The name of Hector Rosada, a negotiator in talks that led to Guatemalan peace accords, was misspelled in an article Sunday. (Published 11/16/99)

In a harrowing drama reminiscent of Guatemala's cruel past, union officials at a U.S.-owned banana plantation were taken captive recently and taunted with death threats for about eight hours by an armed mob that witnesses say included representatives of a local chamber of commerce.

As the situation unfolded on the night of Oct. 13, just blocks from a police station in the town of Morales, the labor leaders said they were coerced at gunpoint to cancel a strike planned for the next day to protest the firing of 937 workers by the company, a subsidiary of Fresh Del Monte Produce Inc. of Coral Gables, Fla. Then, they said, they were forced to sign resignation letters.

The U.N. Verification Mission here has called the incident one of the "gravest" acts of human rights abuses since the government and Marxist guerrillas ended 36 years of civil conflict by signing ambitious peace accords in 1996. Fresh Del Monte's local affiliate, the Guatemalan Banana Development Co., denied any involvement.

The peace agreements were designed not only to end the fighting but also to address the complex mixture of economic, social and political problems that fueled the war in which an estimated 200,000 people died or disappeared--and in which Guatemala's labor movement was decimated. Among reforms called for in the accords were greater protection of workers' rights and the dismantling of armed civilian groups that meted out vigilante-style justice during the war.

The Morales case points out, however, that despite the recipe for change outlined in the peace agreements, there has been little significant progress in the last three years. Basic issues continue to confront and divide this poor nation of 11 million people, many of whom feel cheated out of a more prosperous and safer life that they had hoped would come with peace.

"There just has not been any real movement toward a more equitable society in Guatemala, and that is what people measure," said Teresa Casertano, the representative here and in El Salvador for the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center.

While the overall human rights situation has dramatically improved since the conflict ended, a recent U.N. report documented "serious violations" such as extrajudicial executions, torture and threats by security forces, including the new Civilian National Police.

"There has been a disturbing escalation in social conflicts related to the exercise of freedom of association and labor problems, and an alarming increase in lynchings and in the phenomenon known as 'social cleansing,' " the report added, referring to communities that pressure undesirables to leave.

Widespread concerns about lawlessness, along with economic frustrations, helped Alfonso Portillo, 48, a lawyer and candidate of the opposition Guatemalan Republican Front, garner the most votes in last Sunday's presidential election, the first since the end of the war. But he fell shy of a majority and will face a runoff Dec. 26 against Oscar Berger, 53, former Guatemala City mayor and candidate of the ruling National Advancement Party (PAN).

Favored to prevail next month, Portillo has waged a populist law-and-order campaign that has resonated with Guatemalans who feel the government is elite, corrupt and incapable of delivering the dividends of peace. His popularity surged even though the Republican Front is associated with wartime atrocities and despite his admission in September that he fatally shot two men--in what he says was self-defense--in a fight in Mexico 17 years ago and then fled out of fear he would be unfairly prosecuted.

Almost from the moment he lost to President Alvaro Arzu in 1996, Portillo and the Republican Front set out to strengthen their support in rural areas and chip away at the ruling party's urban base while the Arzu government increasingly was viewed as detached, listless and part of an oligarchy that was the sole beneficiary of the cease-fire.

"Portillo's victory was the chronicle of a death foretold," Hector Rosado, a government negotiator in the peace process, said, playing off the title of a book by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. "It was a punishment vote against PAN that reflected the desperation of the Guatemalan people."

Guatemala's future hinges on the evolution of the peace process, which suffered a major setback in May when voters rejected a package of constitutional reforms during balloting in which there was only an 18.5 percent turnout. Analysts noted, however, that many of the reforms can be achieved through legislation or executive decrees and that Portillo and Berger both have said in general terms they would push ahead with the reforms.

Arzu's administration has overseen extensive road construction and improvements to education, health services and communications. But his administration, which has received close to $1 billion in international aid since the accords were signed, $270 million of it from the United States, has been criticized for failing to implement reforms contained in the agreements, such as restructuring the tax system to increase collections.

Some reforms have been carried out, albeit with minimal results, such as those concerning the armed forces. The military is still a formidable institution in Guatemala even though human rights monitors and an international postwar truth commission have accused it of committing the overwhelming majority of atrocities during the conflict.

Technically, the military has decreased personnel 33 percent, but observers note that the reduction is somewhat deceptive because it was based on authorized strength and not the actual number of troops, which was believed to be considerably lower at the time of the downsizing.

Furthermore, six military zones were dismantled, but those were considered to be of little importance. And the Presidential General Staff, which has been involved in military intelligence and linked to political killings and other crimes, remains in place and heavily involved in internal security. Under the peace accords it was supposed to be abolished.

"Of all the recent peace agreements in Central America, the Guatemala one was the most comprehensive and thought through. It looked like a wholesale, 30-year development plan for the nation," said Alejandro Bendana, president of the Center for International Studies, a Managua, Nicaragua, think tank that specializes in peace and development issues.

He added, however, "What the accords have sought to achieve has run up against the fact that a lot of the historical forces responsible for repression and oppression are still intact in Guatemala."

CAPTION: Opposition presidential candidate Alfonso Portillo, left, listens to party leader--and former dictator--Efrain Rios Montt.