e-mail us
Guatemala's rebels study ways of peace

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Guatemala City

Claudia Luna lingered between the goal posts and asked a reporter if she could use her hands to stop the soccer ball from entering the goal. "I've never played goalie before," she confessed.

Learning to play a different position in soccer is just one of many new things that Luna and her former comrades in arms are doing in the post-guerrilla-war era here.

A member of an urban squad of the Rebel Armed Forces -- FAR, one of four guerrilla armies that made up the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) -- Luna became an expert in setting off pamphlet bombs in Guatemala City. Today she's studying to be a secretary. She is an activist in the new political party to be formed out of the old URNG.

Some 2,700 combatants of the URNG have begun the transition to civilian life. In Luna's case, that means studying high school subjects she never had time for before.

Luna is staying at Finca Claudia, a dusty private farm near Escuintla, leased by the government to temporarily house some 230 FAR combatants, about 15 percent of them women. It's one of eight United Nations-supervised encampments where URNG members are preparing for postwar life.

The first one-third of the combatants were formally demobilized April 16. From that day they were free to leave the encampment as civilians. All former URNG combatants were to be officially demobilized by May 2.

In addition to attending classes and political talks, Luna plays forward on the FAR's newly formed women's soccer team.

A team from neighboring Las Flores beat the guerrilla women 5-0. According to Las Flores player Isabel Salazar, the FAR women "didn't do that bad for their first game, but they've got to learn to be more aggressive."

Off the soccer field, another FAR combatant, Virginia Castro, said, "The armed struggle has ended, but the struggle isn't over." She was watching the camp's only television set, placed under a tarp just 10 meters from a bunker full of grenades and plastic explosives the guerrillas will soon turn over to the United Nations.

"It's up to us now. We've got to convince the population that our party can represent an alternative for the majority," she said.

Castro, 33, is a sergeant, the highest ranking woman in the FAR. She has seen her family in Retalhuleu only once since joining the guerrillas 14 years ago. They still don't know she's a guerrilla: She told them she was getting married and moving to Mexico.

According to Castro, the war was worth it. "The army only sat down to talk because of pressure," she said. "Without the armed struggle, we wouldn't have gotten anywhere."

She admitted they had higher hopes. "The accords aren't what we were fighting for when we began. We were struggling for power. But the situation in the world changed, and we're now in a stage of getting our objectives by peaceful methods."

Castro said she'll work full-time for the URNG party in the coming years. Yet the future remains uncertain. "The peace accords don't fill the stomachs of the people but they do give us an opportunity. The government said the war was an obstacle to development. Well, now we'll see," Castro said.

At the other end of the country, members of another URNG army, the Revolutionary Organization of the People in Arms -- ORPA -- are removing the last of thousands of land mines planted during 30 years of war.

Jóse Guadelupe López, a 22-year old ORPA combatant, spent nine years in the guerrillas, most of them laying mines on Tajumulco, a volcano near the Mexican border. The mines prevented army troops from reaching the guerrillas' radio transmitter high on the volcano's slopes.

López, who wants to put his wartime skills to work as an electrician when he becomes a civilian in May, said he has no problem finding mines he planted. "The problems are with those mines planted by companeros who died in combat," he said. López and 10 other guerrillas use detectors and protective gear loaned by the Guatemalan military. So far, no one has been hurt in the mine removal.

By mid-April, the team had removed 228 of 354 mines on Tajumulco. López is confident they'll find all of them. If they don't, according to Lt. Col. Alex Fieglar, commander of the Canadian component of the U.N. peacekeeping contingent, international experts will come to finish the task.

National Catholic Reporter, May 9, 1997