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Bulldogs, bodyguards

International | Peace accord notwithstanding, Guatemala remains an armed camp. Now, it's on fire-literally

Issue: "The politics of grace," April 25, 1998

(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.

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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.

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