While Guatemalans Talk Peace, Political Violence Is on the Rise Human Rights Activists Warn That Trend Is Return to Country's 'Era of Terror'

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EVEN as government officials applaud this country's first-ever peace talks as the beginning of the end of Guatemala's 30-year civil war, students, labor leaders, and peasant activists are being abducted and murdered in a resurgence of political violence.

"Sometimes I sincerely believe that we are, little by little, returning to the era of terror we saw in the early 1980s," says Ramiro de Leon Carpio, Guatemala's human rights ombudsman, denouncing the rise in "selective violence."

In the last six months, 587 people have been assassinated and 118 have disappeared, according to figures released last week by the Mutual Support Group, Guatemala's oldest human rights group. That group's leader, Nineth de Garcia, has been in hiding since June 13 because of death threats.

Mr. Ramiro de Leon said last week that, although his office has not released new statistics, he expects his tally of this year's rights abuses to corroborate the Mutual Support Group finding. Some political observers blame the increase in violence on leftist guerrillas wanting to increase bargaining power at the peace talks.

"For negotiating leverage, the guerrillas seem to be accelerating their violence," says Mario Permuth, a member of the National Reconciliation Commission, the group mediating peace talks. "They are trying to show us that they are still out there."

Others, meanwhile, blame rightist fringe groups, civilian defense groups, and the Army, for the violence. These critics say the Army does not want the government to negotiate with people they have fought with for three decades. The military recently announced a major offensive against the insurgency.

Between 1970 and 1986, Guatemala was wracked by an estimated 100,000 political killings and 40,000 disappearances. During the regime of Maj. Gen. Romeo Lucas Garcia from 1978 to 1982, hundreds of people, mostly those suspected of aiding the rebels, were killed monthly by officially sanctioned death squads.

Now, after more than five years of civilian rule, beginning with the election of Marco Vinicio Cerezo Arevalo in 1985, no one welcomes a return to the grisly past.

But since late April, when peace talks began in Mexico City between guerrilla and government leaders, labor and rights activists have been forced into hiding and peasants have been increasingly persecuted by paramilitary groups, rights activists say.

Two members of the Council of Ethnic Communities, the country's largest indigenous human rights group, were killed June 24 by civilian patrol members under the Army's control in Quiche, a town north of Guatemala City. Civilian patrolmen also on June 7 kidnapped the group's leader and the human rights office representative in Quiche, but released them several hours later.

"It is almost the same as when we had Lucas in power," says Andres Giron de Leon, head of the congressional human rights commission. "Threats seem to be my daily bread now, and only because I work for land reform and other legislation to help the poor. …