A WEEK after signing the peace agreement that ended Guatemala's 36-year-old civil war—and that, for the time being, ended all armed conflict in Central America—former guerrilla leader Jorge Rosals surprised almost everybody when he unveiled his future plans: “I would not like to create a left-wing party, but a broad-based political movement that could include socialists and Christians.”

Coming from Rosals, who only a month before had led the Marxist guerrilla National Revolutionary Union of Guatemala (URNG) as “Commander Carlos Gonzales,” the conciliatory gesture seemed almost unbelievable. But after years of effort to end the civil war that left 150,000 dead, 50,000 missing and cost the economically fragile country of 10.5 million inhabitants $20 billion, a process of genuine reconciliation is a dire necessity.

The guerrilla movement in Guatemala dates back to the early 1960s, when a group of disillusioned army soldiers created the Rebel Movement November 13(MR-13). The MR-13 failed in its goal to force the resignation of then-President Miguel Ydigoras, but it inspired three other Marxist groups—the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP), the Guatemalan Workers' Party (PGT) and the Revolutionary Organization of the People in Arms (ORPA). The movements eventually teamed up, becoming the URNG in 1982.

Unlike other revolutionary movements in Central America, such as the Farabundo Marti of El Salvador or the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the URNG never came close to toppling the government. It did, however, achieve broad support in rural areas and staged successful military strikes against government forces.

The guerrillas high moment came early, in 1968, before the formation of the URNG, when they killed Vice-Minister of Defense Ernesto Molina. But a series of military defeats and internal power struggles often put them on the defensive. Analysts today agree that the succession of the military governments of Gens. Lucas Garcia, Efrain Rios Montt and Oscar Humberto Mejia, which regularly violated human rights, created a hospitable environment in rural areas for the rebels' frequent strikes against the state.

Then, in 1988, Vinicio Cerezo—the first democratically-elected president in three decades—inaugurated the peace process by inviting the URNG to a first round of informal dialogue in Madrid, Spain. But steady steps toward peace didn't begin until two years later when the rising number of victims and economic damage led the government to initiate the first official face-to-face dialogue with the rebels in Oslo, Norway. The meeting was described by one of the participants as “just yelling at each other across the table.”

Another attempt at dialogue, in January 1993, also became a finger-pointing session, convincing both sides that an impartial mediator was badly needed. They agreed it should be the Catholic Church. By coincidence, the primary representatives— Jose Ascensio for the government, and Rodrigo Asturias for the URNG—were once friends and classmates at a Catholic school. Another key player, Bishop Rodolfo Quezada Toruno of Zacapa and Santo Cristo de Esquipulas, already had built a reputation for his skill in building agreement in a country shaken by tensions between guerrilla groups, paramilitary forces and numerous political parties. He was popularly known as “Monsenor Dialogo” (Msgr. Dialogue).

Appointed as head of the Commission for National Reconciliation, Bishop Quezada Toruno brokered a cease-fire agreement with the guerrillas, while the government accepted the creation of a Truth Commission that would investigate human right violations. Both sides agreed to Ramiro de Leon Carpio, a respected lawyer, as overseer of the commission's work.

But in October 1993, the lawyer proposed a peace agreement that was unequivocally rejected by the URNG, bringing the talks nearly to a halt. “This cannot be a showdown of strength, this must be a serious [journey] toward dialogue, for the good of our people,” Bishop Quezada Toruno said in a strongly-worded message at the time. Soon after, he played his strongest card: He quit as head of the commission.

From then on, Church involvement in the negotiations became indirect, but at the same time it became more efficient. Bishop Quezada Toruno moved more freely from side to side, while the bishops' conference, mostly through Archbishop Prospero Penados del Barrio, of Guatemala City, increased public pressure, either congratulating each advancement or denouncing counter-productive moves by either side.

The rocky dialogue process finally bore fruit when, following a new schedule proposed by the bishops' conference, both sides agreed to start new face-to-face conversations in February 1995, this time under the auspices of the United Nations.

Alvaro Arzu, who in January 1996 became the country's fourth democratically-elected president in succession, carefully followed the agenda set by the United Nations with the support of the bishops' conference. Finally, the peace agreement was signed last Dec. 29.

The accord has three stages. The first, which will conclude April 15, calls for the government to provide all URNG members with legal documents. It also says that an official institution should be established to pay reparation to all Guatemalans who suffered human rights violations at the hands of the army. Programs for land and education reform are also to be discussed. The guerrillas, for their part, will turn in their weapons and disband all their military units.

The second stage, which lasts until the end of the year, requires the government to begin investing in housing and healthcare. It will be required to invest at least 1.5 percent of the national budget to improve the living conditions of Guatemala's Indian population.

The third and final stage will conclude in the year 2000. According to the agreement, the government must then have achieved the social reforms launched this year, assimilated the former guerrilla members into society, reduced the role of the army to matters of national defense and applied the “Law of Reconciliation.”

The reconciliation provision is the most controversial element of the treaty. Critics claim that its ambiguous language provides a loophole of impunity for all those, especially army officers, who violated human rights during the war years. “I don't like the amnesty law,” said Rigoberto Menchu, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 for her efforts to help the country's indigenous peoples. “To prove we have a credible system of justice, we have to know the truth.”

Apart from overcoming skepticism in a country jaded by 36 years of fighting, observers say another formidable task will be raising the money—estimated at $3.6 billion—to implement plans set out in the peace accord.

Bishop Quezada Toruno said the accord could be stronger, but he is nonetheless hopeful about it. “The agreement is still weak [when it comes to] social issues, such as land reform, but the important thing here is that more than 350 items have been discussed and accepted. This shows the good will of both sides and also the desire of the people for a final peace,” he said.

“Msgr. Dialogue” acknowledged that the peace agreement includes 95 percent of the proposals made by the Guatemalan bishops'conference, but he insists that “peace has been a national achievement and no group can claim it as its own victory.”

For Bishop Quezada Toruno the peace agreement is definitive, “because I see a new mentality both in the former guerrillas as well as in the military.” He noted that there is still a long way before reconciliation will be fully achieved. “The worst heritage of these 36 years of war is [the rise of] a culture of violence in which many believe that killing is the best way to solve problems or [address] differences,” said the bishop. “I think that the main task of the Church now will be to [help a spirit of] reconciliation become a new mentality, a new culture.”

Alejandro Bermudez is based in Lima, Peru.