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CENTRAL AMERICA : Guatemala Peace a Distant Goal After Talks Collapse


MEXICO CITY — Peace in Central America's last guerrilla war once again seems a distant, fleeting goal after talks between the Guatemalan government and leftist rebels broke down.

With each side accusing the other of intransigence, the government and the guerrillas failed to achieve even a modicum of progress as they held a third round of negotiations here last week.

The talks were aimed at ending a war that has claimed about 100,000 lives in the last 32 years. The vast majority of the victims were highland Indians caught in military sweeps. The two sides in the talks could not even agree on a future date to meet, leaving Guatemala's fledgling peace process a shambles and Guatemalans pessimistic about the future.

"It is not the first time that the peace process has gone through difficult moments," said a clearly discouraged Rodolfo Quezada Toruno, a Roman Catholic bishop who has served as mediator in the talks. "But it is important to note that a decisive aspect is being negotiated, that without a doubt requires more flexibility."

The latest points of contention involve a human rights agreement, which the guerrillas are insisting be implemented immediately with international verification. The government of President Jorge Serrano, on the other hand, wants a cease-fire before anything else.

As peace settlements have been reached in El Salvador and Nicaragua in the last few years, fighting in Guatemala, although on a reduced scale, has continued. The guerrillas have resorted to a campaign of ambushes, while the military has stepped up attacks in the northern highlands.

Behind the public posturing coming out of the suspended Mexico City talks lie conflicting motives, according to political analysts in Guatemala City.

The powerful, right-wing military is already angry over what it sees as concessions being made to a small guerrilla force that the army considers easily defeated.

But Serrano, whose domestic political fortunes are in question, desperately needs a peace agreement. He recently lost an alliance in congress and is facing growing unrest from students and public sector workers opposed to unpopular economic measures. Security forces this week fired on a raucous demonstration outside the National Assembly, killing one student.

And the guerrillas, under the umbrella Guatemalan National Revolutionary Union, may see advantages in stalling a final peace agreement in hopes of gaining more leverage.

Besides the human rights agreement, the rebels are seeking better land distribution, guarantees of Indian rights, and a limit to the role that the military plays in running the country.

That last point may be the most difficult. Despite the election of civilian presidents since 1985, the army continues to wield enormous influence. This week, an army captain sentenced to 20 years in jail for the murder of an American innkeeper mysteriously escaped, prompting the U.S. Embassy to criticize what it called the "serious setback" in efforts to end military impunity in Guatemala.

The Guatemalan armed forces amassed one of the hemisphere's worst human rights records during the late 1970s and 1980s when, in the name of counterinsurgency, army patrols wiped out entire Indian villages in Guatemala's mountainous countryside. In contrast to neighboring El Salvador, however, the Guatemalan guerrilla forces remained small.

Since neither side wants to be blamed for an irreparable rupture in the peace talks, analysts say, negotiations are likely to resume at some point. Meantime, dark days--more recriminations, possibly more violence--lie ahead.

"I don't have much hope for the talks," said Hector Rosada, a political analyst and expert on the Guatemalan armed forces. "The military's logic is to ensure that a military victory does not become a political defeat, while the logic of the insurgency is to win politically what they can't achieve militarily. Everything else is cosmetic."

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