The land where terror won

An author and activist talks about the atrocities committed in Guatemala, the people too frightened to speak of it and America's shameful support of the perpetrators.

By Suzy Hansen
Published October 16, 2002 8:13PM (EDT)

On Sept. 11, 1990, a Guatemalan anthropologist named Myrna Mack was stabbed to death by a Guatemalan army sergeant. Mack had been studying the suffering of rural indigenous communities at the hands of Guatemala's brutal military regime. That day, Mack became just another casualty of the 36-year civil war that claimed 200,000 Guatemalans, many of them noncombatants.

This September, 12 years after her death and six years since the end of the war, Mack's murder went to trial again. Of the three high-ranking officers charged -- considered authors of this and other human rights violations committed in Guatemala -- one, Col. Juan Valencia Osorio, was convicted of ordering the assassination of Mack. But what's missing from many news reports about the trial is the role of a third party in Guatemala's tragic past. In 1954, a CIA-orchestrated coup installed a military regime that proceeded to intimidate and kill communists and leftist reformers. The U.S. funded this government throughout the Cold War with full knowledge of the atrocities taking place there.

Guatemalans themselves are just beginning -- slowly, painfully, fearfully -- to talk about what they witnessed. To them, it's no secret that the U.S. is responsible for the destabilization of their country. But just a decade ago, silence ruled Guatemala. Daniel Wilkinson was a young human rights worker in the early 1990s when he first visited that country. Nobody talked about the war. Nobody talked about the period of reform before the war. In Wilkinson's "Silence on the Mountain," a beautiful, harrowing and comprehensive narrative history of Guatemala's coffee-producing region, he explores what happens to citizens when terror wins and provides a chilling chronicle of how America's anticommunist Cold War policies destroyed the democratic fabric of Guatemala.

Wilkinson is a lawyer for Human Rights Watch. He spoke to Salon from his office in New York.

In your book, you try to give Americans a sense of what the collective amnesia was like in Guatemala. You write: "It was as if everyone in a small town in 1950s America had told you with a straight face that nothing had happened during the New Deal and that World War II had been a nonevent." Can you explain? Were you talking about the Agrarian Reform period in Guatemala or the 35 years of war that followed?

I went into this coffee-producing region where the war had played out. I had reason to believe that some pretty momentous and horrible things had taken place in the area. I assumed people would want to tell these stories. But people said nothing happened. I could understand why they might be uncomfortable speaking with a stranger about things related to the war because the war wasn't over. But what struck me was that when I tried to talk about the history of the country that preceded the war -- the Agrarian Reform in the 1950s, the formation of the plantations at the beginning of the century -- people didn't want to talk about that either.

The Agrarian Reform was in some ways bigger than the New Deal. It was a reform that affected pretty much all aspects of economic, social and political life in the countryside. The years of political violence that targeted individuals who were in any way associated with the political left had left a mark. The mark was that if you harbored any sympathies for the left, you could be a target, not just being blackballed, but actually being tortured to death. People didn't want to talk about politics or anything that would contaminate them.

What struck me was that you also explain how these plantation workers -- mostly Mayan Indians from the highlands -- traditionally passed along their histories orally. So it seemed especially cruel that their method of keeping their history was shut down.

At first, I thought that maybe this part of the country wasn't affected. But I knew certain things had happened. The [leftist] guerrillas had burned down this plantation house so I knew that the war was taking place there. Then I had a good friend who was a university activist and had grown up on a plantation nearby. He told me about his childhood memories. So already I had reason to doubt people who said nothing had happened.

My other indication that they weren't telling me the truth about the war was that they said that the Agrarian Reform didn't take place. I met this former mayor of the town who had written a history of his hometown. He omitted the years of that Agrarian Reform. He basically wrote himself out of his history. Later on, I met this other leader who had been a mayor during the war years. He acted like a clown until he took me aside, totally serious, and explained to me that during the height of the violence of the war, he had worked to help the people. He had a lot of information. He would warn people when they were in trouble. But having information was dangerous so the way to survive was to act like a fool.

How long was the Agrarian Reform period?

Ten years. There was a 10-year period of democratic rule that began in 1944 when the dictator was overthrown. Then there was an election in 1950 and that man, President Arbenz, carried out the Agrarian Reform in 1952. It was really the culmination of 10 years of democratic reform.

Just to make this clear: Were there communists involved in this reform? What was America so afraid of?

