Guatemala’s Dirty War: Part 1

Posted By Peter Vilbig on Jun 6, 2011 in Politics | 0 comments

The grimly dark account of political murder and betrayal involving Guatemala’s ruling classes in the April 4 issue of the New Yorker (which you can read here) started me thinking about my own time in Guatemala as a freelance reporter on assignment for the Dallas Morning News in the fall of 1982. (I was in many ways the classic freelance journalist: callow, inexperienced, but curious and full of zeal—and also like the classic freelancer, full of parasites. I arrived in Guatemala city flying in from Honduras with a case of amoebic dysentery picked up in the Honduran Mosquitia region.) There’s much I could say about my circumstances, about how I wound up in Guatemala, about my reporting trip itself, which was not going well. But rather than creating a memoir of that time, I would like to use this space to recall with as little embellishment as possible, and as well as I can after so many years, a particular afternoon during my month-long stay in the country that would seem to bear on the New Yorker’s depiction of current conditions there, and especially on the country’s long and tragic civil war—the so-called dirty war—that consumed the final decades of the last century.

I had arrived in Guatemala at an unusual moment in the country’s ongoing civil disturbances. A military officer named Rios Montt had seized power in a coup seven months before and had announced a series of reforms. And in fact, by most accounts violence in Guatemala City, the capital, had fallen. The year before there had been frequent bombings and political murders in the city each month. But critics argued that the government was continuing to wage a brutal war in the countryside against leftist guerrillas and by extension against the native Indian peoples of those regions. This war had long been criticized as the pretext for a brutal land grab against these native communities. Rios Montt denied this, and his critics were of two minds about the denial: one group believed he was simply lying; he was a figurehead who found a way to smooth over the rough edges of the previous regime while continuing its vicious practices. The other group believed Rios Montt to be a kind of naïf in Guatemalan politics, a true believer who thought his reforms were taking hold even as they were being undermined by the Army, which despite his provenance in its ranks, ignored his orders and carried on the dirty war without his knowledge.

Rios Montt’s situation was complicated by religion. In an almost entirely Catholic country, he was an evangelical Christian and a member of an American evangelical church based in California. This church had an impressive compound in Guatemala City, and it was the belief of at least some Guatemalans as well as US observers that the church officers had undue influence on Rios Montt and were even perhaps functioning as a shadow government.

As you can see, there are already two possible shadow governments: the army operating out of Rios Montt’s control, and the American church operating as the force behind his throne. This idea of governing forces operating in shadowy impossible-to-pin-down ways is a primary feature of contemporary Guatemalan politics, as depicted in the New Yorker article. It’s well worth pointing out—and basic fairness dictates this point being made—that Guatemala has made significant progress since the time of the military dictatorship of Montt, and in the eyes of many observers is closer to being a functioning democracy than at any time in recent memory. Yet it’s also true that in both Guatemalas—the contemporary one and the one of Rios Montt’s time—every theory of motive is made murky, as the actual disposition of power lies veiled and hidden.

I made arrangements at a certain point to visit the countryside outside Guatemala City with the idea, no doubt naïve, of trying to find out what was really going on. I traveled, if memory serves, with a British journalist I had met and perhaps another reporter whose background I don’t remember, to San Martín Jilotepeque, a town about 30 miles northwest of Guatemala City, on a bright early fall day. The town had been devastated by the 1976 earthquake that killed more than 20,000 people in Guatemala. Going beyond the main town required permission from the Army—which had involved a good deal of hoop jumping to secure—and an army escort, because the region we were heading into was considered an area of open conflict with the leftist guerrillas who had been fighting the government since the 1960s. The government at this time had set up a series of zones that were supposed to be modeled on the rural pacification program employed in Vietnam, in which the army protected villagers from the leftist by relocating them into model communities. We rendezvoused with an army patrol that would be driving into the rural pacification zone. A young lieutenant was in charge of this patrol, and I concluded, I think rightly, that he was one of the officers who had been placed in a new command as part of Rios Montt’s effort to reform the army. We made the trip standing in the rear of the open army truck with a squad of Guatemalan soldiers.

We arrived in a tiny village after a drive through increasingly dense mountain terrain—I remember this drive as somewhat tense, though perhaps it was only tense for me; certainly the soldiers seemed bored enough. The village was tucked deeply in the folds of the brilliant undulating green mountains of Guatemala’s Central Highlands. In one sense we were driving into the kind of mystical mountain village that American tourists dream of visiting: women in brilliantly colored woven skirts were washing clothing in a stream; wisps of clouds touched the nearby peaks and curled around them. But the green and brilliant wonderland was broken by another color: the white of hundreds of tents bearing the familiar brilliant logo of the International Red Cross on their sloped sides. The village had become a refugee camp where Indians from nearby communities had been gathered in a central location. On a flat space up the hill above the Red Cross tents lay a burned-out church—a sign that a more substantial community had been there at one time. But green shoots of shrubs were growing in the charred ground, suggesting that the destruction of the church had occurred months ago or perhaps even longer.

