(in Guatemala City) - A smoldering blue haze covers the nation. Guatemala, a country smaller than the state of Iowa, is literally burning. The government reports 800 forest fires have been raging out of control for weeks, threatening a fragile ecology as well as its tenuous economy.
In the northern states, peasant Mayan Indians, who practice slash-and-burn subsistence farming techniques, have touched off huge fires that burn unchecked through the drought-dry jungles. In southern states, irrigation water is so hot farmers must cool it before putting it on crops. Fires there consume thousands of acres of pine forests. The eye-stinging air-along with El Niño- spiked temperatures of 100 to 125 degrees-makes even the capital, Guatemala City, an uncomfortable place to be.
Likewise, little relief is expected soon for Guatemala's social climate. Crime and chaos reign in spite of a peace accord signed between government officials and guerrilla forces in December 1996. It ended the country's 36-year civil war, which cost 140,000 lives. The internal conflict did little to reduce grinding poverty in a nation whose largely rural, Indian population lives in some of the most difficult conditions found in the Central America.
At the same time, the judicial system has been unable to respond adequately to a crime rate that has rapidly accelerated since the war ended. By some estimates, the judiciary is close to collapse. Police are outgunned and outnumbered. Judges are susceptible to bribes and threats.
The prevalence of bulldogs and bodyguards on Guatemala City's streets suggests the country still more resembles an armed camp. Crime is so common that business owners hire armed guards to stand outside their small shops and restaurants, and to ride along with delivery trucks. Pepsi-Cola trucks have at least one, and often two, shotgun-toting guards riding with each carrier. As the driver moves cases of bottles at each stop on his route, the guards take up their watch as though guarding a Brink's truck.
Kidnappings for profit are averaging an astounding 180-200 people per month. Ransoms are readily paid for the safe return of loved ones. Car-napping is also in vogue. Armed bands steal an expensive car, then offer to return it to the owner for a cash payment.
The United States Congress has committed its taxpayers to Guatemala's transition to a peaceful, democratic country. The tab: $260 million over the next four years. The World Bank is adding to that peace-chest with approximately $150 million a year in loan guarantees.
Officially, U.S. foreign aid is intended to help provide a stable, free-market economy, to create a good trading partner and promote business investment opportunities for U.S. companies. However, sources at the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala City told WORLD that a more apt description of the U.S. interest in Guatemala is "to reduce the number of problems in Guatemala that spill over into the United States." Those sources spoke off the record, fearing career-related reprisals.
Chief among the "spillover" problems are illegal immigration (U.S. immigration officials say there are 165,000 Guatemalans living illegally in the United States) and drug smuggling (the Drug Enforcement Agency reports that Guatemala has become a prime "trans-shipment point" for drugs moved from South America to the United States). With outside aid beginning to flow, Guatemalan government officials say they still need $2.3 billion to implement fully the peace accord.
Luis Ernesto Contreros, president of Guatemala's Congress, spoke to WORLD from the poolside of his home in Zacapa. "The first step in the transition to a peaceful, democratic country," he said, "has been successfully completed. Guerrilla forces have been demobilized, which includes turning in all weapons." He says in the time since the signing of the peace accord, there have been no armed encounters between guerrilla forces and the military. But critics note that only a small percentage of guerrilla weapons have been actually collected and that former guerrillas have broken up into armed groups and have taken up extortion and crime.
While the government has made some effort to combat crime, the real priority of the government appears to be improving the country's roads. President Alvaro Arzu Irigoyen has spent millions of dollars on building bridges and highways throughout the country. The new highway system, which now connects every city in the country, even offers an eight-lane freeway on the outskirts of Guatemala City.
Proponents of the road improvements claim a good transportation system is essential for economic recovery. Critics point out that one family close to Mr. Arzu holds a national monopoly on cement production. And, they emphasize, highway robbery is the number-one crime in the nation.
Mr. Contreros admits, "Our president does spend too much money on building freeways and cleaning city streets. I believe the biggest problem in Guatemala is that there are too many guns out there." In fact, crime statistics in Guatemala are astounding, making inner-city crime rates in the United States seem inconsequential by comparison. Violent crime is so bad that the State Department publishes blunt warnings, reading, "Travel after sunset anywhere in Guatemala is extremely dangerous."
Former guerrilla leader Ceasar Marin told WORLD, "We were promised land and government favors at the signing of the peace accord. Yet my soldiers have received nothing but empty promises. Many still have their guns, so they have turned to crime to support their families."
The targets of this peculiar form of family support are finding they have to look out for themselves, so vigilante justice is on the rise. Even a large group of university students is taking matters into its own hands. The group, Huelga de Dolores ("Labor Strike of Pain"), has a 100-year-old tradition of political satire, protest, and massive demonstrations during the week after Easter. Traditionally, hundreds of students take part in these activities, wearing colorful hoods to protect their identities. This year, the Huelga de Dolores students have resorted to a new political tactic. This month they have apprehended, stripped, and occasionally beaten suspected thieves.
Crime-weary Guatemalans cheered the initial episodes, and, as a result, the vigilante activities are escalating. Now some Guatemalans fear a recycling of the kind of incidents, like public lynchings, that took place during the civil war. But a nationwide poll, conducted April 1, found that 81 percent of the Guatemalan people approve of the actions of the students.
"It is easy to understand why people are supporting vigilante activity," says the pastor of a large evangelical church in Guatemala City who asked not to be identified because he fears reprisals from such groups. "We are all terrified that our children may be kidnapped or that our wives will be assaulted on the way to the grocery store."
The evangelical community in Guatemala-which numbers 19,000 churches and, by some counts, 33 percent of the entire nation's population of 10 million-has rightly focused on "preaching the gospel to the masses and the individual believer's direct relationship to God," the pastor said. But he pointed out that the churches failed to show believers how to bring the gospel to bear on society as a whole. "We stayed away from social reform," he said.
Some believe the evangelical community has purposely avoided public criticism or action because it witnessed what happened when Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants fell into liberation theology. That doctrine provided the theoretical basis for a so-called "preferential option for the poor," but class warfare is not biblical, and in practice the government viewed the Catholic church as joined with leftist guerrilla groups. Priests became frequent targets of violence and even murder.
The pastor says that a modest beginning is to ask fellow believers take a stand for moral restoration and against crime. To that end, he and others in the evangelical community are planning a March for Jesus through Guatemala City May 30. Their goal is to see 125,000 Christians publicly testify to their faith: "Now, we pray that evangelicals will have a burning desire to affect the moral fabric of our nation."
In a country that is burning both literally and figuratively, those evangelicals will need to act promptly.