Few of the 46,000 Guatemalan refugees in Mexico are now expected to be repatriated, despite Guatemala's campaign to lure them back and Mexico's initial reluctance to grant them permanent asylum, United Nations and Mexican refugee aid workers say.
Refugee aid officials are now preparing the way for the assimilation into Mexican society of most of the Guatemalans living in more than 30 U.N.-financed camps scattered across Mexico's southeastern lowlands. Nearing its goal of making the settlements economically self-sustaining, the United Nations expects next year "to begin phasing out" its refugee aid program here, said Poul Hartling, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees.
Most of the refugees arrived two to three years ago, fleeing Army counterinsurgency sweeps through Guatemala's western highlands. The flow of Guatemalans into Mexico since then largely has stopped, aid workers report.
U.N. policy is to reduce aid gradually in order to "consolidate the self-sufficiency" of refugee communities, Hartling said. The United Nations sent $10 million to Mexico's refugee camps in 1984 and expects to spend slightly more this year, but in 1986 donations of foodstuffs and clothing could be reduced by as much as half, he said in an interview.
Hartling, during a week-long visit to Mexico, repeatedly praised the Mexican government's "very positive attitude" about its refugee problem. The new camps established in the southeastern lowland states of Campeche and Quintano Roo -- with schools, clinics, social centers, crafts shops and farm plots -- are among "the world's best," he said.
When Guatemalans began to cross Mexico's southern border in massive numbers, some key Mexican officials were openly hostile to the refugees, voicing fears that their presence could destablize the poor, rural south -- already ridden by land conflicts and political tension.
Volunteers working among refugees charged that this hostility led to the theft by Mexican aid officials of funds and materials destined for the camps, an accusation apparently confirmed last August, when the government imprisoned five former aid coordinators for allegedly embezzling $850,000 in U.N.-provided assistance.
Roman Catholic bishops and other critics complained that Mexican security forces in July denied the refugees food, destroyed their camps and submitted them to physical abuse in the attempt to force their move to new camps far from the remote border zone. During the first 10 days of the operation, Mexican authorities denied U.N. representatives access to the area, U.N. sources said later, while emphasizing that they nonetheless supported the relocation.
Domestic opposition to the refugee transfer was heightened by the belief that it was undertaken to ensure Guatemala's cooperation with Mexico's position in the regional Contadora peace talks, a suspicion shared by U.S. diplomats in the region.
Guatemalan chief of state Gen. Oscar Mejia Victores publicly thanked Mexico for dismantling the border camps, which he said had been used "as a training zone" by Guatemalan guerrillas, an allegation Mexican authorities denied.
Church spokesmen later retracted a charge that three Guatemalans had been killed by Mexican troops in the July resettlement operation, and there have been few accusations since of serious refugee mistreatment. Nearly 18,000 Guatemalans already have been moved to more permanent and accessible campsites in the states of Campeche and Quintano Roo.
Mexican and U.N. officials toured the remaining border camps this month with several of the relocated refugees, who urged their compatriots to transfer voluntarily to the superior facilities.
Hundreds of refugees continue to resist the move, however, and Mexican authorities say that if necessary they may be relocated forcibly. "They are guests in the country, and it is the decision of the government where to put those people," Hartling commented. "I cannot criticize the government for deciding to move them. I can only say, 'Please, don't use violence.' "
There were "valid reasons" for the relocation, Hartling added, noting the history of violent raids on the border camps. In the last serious incident, soldiers wearing Guatemalan uniforms attacked El Chupadero camp on April 30, 1984, killing six refugees.
The Guatemalan government, embarrassed by the refugee flight, has tried unsuccessfully to secure Mexican support for a mass repatriation drive. Publicly urging Guatemalans here to go home, Julio Cesar Mendez Montegro, Guatemala's ambassador to Mexico and an ex-president, said they "have nothing to fear in returning, since the government guarantees their security and protection."
In September, the Guatemalan Army reported that 8,334 refugees already had returned from the camps in Mexico. Disputing this, U.N. officials said they know only of "about 600" refugees who decided to repatriate. Another 3,000 Guatemalans who had emigrated to Mexico illegally are also thought to have returned, they added.
One reason many Guatemalans are unwilling to repatriate are the verified reports that some returning refugees have been sent to Guatemala's "model villages," fortified Army-run hamlets. Guatemalan Catholic bishops and opposition politicians charge that residents of the hamlets are denied freedom of movement and live under close military scrutiny.
"We do not encourage people to go back, nor do we discourage them," Hartling said. His office has no legal obligation to inform refugees about conditions in their homelands, nor does it have information about countries where it does not run refugee programs, he said. Last month, the Guatemalan government sent Hartling an official invitation to visit Guatemala, but he has not yet decided whether to accept, he said.
U.N. officials acknowledge, however, that refugees everywhere are counseled informally about the possible consequences of a contemplated repatriation. But they say most Guatemalans express little interest in going home. Health and education standards in the refugee settlements are generally higher than in rural Guatemala, and fear of the Guatemalan military apparently remains strong.
Mexican authorities are reconciled to the prospect of the Guatemalans staying, U.N. workers and other informed observers agree. The new Campeche and Quintano Roo settlements were carefully placed in sparsely populated rural areas where they have the potential to grow without encroaching on indigenous local communities, which in any case share the Guatemalans' Mayan Indian origin.
Yet Mexican officials openly admit concern about the potential economic and political impact of Central American refugees. There may be 200,000 undocumented Salvadoran aliens in Mexico, Salvadoran consul Emanuel Salome Zacaria estimated.