Our stay in the village lasted only a couple of hours. I remember it for how the eerie juxtaposition of the obvious signs of violence contrasted with the almost preternatural calm of the current habitation, giving the the impression, I think correctly, that great secrets were everywhere being held in abeyance; and for how it was impossible to tell where the loyalties of the villagers lay as we spoke to them under the watchful eyes of the soldiers. But I’ll leave much of that aside for now, and only say we moved on relatively quickly to an army base closer to San Martín—it was unclear whether this was due to concern about possible guerrilla attacks. What was striking was an immediate change in atmosphere when we arrived at the base. Our truck pulled up and almost immediately a soldier appeared, issuing orders to the new arrivals. This soldier, a sergeant, was older, and clearly had a great deal of authority with the soldiers. We piled out of the truck. We were at a gate that led to the inner portion of the Army post, and immediately I noticed two campesinos seated on a stone bench at the end of a gravel walkway inside the fenced off compound. A soldier guarded them. We asked who these people were and were told they were suspected guerrilla fighters who had just been captured. (They were dressed in the standard cotton clothing of country people in the region.) As we watched, other soldiers appeared who took the men’s light jackets and tied them around their eyes, brought the two men to their feet, and then marched them around the corner and out of our sight. They were being taken to be questioned, we were told. It was impossible not to think of what we were witnessing: were these two men being taken away to be tortured or even murdered? In other words were we witnessing a crime? Of course there was no proof. All we saw was two campesinos being marched out of our view. But given the documented history of the brutal Guatemalan civil war there is reason to suspect the worst. Especially in light of what happened next.

During these moments when the campesinos were being removed, the older sergeant was delivering orders to the soldiers that were obeyed instantly, while young lieutenant we had traveled with was obviously becoming less and less of a factor. In fact we could see now that all along the young lieutenant’s authority was tenuous, and now that we were at the base, it was obvious that the real power was in the hands of the sergeant, a man of about forty who carried his authority with casual ease and stared out at the world through a pair of remarkably scornful, cynical eyes set in a fleshy acne-scarred face. He soon finished up giving orders and then came over to us. He told us about the two guerrilla suspects, how they had been arrested (informer), and then elaborated on how the war was going, which in his view, was neither well nor badly. Es una guerra sucia, he assured us. It’s a dirty war. That was the problem, he said. The only way to win, he told us, was to fight dirty. Anyone who didn’t see this deserved his scorn. It was not exactly that he held us in his disdain. He seemed free of malice towards us reporters, even though he was clearly smart enough to see that we were not his allies. He just didn’t really care. We were here at the moment but would soon be gone. He would remain fighting the war. That was the certainty. He would be here. Although he did not say it, of course, the implication was obvious too: he would be here fighting the war after the wet-behind-the-ears lieutenant was gone. Es una guerra sucia, he said again. He said it several times.

After a time we were gathered together and loaded back on the truck and made the trip back to San Martín. The sergeant was right. It was a dirty war, and as the New Yorker article suggests, the dirty fighting, at least to some extent, might still be going on, and the sergeant was right too: we were soon gone. I never wrote about the incident, for a variety of reasons: it was an inconclusive moment in a conflict that held little interest for American newspapers; the Dallas Morning News had sent a second reporter to Guatemala, unknown to me, journeying at the behest of the editor-in-chief. I ran into him in a bar in Guatemala City, neither of us aware of the existence of the other. Quite obviously, my services had become redundant. Yet I believe the small moment I observed in the mountains outside San Martín Jilotepeque, this little window through which I peered for a few moments into a country’s violent history, deserves to be remembered. In my brief time outside the army base, I observed a set of interlocking gestures that say a great deal about the Guatemalan civil war, but beyond that about how brutality and violence persist in a culture once it has been unleashed. Not incidentally, what I saw also says a great deal about how such a culture resists reform.

Or course, the easy conclusion is to dismiss what happened in the Guatemalan highlands those many years ago as pure aberration, a political/historical phenomenon that bears no relation to more “developed” countries. I hope eventually to add a second part to these recollections, in which I would like to describe several other experiences during my time in Guatemala, again in light of the New Yorker article, with the purpose of drawing more general conclusions about political culture, and to suggest how Guatemala’s troubled history of violence and secrecy contains important lessons for other societies, even those whose members likely believe themselves to be immune from such depredations.


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