The probability that Efrain Rios Montt, the former general and dictator of Guatemala, will face genocide charges later this year means that I was a kind of witness to the crime. My part in the dictator’s story, though almost infinitesimally insignificant, begins in the fall of 1982 with my arrival in Guatemala City on a DC-7 flight from Tegucigalpa, Honduras. I was traveling in that strange minister-without-portfolio state of the freelance journalist—and bearing with me just incidentally the opening stages of a case of amoebic dysentery.
The general had been in power for approximately six months and already had ordered the military operation, modeled on the rural pacification program in Vietnam, that would lead to the burning of villages in the Central Highlands, and the forced transfer of thousands of their Mayan Indian inhabitants into so-called ‘model’ communities. The goal was to cut off leftist fighters from the population. This was to be the final act in a two-decades long civil war between the Guatemalan military and los guerrilleros.
We now know that during the general’s 14-month reign, the brutality of that civil war went out of all bounds. We know this due to many reports by human rights groups and historians who have studied the conflict, and in some cases findings by the American Court of Human Rights, a juridical arm of the Organization of American States.
But at the time, as is often the case, exactly what was happening in Guatemala was somewhat less certain. A miasma surrounded everything, exacerbated in my own inglorious case by the amoebic dysentery. I established myself in a downtown hotel, favored by Peace Corps workers, found a doctor, and kept down what food I could. Making my way to and for through the large central open-air courtyard of my hotel into the streets, I began to take stock of my surroundings.
By the standard of other Central American cities I had visited, Guatemala’s capital projected a tone of quiet order and efficiency, but much of that calm seemed to involve the cops seemingly on every street corner who were forever picking their teeth with one hand while holding Uzis in the other. Something about those cops was deeply menacing: as though they were continuously observing moments of post-prandial satisfaction after lunch on a few citizens.
After my recovery, this marked contrast between calm and order and the possibility of chaotic violence the cops seemed to represent became more pronounced. When an opposition political figure sent a car to pick me up at my hotel for our interview, the driver perched a .45 caliber semiautomatic under his thigh as we drove back to the politician’s residence—yet we made our way over well-maintained streets with working traffic signals and smoothly flowing traffic. Later at a dinner party in a comfortable private home, the guests spoke of the horrors of the regime that the current dictator replaced: how walking by the Interior Ministry at night it was possible to hear the screams of torture victims. “Yes,” said one of the people at the table. “Things had degenerated. The interior minister and customs minister were both keeping private armies. Thugs for hire. Fighting over the contraband trade.” Someone else added that this was happening as a string of almost daily bombings lit up Guatemala City. Dessert was served: a lovely flan.
The bombings in the city, along with an endless string of assassinations, were mostly over under the new regime, but this only intensified the very real gulf between what was happening in the capital and the countryside beyond. Perhaps due to those improved conditions, those in the city were more inclined to mock the dictator as a kind of comic buffoon, though admittedly a dangerous one. Groups representing Indians in the highlands, where the military operations were taking place, entertained no such illusions: the pictures they sketched were of absolute horror and unrestrained violence.
But even those advocates in a sense may have underestimated the dictator, perhaps because neither they nor anyone else in the country seemed to believe the Rios Montt was operating on his own power. Several theories had currency: the general was the pawn of the Guatemalan ruling class; or of the U.S. Or based on his conversion to an evangelical form of Christianity (he had actually spent time as an acolyte at a Christian commune in California, and the church’s headquarters in Guatemala occupied the better part of a city block) he was taking orders from church leaders. Having just spent time in Honduras at a Baptist camp in the hinterlands where boys were being trained to fight against the Communist government of Nicaragua in what gave every sign of being a CIA operation, I found this less farfetched than might be supposed.
Eventually I traveled outside the city, where I realized that whatever menace I felt in the streets of the capital was dwarfed compared to the atmosphere beyond its borders. My first trip (described in a blog post here) was to a refugee camp in the mountains. A burned-out church and other dwellings on a hilltop suggested that a village had once been located there. In a little crease in the land below, Indians were living in white tents with the Red Cross symbol stenciled on their sides. Army officers said the guerrillas had burned the village, but this seemed unlikely. More probable—and the evidence about the army’s actions in the campaign that have come to light since would seem to support the point—the army had burned the village; that is, burned these people’s homes, and was now housing them in the tents until they could be relocated to one of the model villages.
In other words, I was looking at a prison camp.
And yet what did I have to go on? Here was the visual field: brilliant green mountains, women in skirts, ablaze in fabulous luminescence, washing clothes in a stream winding past the former village—tourists would have paid handsome dollars for this view of ‘native life.’ Standing there I saw what journalists often see in similar situations: the scars of violence written on the land, scattered ash and char, whose symbology suggests a narrative but provides no proof, even taken in the non-legal sense.
Genocide thus obscures itself, is structured as an intensely local inner privacy: it seemed in Guatemala always to be elsewhere, on the other side of town, or in the countryside beyond the town, at any rate, somewhere, over there. Yet the feeling that I was seeing the aftermath of violence was inescapable. People made their way across the hills, to and fro from the tents, in the kind of silence that follows serious accidents.
