TIQUISATE, GUATEMALA -- When the Rev. Andres Giron was a student in the United States in the 1960s, he learned about nonviolence first-hand from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He also learned about violence.
As a theology student in Memphis in 1968, Giron marched with King in the city's garbage strike. He was in Memphis when the civil rights leader was assassinated.
Back home in Guatemala, Giron learned a lot more about violence. In 1980, death threats forced him to flee to Texas for 2 1/2 years. Five of his relatives have been murdered, including his father. Last month, unknown arsonists set fire to a seminary that he started here, and recently he has received anonymous letters threatening to kill him and the 150 children who attend a primary school that he established last year.
Giron, 40, the Roman Catholic parish priest in this town about 95 miles southwest of Guatemala City, is in the forefront of the most sensitive social issue in a country that has one of the most violent histories in Latin America. He is working to find farms for peasants who are kept impoverished by a land tenure system that generally is acknowledged to be the most inequitable in Central America.
Giron is the leader of the National Peasant Association, which claims 115,000 members. That role has made him a hated enemy of powerful right-wing landowners, to whom the term "land reform" is anathema.
"We are fighting for an impossible dream," said Giron as he sat in his parish residence wearing a white cassock and guarded by two policemen assigned to him eight months ago by the reformist Christian Democratic government.
"The movement is trying to reclaim land that was taken years ago by the Spanish," he said, referring to the ladino, or westernized, inhabitants of Guatemala. Although they make up slightly less than half the country's 8 million population, the ladinos dominate the indigenous inhabitants descended from the Mayan Indians.
According to Giron, 72 percent of Guatemala's cultivable land is held by 1 percent of the population. The U.S. Agency for International Development uses figures of about 70 percent of arable land held by 20 percent of the people, but agrees that Guatemala's land system is among the most skewed in the Western Hemisphere.
The land issue is considered one of the principal reasons that Marxist-led guerrillas found significant support among peasants as they fought an insurgency against the government in the 1960s and again in the late 1970s. The Guatemalan Army responded with a brutal counterinsurgency campaign marked by especially bloody repression in the countryside, where thousands of Indian villagers suspected of supporting the guerrillas were massacred.
Now, "the people don't trust the guerrillas anymore," Giron said. "People found out that if you get into that mess, you get killed." But the land problem may yet ignite a new conflagration.
"If we don't do something about land, we will have a problem very soon all over Guatemala," Giron said.
So far, Giron has managed to set up two cooperative farms for his peasant followers. But he accuses President Vinicio Cerezo's government of failing to keep its promises and "playing games" with Giron's movement. The priest fears that his farms may fail unless the government comes through promptly with $200,000 in promised financial aid to enable the peasants to start planting.
"I'm totally disgusted with the government," he said angrily. "I don't believe in anybody but the peasants."
Giron's movement acquired its first farm last November when he and more than 1,000 followers, annoyed with waiting for the government to act, took over an abandoned 1,332-acre tract in the Chimaltenango province. Faced with a fait accompli, the government immediately approved the takeover, whose terms require the peasants eventually to buy the land, he said. Currently occupying the farm are 300 Indian families totaling about 1,500 people.
In May, after thousands of followers marched from here to the capital and a peasant group staged a hunger strike in front of the National Palace, Giron's movement was given its second farm, a 2,331-acre spread on Guatemala's southern coastal plain about 7 miles from here. Giron said 500 families, totaling 2,500 people, have moved onto the corn and sugar cooperative, which is surrounded by hostile big landholders.
"We have opened a new way of peaceful confrontation in Guatemala," Giron said. "I learned that from Martin Luther King when I was in the States."
He said his support for King's nonviolent tactics grew stronger after unknown gunmen killed his father in 1981. Giron said that although he suspected a political motive behind the murder of his father, a former town mayor and provincial senator, he saw no reason to suspect that the killing had anything to do with land reform, which his father opposed. But when a favorite aunt was shot to death for no apparent reason last year in Guatemala City, Giron said, he considered the possibility that his activities were a motive.
Since then, Giron's new seminary was set on fire while its 35 seminarians were asleep. All managed to escape before half the building burned. Later, one of many anonymous death threats he has received warned him to withdraw the 150 children in his primary school, or he would see them "killed one by one," Giron said.
"Living like this is a pain," he said. "You're never sure what's going to happen."
Giron said he has tried to get money for his projects from the U.S. Agency for International Development, but was turned down because his movement was "too political." A U.S. official denied that Giron had asked for AID's help, but said the agency could not assist him because his cooperative farms "do not conform with AID policy." AID favors only "private ownership, with private titles," the official said.
Since 1984, AID has contributed $10 million to a private Guatemalan land redistribution effort run by the conservative Penny Foundation. It purchases farmland that is up for sale and then resells it in plots to peasants.
So far, according to AID, 20 farms totaling 9,390 acres have been purchased and parceled out to about 500 peasant families. The peasants then have access to short-term credit and technical assistance, with the requirement that they accept advice on what to plant.
Experts agree, however, that, while they may put some dents in the problem, neither the AID program nor Giron's can operate on a large enough scale to resolve Guatemala's land distribution troubles.
"According to some calculations," one expert said, "you can't meet the needs of the landless in Guatemala with the land in Guatemala."