Former fighters show their clout.

By Michael Dibert

When former Guatemalan paramilitary fighters seized five hostages this week and threatened to kill them because they had been left out of a government-backed compensation plan, it became a stark example of the political clout the former combatants carry as the country nears November presidential elections.

Although the paramilitary fighters ultimately freed the hostages, the issues raised -- about Guatemala's long civil war and the role of the once government-backed patrols -- have sent reverberations throughout the country. Guatemala's Republican Front (FRG) party and their presidential candidate, former dictator General Efrain Rios Montt, have largely backed the patrols in this election and are seen as far more closely connected to the re-organized groups than other political parties in the country.

The re-emergence of the paramilitary element onto the electoral scene has many worried in an election season that has already seen at least 21 judges, party organizers and even candidates die violently.

"They are part of a sector that was very powerful during the internal armed conflict," warns Father Rigoberto Perez, a priest in the hamlet of Nebaj, near the Mexican border, who counsels victims of the civil war. "In the past they implemented the strategies of war, and now they (will be) implementing the strategies of authoritarianism (should Rios Montt) win."

The patrols, formed by Rios Montt as a counter-insurgency tool during his 18 month reign beginning in 1982, fought alongside the Guatemalan army as a bulwark against communist guerrillas in rural areas. Along with the military and Rios Montt himself, they have been fingered by local and international human rights groups as being behind the deaths of tens of thousands of Guatemalans. But to understand the patrols, one must meet their most ardent advocates. FRG Congressional candidate Rosenda Perez tells visitors to her homebase in the edge of Guatemala's vast Peten jungle that her support of the paramilitaries is based on how they represented Guatemala's poor in those days, and it's also why she is running for office on the FRG ticket.

"I was born here into a campesino family," says Perez, an effusive, stout 51-year old. "My father was a chiclero, and my mother was a cook for him and the other men who were working (in the region). It was a poor family."

The chicleros worked long hours to harvest the gum element in trees for little pay. To families like Perez', the FRG's appeal is obvious: the party represents those affected by the deep poverty of rural life in regions like Peten, where resentment for the power and privilege concentrated in Guatemala City, the nation's capital, still seethes.

And, like Perez, the FRG officially supports the veterans of the country's former civil defense patrols, who are seen by some of the poor as protectors.

Running to replace current president and FRG member Alfonso Portillo, Rios Montt has pledged to continue a policy instituted by the Portillo administration of compensating the ex-patrollers for their work some two decades ago, handing out sums of $672 to be released in three installments, the first of which has already largely been paid.

Not surprisingly, the plan has proved wildly controversial, with opponents seeing it as little more than an attempt by the ruling party to buy itself votes and calling it scandalous that patrollers should receive money while massacre victims receive nothing.

The ex-civil patrollers have also proved a volatile group to woo, capable of exerting pressure on the government as well as being courted by it. In addition to the recent spate of hostage taking by disgruntled fighters, in May, thousands of ex-paramilitary fighters torched the southern town of Chicacao, taking local elected officials hostage after being left out of the program, while in September, former paramilitary fighters demanding payment demonstrated in Rios Montt's native city of Huehuetenango.

"Frankly, at the beginning it looked worse than it turned out to be," says Tom Koenigs, head of mission for MINUGUA, the special United Nations mission in Guatemala charged with overseeing implementation of the peace accords. "(The government has) promised to pay them all, but they don't have the money to pay them or the administrative capacity to determine who is to be paid and who is not. Whether this turns out to be a strong and organized political group, I somehow doubt it. But it is certainly the opposite of reconciliation."

[Source: The Sun Sentinel, Florida, Usa, 01Nov03]

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This document has been published on 04Nov03 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights, in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.