There were communists involved and that's what the U.S. government was afraid of. There was a communist party that was pretty small -- about 5,000 members -- but very influential with President Arbenz. The president wasn't a member of the party but some of his closest advisors were and they played a role in designing this agrarian reform.

Can you explain what the reform did?

Basically, it was dealing with extreme inequality in terms of property. It was creating a labor market. Before, there was a semi-feudal relationship where the owners of the plantations owned the homes that the workers lived in. The workers couldn't go work at another plantation. If they did, they'd be kicked out of their home. They're often paid in kind -- given food or a little land to farm. They couldn't demand minimum wage because the plantation owner has the ability to dispossess them.

The reform was giving the workers ownership of their houses and a little bit of land. But it wasn't touching any of the coffee. Now, the workers could sell their labor and once you had a labor market, wages would start to go up.

So this was all about free markets. We know from looking at declassified documents that the CIA, and the people analyzing this reform in the U.S., thought it was a good reform.

And they knew that the communists in Guatemala weren't directly tied to the Soviets, right?

Well, I wouldn't say that. In the lens of the time -- the 1950s, the height of the Cold War, McCarthyism -- maybe some of them actually believed that everything that was [called a] communist party was being directed by the Soviet Union. But the point is that the people from the U.S. who pursued this policy of overthrowing the government thought that the Agrarian Reform was sensible. In fact, the U.S. government advocated similar reforms in other countries. The reform itself wasn't the problem for the U.S. government.

The problem was that if the reform succeeded the people who were going to get the credit for the success were the members of the communist party who were then going to increase their influence.

And a few people say that this reform really would have worked.

Ultimately, it's a hypothetical. You never know. Before the reform, the development of a Guatemalan market economy was hindered. It seemed like a sensible reform. But it did produce political unrest and this reaction from the U.S.

Here's more to the point: I can't predict what would have happened had the U.S. not intervened, because the U.S. did. And it wasn't accidental. This was how the U.S. conducted its foreign policy in the region. What's very clear is that with this democratic reform process aborted in this very drastic way with intervention from abroad, the country was denied an alternative. That helped radicalize people politically. People knew what was taken away from them, and they blame that military regime that was put in place and they blame the U.S.

Where did the plantation owners stand? Once the war broke out and they realized how terrible things were, did they change their ideas about the reform?

The owners for the most part were opposed to the reform. They were generally with the government. This polarization in the Cold War played out locally. Guatemala had one of the most politically reactionary agricultural elites.

And the U.S. came in and created this Guatemalan army and taught them terror tactics. How did far did the CIA go in training them for this war? And what did they authorize them to do?

In 1954, when they carried out the coup, they relied on massive propaganda and bought off the Guatemalan military. There was a Plan B which involved the assassinations. We now have the declassified documents that show there was a list of 50-something political leaders to be assassinated if Plan A didn't work. There was a handbook teaching people the pros and cons of the different ways of killing people.

Basically, the U.S. government's policy in the region was seeing the world in terms of democracy vs. communism. In Guatemala, in the struggle against communism, they forgot about democracy. That produced a polarization. They overthrew this democratically elected government and [installed] a military regime that squashed all political opposition. After 1954, reformists who hadn't been communists joined the clandestine communist party because it was the only type of opposition available. A decade later you have this pattern repeat itself. You still have a military regime and now the opposition is divided into those who want to push for political reform to restore democracy and a group advocating guerrilla warfare.

The ironic thing is that the moderates who were pushing for political reform were in the communist party. Then, in a series of lightning strikes, the U.S.-trained security forces abducted the 28 leaders of the communist party and killed them all. So who was left? Those who believed that the only way to change Guatemala was through armed struggle -- a generation of Guatemalans who were convinced that the U.S. was the enemy.

The radicalization of Nayito that you describe in the book is this process in capsule.

Nayito's father had been a national peasant leader in the '50s but not a communist. After the 1954 coup, he joined the communists because his own organization had been outlawed. [Nayito's father] is one of these 28 people who gets abducted and killed. That helps convince Nayito and his peers that the only way to change the country is through armed struggle. Then two years later, in 1968, Nayito's girlfriend, who was a student activist and also Miss Guatemala, is abducted by the police. Her body is found in a ravine a few days later. This is too much for Nayito to handle. How does he seek revenge? By murdering the top two U.S. officers in the country. So you can see how this radicalization convinces the Guatemalans that the U.S. is their enemy.

