The Alouette helicopter settled in a cloud of dust outside the remote Indian village of Chimel and a small crowd of land reform officials from the capital stepped out to present land titles to 45 Indian families.
But the new landowners were nowhere to be found.
The mayor of the village approached the officials and showed them a laboriously handwritten note. Because of "The oppression of the government's army," it said, the Indians were afraid to come to town to get the titles.
The people of Chimel had not faith in the government's promises to help bring them prosperity. The government, they believed, was helping the wealthy property holders in the area seize the best Indian land. The men in the helicopter were not going to change that pattern.
The doubts and fears of the people of Chimel suggests the tremendous obstacles to real economic reform that continue to exist in this largest -- and by conventional economic indicators, most prosperous -- Central American country.
Although Guatemalan experts and forieign observers agree that the extreme inequality between the thriving upper classes and the poor of the Indian villages and urban slums where a majority of Guatemalans live forshadows serious trouble in the years ahead, little substantive action has been taken to change the situation.
The frustations of the Indians were dramatically reflected last week with the occupation of the Spanis Embassy here, which ended in the death of 39 people, including staff members of the embassy and 30 Indian peasants from northern Quiche Province.
On Thursday, the peasants went to the Spanish ambassador hoping for support and determined to occupy the embassy until an independent commission was established to investigate their charges of murders and disappearance at the hands of military officials who allegedly wanted their land.
Guatemalan police stormed the building. One of the occupiers threw a gasoline bomb that set the building ablaze and 39 people died in the flames. Spain angrily broke off diplomatic relations with Guatemala and Spanis Ambassador Maximo Cajally Lopez denounced the Guatemalan police as "beasts" and "brutes."
Efforts at reform have often been as half-hearted and futile as the gift of small parcels of unirrigated land to the people of Chimel. The overall wealth of the nation continues its steady growth, but the majority of the people remain poor or are growing poorer.
An unpublished World Bank report estimates that in urban areas about one fifth of the families receive 60 percent of the income.In the countryside the situation is much worse, with only 10 percent of the owners holding more than 80 percent of the land. The per capital income of rural workers -- most of them illiterate Indians -- has gone up only 1 percent in the last 18 years.
The World Bank has suggested "progressive tax measures affecting primarily the situation. But such a move seem unlikely given the political power wielded by the strong business community.
There are some local businessmen who, looking at the upheavals in neaby Nicaragua and El Salvador, have begun to talk about the need for reform programs to improve the life of Guatemala's poor.
Many other businessmen, however, resist any efforts to change the social and economic structure of the country. To back up their position they point to the obvious prosperity in and around Guatemala City.
Compared to other capitals of the region, this is a consumer's paradise. Shoppers crowd downtown streets and suburban shopping centers. Store shelves are filled with every kind of product. Many of the goods are imported, but a large number are manufactured here.
Despite the revolution in Nicaragua and the continuing violence in El Salvador, Guatemala's exports to the rest of Central America alone increased 6 percent in 1979, according to Herbert Fischer, president of the Guatemalan Chamber of Industry.
Even with inflation, a slowdown in construction and some capital flight, Fischer predicted the country's economy would grow at a rate of about 5 percent next year.
Most Guatemalan businessmen and foreign investors, who operate here with very little government restraint, are determined to see that such prosperity continues.
The recent World Bank report warned that without "well-funded, well-run public sector programs," the gap between rich and poor in Guatemala is likely to widen and "aggravate the already serious social tensions within the country."
But there are growing complaints that such public works as have been initiated have led mainly to increased corruption.
Leftist critics of the government charge government officials and military officers have profited from development projects, especially those in an area called the Northern Transveral Strip. There the government, The U.S. Agency for International Development and private companies have invested millions of dollars in roads, hydroelectric plants and agricultural projects.
The area originally was intended as a resettlement zone for Indians, who are more than half of Guatemala's 6 million population. As the new infrastructure has increased its value, portions of the strip have been bought up at low prices by officials of the military government, reportedly including President Romeo Lucas Garcia.
Those Guatemalans who publicly question the official corruption or advocate extensive reforms find themselves in an increasingly dangerous position. According to Amnesty International, the murder of labor and peasant leaders has become commonplace, with literally thousands of them killed during the last 15 years. Some of the harshest repression has been directed at Guatemala's labor movement where the continuing accusations and disappearances of union leaders and organizers have made those jobs difficult to fill.
That is why the Indians of Chimel were so afraid and why they took such little consolation from the small parcels of land the government doled out to them.
When the land reform officials finally found them in a village a few miles away and proceeded to initiate a formal ceremony of presentation, the Indians talked among themselves mainly of their friends who had been taken away by the military police and never returned.
After they accepted the new titles the Indians tried to work with the officials to sort out some of their past grievances. They showed Ruben Castellanos, second vice president of the National Institute of Agrarian Transformation, a map indicating where a large landholding family had encroached on their holdings.
Castellanos told them to send a representative to Guatemala City -- more than 300 miles by winding dirt roads -- to explain their case. He also promised them technical assistance and loans to buy fertilizer.
"How can we send someone to Guatemala City?" one man asked sadly when Castellanos was out of earshot. "The man who used to go to Guatemala for us was kidnapped."