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MASS GRAVE TELLS GRIM TALE IN GUATEMALA

Lilies droop amid the weeds and dying grass around a dirty slab of concrete at Verbena Cemetery. A grim chapter of Guatemala's bloody past is buried underneath.

"There are about 15,000 people" in the grave, said Luis Humberto Rivas, the cemetery director.They were poor or forgotten, their bodies never claimed. Some were among the "disappeared" - people kidnapped and killed by security forces and "death squads" in attempts to stamp out a leftist revolt.

For most of the past four decades, the United States - and especially the CIA - stood beside the Guatemalan government as it fought leftist insurgents in a ruthless struggle. The war killed perhaps 120,000 people, most of them civilians, and drove at least 40,000 into exile.

Florencio Morales Rojas, a 75-year-old cemetery worker, said many of the unclaimed bodies arrived at Verbena during the rule of Gen. Romeo Lucas Garcia in 1978-82. "There were 12 to 15 a day," he said.

He said he did not know how many were political killings, but the rate of nameless coffins arriving at the cemetery doubled. "There were stacks and stacks of them," he said, giggling slightly.

The bloodshed was thrust back into the news in the United States last week after a U.S. congressmen alleged that a Guatemalan colonel on the CIA payroll was involved in killing an American citizen, Michael Devine, in 1990 and Efrain Bamaca, a captured guerrilla married to an American lawyer, in 1992.

The shock in Guatemala is largely that the report was made public.

"We are surprised by the unexpected interest of the government of the United States in the participation of the CIA . . . because it has always been known," said Nineth Montenegro, coordinator of the Mutual Support Group, which claims a membership of 10,000 relatives of the disappeared.

Army rule and CIA influence have long been taken for granted in Guatemala, Central America's most populous nation, where the Indian majority is impoverished and largely excluded from power.

Army officers, many retired, have occupied the presidency for most of the past 120 years. Some have been elected freely, some through fraud. Some have taken power in coups. Generals have been heroes of the left, champions of the right.

Civilian rule is such a novelty that Guatemala never had a change of power between one elected civilian and another until 1991.

In 1954, the CIA organized and ran a coup that toppled the elected leftist government of Gen. Jacobo Arbenz. In 1960, it set up camps to train Cuban exiles for the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba.

The rebel movement, now comprising mostly highlands Indians, grew out of a failed 1960 coup by leftist army officers angry about the Cuban camps.

The rebels gradually became more Marxist in their orientation and have a vague list of demands such as strengthened democracy, redistribution of property, controls on prices and equality among Indians and non-Indians.

Once a viable military movement, the rebels now number perhaps 1,000 in four groups. They are seen as more of a nuisance than a threat.