So people knew that the U.S. was behind this. But how did we keep the press out of Guatemala? You say that the New York Times really didn't report on this until the 1990s.

There was some coverage of Guatemala through the years. In terms of the 1954 coup, the New York Times pulled its correspondent.

According to the truth commission there was something like 200,000 people killed in Guatemala. In many ways it was the most underreported conflict in the region. The U.S. government did not tell the world what it knew about what was taking place there. This was most pronounced in the early '80s when the government carried out a scorched-earth campaign. The truth commission determined it was genocide. And we know from declassified documents that the U.S. government knew what was going on.

So what was going on? You tell the story of a village called Sacuchum. You were the first person to talk to them?

At the coffee plantations, if people didn't want to talk about the war, they would say something bad happened at Sacuchum. I managed to connect with someone from there and went up to the community. I expected people there to be as reluctant to speak as everywhere else. Instead, they arranged this open community meeting so people could recount what had occurred. Basically, the army had arrived one day and rounded up over 40 people and taken them off into the woods and killed them without firing a bullet -- meaning that they strangled them, they cut them up.

At first people were hesitant to speak but once they started, it was an outpouring of really horrible details. I asked, "Have you been given the chance to denounce this publicly?" and they said no.

Why did they decide to speak to you?

I think most people who suffer these sorts of abuses feel a strong need to denounce them publicly. The difference here was that the people in Sacuchum weren't paralyzed by fear the way the people in the plantations were. And I think the reason for this was that in the village, unlike in the plantations, there still existed the sort of community institutions and support networks that could help people process their fear and trauma.

Why did the army pick this village?

This village had supplied guerrillas with food. There were a lot of collaborators in this village. In 1980 and '81 the guerrilla movement had been growing in numbers and the military government had been losing its credibility throughout the country. It seemed like there might actually be a revolution. At some point, the Guatemalan army realized that the only way to stop the guerrillas was to go after their supporters. Sacuchum was one of hundreds of examples of massacres where the army just went in and rounded up the people they suspected and killed them.

And it was very brutal and bloodthirsty. Where did this army's hatred come from?

I don't think you understand it in terms of hatred. It was pretty systematic. What the army engaged in was a massive campaign of terror.

Was killing them in that manner part of their psy-war tactics?

I'd assume. They don't leave a paper trail saying, "this is the way to terrorize people." Look, 200,000 people were killed and there were never more than 10,00 or 15,000 guerrillas. Why did they kill so many people? The army's target was the civilian population.

This is the thing about terror. What distinguishes terror from other types of violence is that the principle target is not the person who is killed but rather the ones who survive. The purpose of this type of violence is to instill this intense and overwhelming fear in people. That's clearly what happened in Guatemala.

And so how do you measure fear? How do you explain its impact on people's lives? You can't do it through a body count. You need to gauge what's going on inside people's heads. One measure is to look at what they say and what they don't say. Or look at a local historian who can't talk about what happened in the 1950s because it turns out that his own son was tortured by the army. That's the legacy.

Once I got closer to people the emotions would come out. Now that the war's over people are starting to open up. People were facing this really terrible heart-wrenching conflict -- they'd been carrying around this rage, sorrow and need for denunciation for years, but they were still scared. Some still can't talk even though the war's over.

Now, the guerrillas were terrorizing people as well. Who did they target mostly?

There were several guerrilla organizations and they changed over the years. For the most part, when the guerrilla movement got strong in the early '80s, their method was to attack military targets. But as the army succeeded in isolating them from the local population and their supporters, they became increasingly desperate. I described the incident in the book where they burned down the plantation house, an act aimed at generating fear among the plantation owners. In that sense, it's an act of violence aimed at generating fear. Different guerrilla organizations committed human rights violations and there were a few massacres committed by the guerrillas. Some pretty awful things. Early on in the 1960s there were assassinations.

But the U.N. truth commission documented tens of thousands of violations and it found that 93 percent of them had been committed by the state, either by the army or security forces.

Where are the guerrillas now? Have they formed political parties?

There is a political party of the guerrillas that signed the peace accords. It's a pretty weak party. Many of the former combatants put down their guns at the end of war and got a little bit of help reestablishing themselves. I don't think they're doing very well.

I wanted to ask you about the role of human rights organizations. You implied that during the '90s there was a growing general awareness of human rights violations. In the current climate, do you think that something like what happened in Guatemala could happen again? And how much of a role do human rights organizations have in bringing these tragedies to light?