With the sharpened optics that come with time—and multiple investigations revealing the precise nature of the violent regime against the Indians—I now understand that I was witnessing a chilling theatrical performance, a dumb show (for as in the city there really was an eerie absence of human noise—a baby’s crying in one of the tents stood out in contrast to the otherwise silent scene) whose full meaning, whose signals, quite precisely, were the threat of violence on the part of the army soldiers and the careful avoidance of becoming the target of that violence on the part of the Indians. A kind of dance then, the dance of the tarantula, in which the tarantula hovers, and its potential victims walk carefully to avoid its deadly bite.
As for the Indians themselves, on two trips outside the capital city, I found no one willing to speak to me. (One impediment might have been that many of the Indians spoke Mayan languages, but it’s likely that at least some of the men spoke Spanish as well.) This was emphasized when on my second trip outside the capital, we crested a high ridge on one of those strikingly manicured, though narrow, roads that were a hallmark of the Guatemala of that time to find a group of campesinos resting, or perhaps waiting for a bus to market. With no army present, I had thought I might find someone willing to speak with me. Instead, the group appeared almost to look through me, as though I were a troubling roadside spirit come to do some mischief and best ignored. I suspect their assessment, based on the available evidence and their own experience, was the most logical conclusion.
Eventually I secured an interview with the dictator himself. That morning, under low clouds of the same kind that in the mountains I had seen dip into the hollows and curl through the lush green of the countryside, I crossed a plaza filled with intricate topiary and entered a massive building that in my memory is somehow reminiscent of a de Chirico painting—the headquarters of the national defense forces—and there, along with other journalists, interviewed Rios Montt.
At the time, no one would have given the slightest credence to the wildly improbable idea that the General would someday face trial for the systematic murder of his people. The ruler was at the apex of his glory. Only a month later he would meet with President Ronald Reagan, whom he was to tell, in one of those chilling quips that a screenwriter could hardly invent, that his policy was not one of scorched earth, but of scorched communists. One can imagine the two of them chuckling over this bon mot. Reagan offered his wholehearted support.
Subalterns in neatly pressed army uniforms ushered us into an ample conference room, and directed us to sit on dark wooden chairs. The general entered along with several aides a few moments later and took a seat at a large table of the same dark wood. He was a man of medium build with neatly combed, pomaded, and perhaps dyed black hair. At the time of my interview, he was still a general, and thus exuded none of the politician’s warmth and neediness. (After his overthrow in a second coup, fourteen months after he seized power, he would serve several terms in the country’s legislature, in the kind of odd twist that only Guatemalan politics could produce, his claim that he had been a reformer widely believed.) On the other hand, the harshness and megalomania that one associates with the Latin American caudillos found in the fiction of writers like Ernesto Cardinal or Carolyn Forché was absent. Rios Montt was a drab and flavorless dictator, a technician frosted over with a patina of piety.
As for the interview itself, it was the usual formal dance: questions intended to lure, answers intended to dodge. The general defended his relocation campaign, insisted that the leftists were on the run, denied human rights violations. It was easy to see, in his presence, why the wits of Guatemala City were convinced he was being run by more powerful political forces. In retrospect, however, one can see how his low-key presentation suggested an underlying political skill and canniness that would serve him well during the political career that was to come. I asked one question, cannot remember about what. The interview was soon over, and we were ushered out, as we had been let in, and I was once again under a cloudy sky among the topiary.
I would leave Guatemala a few weeks later, bearing with me, like many other reporters in similar situations, a set of suspicions that could not quite be confirmed. The dictators of the world depend upon it. But there has now been a rip in the fabric of time: those quiet Mayan Indians in the camps we saw and perhaps along the roadways held their memories in secret for two decades, until democracy returned to Guatemala, and then they began to speak.
What we now know is that the relocation campaign employed scorched earth tactics, burning villages and relocating residents throughout the summer and fall of 1982. Those who resisted or were believed to be linked to the guerrilleros were massacred. The American Court of Human Rights has documented two such cases, though in all likelihood there were many more. One came in July of 1982, the other in December (about a month after I left the country, and very close to the date of Reagan’s meeting with Rios Montt). In both cases, several hundred Indians were rounded up and murdered. Rapes were also committed, according to the evidence. Thus it would not be astonishing, if on the day I interviewed him, the bland, unimpressive general issued directives, or debated the fine points of policy with advisers, involving military operations that would unleash violence upon defenseless populations.
If the general receives a fair trial in Guatemala, and his alleged criminal behavior is thoroughly aired without fear or favor, another important step will have been taken in holding political and military figures accountable for war crimes and genocide. If that day comes, there will be cause for great celebration. But amidst it a note of caution should be sounded. Rios Montt was never the caricature of a puppet ruler his enemies, and even some friends, made him out to be. He was a canny and skilled politician who used even his blandness to calculated effect.
But he almost certainly had enablers, and it would be most surprising, indeed, if some of them did not operate under the flag of the good old U.S.A. The question then ought to be asked: given the Reagan administration’s tight embrace of Rios Montt and his government, what officials from the State Department, the U.S. military, or the CIA advised the general, provided him with support, or gave tacit approval to his tactics?
As impressive as the trial of Rios Montt is, in showing that human rights violations can be pursued even against the odds, the story behind it in all likelihood leads on USAID-funded roads to the U.S. Will that story ever be told? Oddly, it is Guatemala, with its abysmal human rights record, that is pursuing the truth. That a similar moment might unfold in the Land of the Free seems ironically unlikely. After all, it’s only a little genocide in Guatemala. Nothing to get upset about—even if Americans were integrally involved in setting it in motion.