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First published:

San Diego Union | August 9, 1987

Maya-Tecum, among the largest of the camps with 7,500 inhabitants, is a collection of crude wooden huts tucked away in a steamy forest 15 miles from the Gulf of Mexico in the sparsely populated state of Campeche.

Top: A child stays close to his mother at Maya-Tecum refugee camp | John Vink


Right: Boys rehearse music for Sunday mass at the camp | John Vink

Far from Gautemala

Five years after repression in their homeland forced them to flee, tens of thousands of Guatemalans remain stranded in refugee camps scattered across southern Mexico



By Ron Russell


Maya-Tecum, Mexico -- Six years after soldiers raided his Indian village in Guatemala, killing his uncle and cousin and almost killing him before he fled across the border into Mexico, Emilio Raez, 25, is still fearful of returning home.


"They shot my relatives in cold blood but couldn't catch me when I ran into the forest," he said. "I got away by God's mercy. I don't want to go back there and be killed."


He is among 39,000 Guatemalans who, more than five years after fleeing military repression in their homeland, are languishing in refugee camps scattered across southeastern Mexico with little expectation of going home anytime soon.


Roman Catholic Church and human rights sources estimate there are more than 100,000 Guatemalan refugees in Mexico, counting those who have settled in squatter settlements or among local residents.


The presence of so many poor immigrants in a country struggling with severe recession and record unemployment has created a ticklish political problem in Mexico, with officials concerned that the refugeres may never leave.


Maya-Tecum, among the largest of the camps with 7,500 inhabitants, is a collection of crude wooden huts tucked away in a steamy forest 15 miles from the Gulf of Mexico in the sparsely populated state of Campeche.





















Although a few of the men are able to get seasonal jobs with the government cutting sugar cane for $2 a day, there is only enough arable land available to the refugees to supply about half the food they need.


To make up the difference, the United Nations supplies a truckload of basic foodstuffs to Maya-Tecum and other camps each week.


In the nearby camp of Quetzal-Edzna, refugees are being used to restore Mayan ruins that until recently have remained largely untouched since their discovery 60 years ago. Similarly, in two other resettlement camps on the Caribbean side of the peninsula, the refugees perform seasonal labor to help them purchase non-food necessities.


"Everyone here wants to go home. The thing is, we don't know what would happen to us after we get there," said Francisco Lorenzo, 40, one of the many refugees here who fled the northern provience of Huehuetenango near the Mexican border. Lorenzo said he left with his wife and four children in 1982 after soldiers burned their village.


Like everyone else in this settlement camp, his family initially found refuge in the poor crowded border state of Chiapas, where more than half of the refugees still live despite efforts by the Mexican government to resettle them elsewhere.


In the settlement camps, officials of the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance preach self-sufficiency and offer help to those who want to return home.


Such a dual approach has taken on added importance for the Mexican government because the United Nations is phasing out its aid to the camps. U. N. aid to the refugees will amount to almost $5 million this year.


Most of the refugees fled Guatemala in 1981 and 1982 during the governments of generals Romeo Luca Garcia and Efrain Rios Montt. During those years, hundreds of villages were destroyed and thosusands of peasants were killed in a counterinsurgency campaign by the Guatemalan military.


An elected civilian government of President Vinicio Cerezo Arevalo has governed Guatemala since January 1986. Although it has invited refugees to return, neither diplomats and human rights workers nor the refugees themselves are convinced that the new government can guarantee their safety.


Fewer than 1,500 refugees have returned to Guatemala since Cerezo took office, according the U. N. High Commissioner for Refugees.


"His intentions may be good, but if we go back and the military takes power again, imagine what they might do to us," said Modesto Martin, 38, a campesino turned first-grade teacher at a primitive elementary school set up for refugee children here.


Not even a visit here last November by Raquel Cerezo, wife of the Guatemalan president, seems to have diminished the fear residents have of going back.


A recent statement by Guatemala's defense minister may have given refugees even more cause for concern about returning. The minister, Gen. Hector Gramajo, said military intelligence had uncovered evidence of guerrilla infiltration among the refugee camps. This could put any refugee returnng to Guatemala under a cloud of suspicion.


Officials overeeing the camps are skeptical of such claims.


"I do not believe the gueerrillas care to risk drawing attention to themselves enough to try to infiltrate the camps," said Michael Moller, the U. N. High Commissioner's representative in Mexico. "We've seen no evidence of it."


Initially, the refugees settled in about 80 small camps in Chiapas, organized according to ethnic or linguistic groups. After the Guatemalan army staged a midnight attack on one of the camps nearest the broder in April 1984, killing several refugeees, the Mexican government sought to relocate them farther from the border.


Since then, 18,000 refugees -- including those here -- have been relocated to the four resettlement camps in the hot lowlands of the Yucatan peninsula, well away from the volatile boundary.


There are still more than 70 smaller camps in densely populated Chiapas, where land pressure is intense. The security of refugees living near the Guatemalan border continues to be a source of uneasiness, because the refugees have become virtual wards of the government and international relief organizations.


The 21,000 refugees still in Chiapas have steadfastly resisted efforts to move them. While not officially saying so, the Mexican government more than a year ago abandoned efforts to relocate any more of them.


Most of the Chiapas camps have neither electricity nor piped water, while the four camps in Yucatan do. Yet some residents of Maya-Tecum say they would prefer to return to Chiapas if given the choice.


"There, at least I have the feeling of being close to home," said Cristina Ramez, 29, a mother of four. "Here it feels very far away."

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