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Guatemala Foes Reach Pact Ending 35-Year War

Central America: Rebels and president announce accord after final obstacle of demobilizing the leftist guerrillas is overcome. Country's Indians are expected to benefit.

November 12, 1996|JUANITA DARLING and EVA VERGARA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

VINA DEL MAR, Chile — Guatemala has reached a peace agreement to end Latin America's longest civil war, Guatemalan President Alvaro Arzu and the country's rebels announced separately Monday.

The accord ushers in "a final period" of a 35-year war that has taken more than 100,000 lives, and it will be signed Dec. 29 in Guatemala City, Arzu told a summit of Ibero-American presidents meeting here.

Later in the day, the Guatemalan guerrillas and the U.N. moderator in the peace talks confirmed that consensus had been reached on demobilization of the rebels, the sixth and final section making up the peace agreement.

"This starts a new era in the history of our country," guerrilla commander Rolando Moran said in a news conference in Mexico City.

A few matters, such as constitutional and electoral reforms to implement the agreement and a definitive cease-fire, still must be worked out. But the accord's fundamentals are now in place, both sides said.

"This is news that everyone ought to congratulate all Guatemalans for," Moran said.

Arzu received warm applause from the 20 other presidents attending the Ibero-American summit here when he announced the accord. Twenty minutes before the summit's closing ceremony, he received the news of the accord from Mexico City, where Guatemalan peace negotiators had been meeting.

The pact, negotiated over the last three years, will bring radical change to Central America's most populous country--especially to its prominent Indian population, which has been subject to notorious economic and social discrimination.

Under terms of the agreement, Guatemala will sharply reduce the size and influence of its armed forces. It will strengthen its guarantees of human rights--particularly for its Indians--and address problems of poverty and land ownership. The agreement also reforms the government, distributing part of the authority now claimed by the all-powerful presidency to the National Congress and courts, which are to be cleansed of corruption.

The accord calls for the creation of a commission to investigate human rights abuses committed by both sides during the long, bloody combat. It abolishes the civil defense groups, paramilitary organizations blamed for many of Guatemala's worst human rights violations.

These steps all "are needed to initiate a new era in the life of Guatemala, an era of . . . a dignified, enduring peace for all Guatemalans," Moran said.

Because so much of the Guatemalan fighting has occurred in remote areas, negotiators have labored not only to end the conflict but also to offer justice to the impoverished Indian population, which is largely rural. Former President Ramiro de Leon Carpio has observed that the Guatemalan war was so protracted in large part because its effects were never felt in the nation's urban areas, meaning city dwellers were unwilling to make the concessions needed to achieve peace.

Monday's agreement ends a war that has gone on so long that nearly two generations of Guatemalans have never known peace. Many have even forgotten why the fighting started--as an outgrowth of a 1954 CIA-sponsored coup to replace leftist President Jacobo Arbenz with a military dictatorship.

When the military still retained power in 1961, the first Marxist guerrilla organization took up arms 35 years ago today. Within two decades, the guerrilla forces had grown to more than 10,000, about 10 times their current estimated number. Guatemalan army units were sent into Indian hamlets to massacre rebel supporters in an effort to wipe out the insurgency.

Arzu's narrow electoral victory last year gave new impetus to the peace talks. Arzu had promised Guatemalans an accord by the end of this year. The talks, however, had appeared to be derailed last month after police arrested a guerrilla commander in the kidnapping of a wealthy 84-year-old woman.

The talks resumed after the rebels condemned the kidnapping and the leader of the faction responsible for the abduction dropped out of the negotiations in a gesture of apology, although he said the abduction was conducted without his knowledge.

Times staff writer Darling reported from San Salvador and special correspondent Vergara from Vina Del Mar. Helena Sundman of The Times' Mexico City Bureau also contributed to this report.

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