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Profile : Guatemala's Other Indian Activist : * Tuyuc hasn't won a Nobel. But she wins respect at home for her human-rights work.

January 18, 1994|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GUATEMALA CITY — Rosalina Tuyuc was a young mother of two when her husband left for work one day and never returned.

The family had fled their rural homeland and moved to the capital in search of safety. But in Guatemala in the 1980s, there wasn't much safety for Mayan Indians, regarded by the army as pro-communist guerrilla sympathizers and decimated in military scorched-earth campaigns that wiped out entire villages.

For Tuyuc, the destruction around her became a call to action. She founded, and still heads, an increasingly high-profile organization of indigenous women whose husbands were among the tens of thousands of peasants killed or who disappeared during the brutal civil war.

While exiled Nobel peace laureate Rigoberta Menchu receives more international attention, Tuyuc slugs it out in the trenches in Guatemala, promoting the cause of indigenous rights and challenging the military at great personal risk. Within Guatemala, she has emerged as the country's most visible Mayan Indian activist.

Today Tuyuc and her organization, known as the Guatemalan National Widows Coordinator are taking up issues, such as forced military service, that place them squarely at odds with the army and the government of President Ramiro de Leon Carpio.

"There will be no change in Guatemala as long as the hand of the military is always behind things," Tuyuc said in a recent interview, sounding a theme that recurs through her many speeches and public demonstrations.

The solemn-faced 36-year-old, who wears her dark hair in braids or wrapped in a long ponytail down her back, sat behind a desk at the widows committee office, housed in a drafty, nondescript building that is purposely not marked with a sign or other identification.

*

Last October, a list circulated with 21 names of people who were threatened with death if they did not abandon the country within 72 hours. Tuyuc headed the list. But the threat--not the first she's received--barely got a rise out of Tuyuc.

"The threats are innumerable," she said casually. Then she added: "It is a despicable way to try to make us feel terrorized. They are trying to get us to stop making complaints and to stop our work. They will not succeed."

The "they" is not articulated. But the Guatemalan army makes no secret about its opinions of Tuyuc and her followers. As far as the military and the right are concerned, Tuyuc is a leftist front for the guerrillas who have been fighting a civil war with Guatemalan governments for more than 30 years.

"That is the way they try to destroy us," Tuyuc said when asked about the labels she is given by her enemies. "First we are communists, then we are terrorists."

She denies ties to the guerrillas, although she and they clearly share some of the same positions, especially with regard to indigenous rights.

Up to 60% of Guatemala's nearly 10 million people are descendants of the ancient Mayas, yet deeply entrenched racism has denied Indians very much political power.

The war has claimed 100,000 lives, with some 40,000 people missing. Most of the dead and vanished are Indians.

A native speaker of Kakchiquel, one of the more than 20 Mayan dialects used in Guatemala, Tuyuc last year focused on two principal issues: forced military recruitment and the so-called Civilian Self-Defense Patrols, paramilitary organizations formed by the army to control villages and implicated over the years in serious human rights abuses.

The Guatemalan army has routinely pressed young Indian men into military service, often snatching them from their villages or rounding them up after church, at school or during festivals. White and Ladino (non-Indian) youth are rarely touched. Consequently, Tuyuc argues, military service is ultimately used to dilute the Indian culture.

"The sons of the farm owners, the sons of the middle-class, they are not forcibly pressed into service," Tuyuc said. "Only our sons are obligated . . . It is an affront to the very culture of our people. It plants terror from one's early youth, it prepares them for violence. They lose their cultural identity."

Rather than call for military service to be eliminated, Tuyuc and her organization have proposed an alternative plan. Service would be voluntary, young men would be allowed to serve nearer to their homes and villages, and those who are conscientious objectors would be allowed to perform community service instead.

Tuyuc led a march on Congress last August, and Enrique Guillen Funes--one of only six indigenous Congress members--agreed to sponsor a bill incorporating the reforms Tuyuc proposed. But since then, the bill has languished.

*

The army denies its recruitment policies are racist. Most of the officers corps is white or Ladino , while the vast majority of the troops are indigenous.

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