Voting under the gun
The scene was Zone 12—a working-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Guatemala City. As moderate National United Front candidate Juan José Perdomo Castellanos took an evening stroll with a party aide last week, an assailant armed with a handgun approached and opened fire. The aide escaped with minor wounds, but Perdomo is in hospital with serious injuries and effectively out of conten-
tion. The incident was only the latest example of the violence that has marred Guatemala’s election campaign to choose a new 88-member Constituent Assembly on July 1. Last February a group of gunmen kidnapped and killed Jorge Galvez Loaiza, a founder of the left-leaning New Force party. In the intervening months, several political parties have reported the kidnapping or disappearance of dozens of activists.
No fewer than 17 political parties and three “political committees”—groupings that have secured fewer than 4,000 signatures necessary for registration— are participating in the first all-civilian elections in more than a decade. But most Guatemalans—conditioned by almost 30 years of balloting directed by
military juntas—have displayed little enthusiasm for the campaign. Indeed, the Guatemalan Roman Catholic Bishops’ Conference earlier in the month condemned “fraudulently elected” governments that have been unable to put Guatemala’s house in order.
The nation’s military president, Gen. Oscar Mejia Victores, has decreed that the new assembly must confine its activities to drafting a new constitution. He will continue to administer the nation’s day-today affairs until the next presidential election, in March, 1985. Mejia’s restrictions on the assembly’s role have prompted bitter criticism from opposition candidates. Said Jorge Gonzalez Del Valle, leader of the centreleft Democratic Civic Front: “Our history has taught us that a Guatemalan constitution is a document without real political importance. It is not surprising that most people are apathetic.”
By contrast, the country’s left-wing guerrillas, who suffered serious reverses against Mejia’s predecessor, Gen. Ephraín Ríos Montt, are once more on the offensive. z There have been bolder, § more frequent clashes 5 with government troops
1 in the mountainous o provinces of San
2 Marcos and Huehuetenango near the Mexican
° border. During the past two years, an estimated
80,000 refugees have fled
to Mexico to avoid the army’s brutal counterinsurgency sweeps.
The key component in the army’s plan to control the densely populated countryside was the creation of “civil patrols,” local paramilitary vigilante groups, which now claim a total of 800,000 forcibly recruited members. Gonzales Del Valle has described them as “an obstacle to the free exercise of democracy.” At the same time, he concedes that, whatever the outcome of the elections, the military is unlikely to relinquish any of its power if the new assembly ignores the army’s traditional legislative veto. Like public apathy, the army seems certain to remain an integral part of Guatemalan politics.
-WILLIAM ORME in Guatemala City.