of bodies from sites where military forces had massacred peasants because of alleged support of Marxist-Leninist guerrillas. In addition, a group of Argentine experts in the recovery and identification of bodies were threatened and told to leave Guatemala.

Merida had offered to testify about the involvement of security forces in the Mack killing and in other human rights murders and had sought protection by foreign embassies and by the Ministry of the Interior.

Merida was killed Aug. 5 while walking to work in broad daylight, less than 50 yards from police headquarters in downtown Guatemala City. Although the killers drove a pickup truck owned by a former police officer and fired guns commonly used here by police, authorities denied any political connection and attributed the killing to personal vengeance.

Human rights specialists discount such an explanation. Ramiro de Leon Carpio, head of the Congressional Human Rights Office and a respected jurist, said that Merida had been shadowed by security personnel in the days before his murder. "It is easy to deduce the possible motives for the crime," he said.

Just two days after Merida was murdered, two policemen guarding a house that was the subject of an investigation into an earlier political murder were killed in a drive-by machine-gunning. Three bystanders were wounded.

Government sources said the attack was a warning by hard-line police elements to other security officials to back off their investigation. They also speculate that the shooting of the passersby was deliberate, intended to intimidate the population.

Other victims range from relative nobodies such as the Perebal brothers, two farmers in the town of Chunima who had witnessed an earlier death at the hands of the local civil patrol, to major political, military and even church figures.

Last May 2, for example, Gen. Anacleto Maza Castellanos, head of the Guatemalan air force and a moderate and reform-minded officer, was killed in the capital.

The first official response was that Maza was the victim of car thieves, but diplomatic sources say the investigation has been halted at the order of high-level military officers who resented Maza's support of Serrano's plans to end Guatemala's 30-year civil war.

Killers on Motorcycle

Another political murder occurred in April when Dinora Perez, leader of a new leftist political party, was killed by two men on a motorcycle, a common method of military death squads.

Again, the police said Perez was the victim of common crime, but in the days following her death, eight of the 10 members of her party's executive committee were threatened and left the country.

Two other murders this year, of Moises Cisneros and Julio Quevedo, recalled the early 1980s, when thousands of priests and Roman Catholic church lay workers were killed or forced to leave the country.

Cisneros, a Spanish lay worker for a Catholic missionary order, was stabbed in his Guatemala City office on April 29. He had been threatened after being accused of sympathizing with the guerrillas in organizing schools for the poor.

Church officials say the death of Quevedo last July was the result of right-wing efforts to intimidate Catholics in the state of Quiche, an area long fought over by the army and rebels. Quevedo was a chief aide to Bishop Julio Cabrera, one of the most outspoken critics of the military and among the most prominent proponents of a social action program by the church.

"They won't shoot leaders like (Cabrera)," said one Catholic human rights official, "but they will go after middle-level people to try to scare them away. That's why Quevedo was killed--as a warning to others and to make the bishop back down."

Throughout the last few months, both Guatemalan and foreign journalists writing about such deaths have been threatened. The Mexican news agency Notimex was forced to close after a large and sophisticated bomb was defused outside its office.

The executive branch's inability to gain full control of the security forces was reflected earlier this year when the German government suddenly canceled a multimillion-dollar aid program to Guatemala in protest of continuing police corruption and violence.

Guatemalan officers trained in Germany had not been integrated into the police organization upon their return here, and German experts sent to Guatemala were not allowed to train local personnel.

Instead, sources said, Guatemalan officers used equipment supplied by Germany to engage in severe human rights abuses.

"What broke the neck (of the aid program) was the police killing of children," said one source, referring to dozens of instances in which street urchins were beaten and killed by police.

Although the police have denied killing the children, eyewitnesses have described the murders, and government officials have privately acknowledged them.

There is no clear reason for the deaths, although the children, largely abandoned or orphaned, had formed bands that carried out petty crimes, robbing stores and occasionally assaulting tourists. Social workers say the police frequently told the surviving urchins to leave the city or face attack.

Civil Patrols Misused

Another example of the Serrano government's lack of control over security forces are so-called civil patrols, paramilitary organizations formed in many localities by the army, ostensibly to defend rural communities against guerrilla attacks.

Guatemala's constitution guarantees that service in the patrols is voluntary on the part of their members, but those who ask to be excused from service are mistreated, often accused of sympathizing with the guerrillas, according to human rights groups and interviews with patrol members.

More seriously, human rights groups charge, the patrols are often used by their leaders as instruments of intimidation, including forced labor, and to threaten human rights workers and even police who are investigating infractions by patrol leaders.

President Serrano acknowledged problems with the civil patrols, saying: "We don't want the civil patrols to be abusive. . . . But they exist in areas of insurgency" and are difficult to control.

To Serrano, the whole issue of human rights problems results from the guerrilla war. "I can assure you that once we sign a peace agreement (with the insurgents), all these abuses will cease. . . . One is the cause of the other."

Negotiations with the guerrillas have been under way throughout this year, and most observers believe that an agreement can be reached in the next six or seven months. Yet, while the peace talks are among Serrano's most acclaimed accomplishments, there is worry that the very prospect of peace will lead to even more violence, at least in the short run.

Their point is that some sectors of the military and radical civilian right wing oppose a peace agreement for fear that a cease-fire would threaten their very reason for existence or at least reduce their influence.

"If there is a peace agreement," a human rights expert said, "there will be no reason for the civil patrols, and there will be incredible problems for those communities in which civil patrols are ingrained. The (patrol) leaders won't want to give up their power."

Serrano acknowledges the dangers. "I trust absolutely the people in the army," he said, "but there are people who want to continue the anarchy of the country."

To some observers, one of the causes of that "anarchy" is the authorities' historical protection of the military and its civilian allies.

Until now, said Edmond Mulet, a prominent political opponent of Serrano and a leading spokesman against military privilege, "abuses by the armed forces were overlooked, particularly if they said their actions were taken in the name of national security. In the past, they have killed, burned and tortured and were excused because the leaders said it was necessary to fight the guerrillas.

"When the war ends, there will be no crisis of security and they will have to answer for their actions, and that is a threat to them."

All Will Be Punished

Serrano stressed in the interview that such impunity is ending. "Everybody committing a crime will be punished. . . . My message is not a single step backward. There will be no impunity."

Perhaps so, said Marta Altoguerre, a prominent attorney and journalist. "I think we will cross the wall of impunity," she said, "but we will pay a high price. There will be a destabilization campaign. They (those formerly immune) won't stand by with arms crossed."

As a European diplomat said, "There will be such disorder that the middle-class people now supporting Serrano against the military will be demanding that he let the security forces alone to restore law and order."

Serrano's efforts to rein in the army and its civilian allies, have raised speculation that the military will stage a coup. Most experts say that is unlikely. But that doesn't preclude murder.

"I don't fear a coup anymore," said Congressman Mulet. "There is no institutional threat. But I fear for Serrano in the wake of . . . his efforts to control the military. . . . I do fear for Serrano personally. An accident, a bullet. It is a very fragile process."

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