It would be more difficult for this sort of thing to happen but that doesn't mean it couldn't happen. One of the few positive things that came out of the Central American experience was that it helped to galvanize an international human rights movement as people struggled to respond to what was going on in countries like Guatemala, El Salvador, Argentina and Chile. At the time, the human rights movement was still made up of fledgling organizations and a lot of the obstacles were daunting.

Chief among them in Guatemala was that you had the U.S. government presenting a very rosy picture of what was taking place there. The U.S. actually defended the Guatemalan government. There's a moment in the book when Ronald Reagan meets with [former president] General Rios Montt. Reagan described Montt as this man of great personal integrity at the same moment that Montt's elite group of soldiers was marching off to kill an entire village. Most of the people were buried alive in the village well. Children were killed by being grabbed by their ankles and slammed against walls, women were raped over the course of three days.

Meanwhile, Ronald Reagan told the press that Rios Montt was committed to democracy and was receiving a bum rap. This is something else that continued during the Reagan administration: You had human rights organizations trying to tell the world what was happening and their accounts were being refuted. We now know that the U.S. government knew full well the extent of the violence and who was responsible for it.

Despite the fact that the CIA sanitized a lot of the documents?

We don't know everything. We don't know everything they know or everything they did. It's like one document I include in the book. The whole text has been blacked out except for two words: "entire population." You flip to the page before it and you see that [it says] there was a massacre. The massacre wasn't crossed out. And you think, "OK, if they left the massacre in, what is it that they're covering up?"

Just a humorous but sad side note -- wasn't that also the time when Reagan also said that he was surprised to find that they had separate countries in Central America?

Reagan said something like, "You'd be amazed. They're all separate countries in Central America." And then there was some scrambling about whether he meant that he actually didn't know whether they were individual countries. Reagan did it in his wonderful, affable way and he had this vision of the Cold War that appealed to a lot of people.

Did every administration's support for Guatemala continue at pretty much the same level until President Clinton?

It varied a little bit. With the end of the Cold War things started to change under Bush. There were cases of U.S. citizens who had been killed and there was some response. Basically what we're talking about here is what happened during the Cold War.

But things have changed. The U.S. government actually helped finance that truth commission and the U.S. government recently, under the leadership of [former] Ambassador Prudence Bushnell, supported the local human rights groups who have been working to press charges against people who have committed these atrocities. The U.S. Agency for International Development has been helping to support excavation teams that are digging up clandestine cemeteries. So there has been very important support coming from the U.S. government in Guatemala in recent years.

But it's only a fraction of the resources that were poured into that 1954 coup and into supporting and sustaining the military regime over the years.

You say that terror won in Guatemala. I'm wondering if now they're just starting to deal with those effects and fight terrorism on that psychological level.

For the last 10 years, the local human rights movement has been struggling to roll back the victory to the extent it can but it's been very difficult. It's been done at some cost. Just in the last few months there's been this wave of acts of violence against human rights groups -- people being killed, receiving death threats, being assaulted because they're working on efforts to prosecute people who carried out those abuses 20 years ago.

There was an unofficial truth commission sponsored by the Catholic Church that paved the way for the official one sponsored by the U.N. I was going around with local leaders trying to help convince people that it was safe to talk now. We really believed it. Then we started receiving threats. Two months after that, the Catholic Church published its report for its truth commission entitled "Never Again." Two days after the bishop presented it in the National Cathedral he was bludgeoned to death with a cement block.

But both those truth commissions were very important as processes of helping thousands of families denounce what had taken place for the first time. And now there are these efforts under way to press charges in the courts.

When these high-ranking military officers are on trial, do they point fingers at the U.S.? You mentioned General Hector Gramajo in your book. [Sister Diana Ortiz, an American nun who was raped and tortured in Guatemala, won a judgment for civil damages against him.]

There was a suit against Gramajo in a federal court in Massachusetts. He was ordered to pay $47 million in damages. After that, he was disinvited by the U.S. to this annual conference that's held for people from militaries throughout the region in the U.S. He was irate. He said, "They're going to make me pay $47 million for what I did in my country, but how much are they going to make McNamara pay for what his troops did in Vietnam or Cheney for what his troops did in Panama?"

Suzy Hansen

Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.

MORE FROM Suzy Hansen

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Author Interviews Books