BERKELEY — A new, indigenous opposition is emerging in Guatemala that could determine the fate of President Ramiro de Leon Carpio's anti-corrup tion constitutional reforms, ap proved last Sunday in a referendum that attracted fewer than 20% of the country's eligible voters. More significant, this coalition of Mayan popular groups could dictate the terms for the next round of peace talks, set later this month in Mexico City, between the Guatemalan government and the leftist guerrillas of the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Union. Previous negotiations broke down over the issue of accountability for human-rights violations against the Mayan communities.
Last June, delegates from four indigenous organizations met in the offices of the National Committee of Guatemalan Widows to elect the leaders of the new coalition. The three organizations, in addition to the Widows, were the Communities of Population in Resistance, the Runujel Junam Council of Ethnic Communities and the Permanent Commission for Refugees, which oversees the repatriation of 45,000 Guatemalans who have lived in camps along the Mexican border for more than a decade. A fifth member of the coalition, which did not send a delegate, is the Group of Mutual Support, composed of families of Guatemalans disappeared by the military.
The emerging Mayan coalition represents an interesting historical convergence; each of these organizations, headed by indigenous Mayan militants, has been associated with the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Union. The alliance entered into by these groups thus amounts to a joint declaration of independence from their guerrilla mentors.
Of the five groups, the Communities of Population in Resistance is the largest and most disciplined. Its origins date from the military's counterinsurgency campaign of the late 1970s and early '80s. The scorched-earth practices introduced by President Romeo Lucas Garcia and expanded under evangelical President Efrain Rios Montt destroyed more than 440 villages and killed an estimated 60,000 Highland Mayas. Another million and a half were forced to leave their homes, with as many as two-thirds fleeing into Mexico. Most continued north.
The other half-million Guatemalans who fled became internal refugees, or \o7 desplazados\f7 . The majority drifted to Guatemala City and smaller towns, where they scratch out menial livings.
About 50,000 Mayas from the northern and western Highlands fled to a lowland zone of northern Quiche Department known as Ixcan, where they survived on a bare-subsistence diet. These \o7 desplazados \f7 joined together to form the Communities of Population in Resistance. In the early years, they maintained their solidarity with the leftist guerrillas who had been active in their home villages. Early visitors to the Ixcan were often greeted by raised fists and shouted Marxist slogans, mixed with a humbling and open-handed Mayan hospitality.
A Chinese-Guatemalan investigator, Myrna Mack Chang, was among the first to bring the Communities to the attention of the outside world. Her report was careful not to blame the military directly for the plight of these displaced Mayas; nevertheless, her implicit denunciation cost Myrna Mack her life.
The evolution of the Communities of Population into a close-knit, disciplined organization is one of the intriguing stories of contemporary Guatemala. Today, the army continues to harass the group with bombing raids and public-relations jibes depicting them as handmaidens of armed subversion. Representatives of international organizations, including a human-rights special envoy from the United Nations, have visited these communities. They have been astounded by their high morale and tight discipline.
The Communities of Population's chief objective, apart from survival, is to call the world's attention to the atrocities committed by the army against Highland Mayan communities, in its pursuit of victory over the leftist guerrillas who used the Mayan villages as their bases of popular support.
Each of the organizations is working to expand the political space, or \o7 apertura\f7 , by attacking the most repressive institutions of the Guatemalan army. The Runujel Junam Council of Ethnic Communities, focuses on dismantling the army's unconstitutional civil-defense patrols, which enlist hundreds of thousands of Highland Mayas to carry out the military's dirty work of counterinsurgency.