Six years ago, in 1996, the government of Guatemala and the guerrilla groups it had fought bitterly for thirty-six years signed an ambitious set of peace accords. The accords were designed to do more than just spell out a cessation of hostilities. Under the sponsorship of the United Nations, they mapped out a future in which the political violence that had afflicted the country ever since the 1954 American-sponsored coup against the government of Jacobo Arbenz would finally come to an end. The idea was to address the underlying inequalities that lay at the root of the violence. Agreements were signed to reduce the size of the army, revamp the police and judiciary, and raise levels of social spending. But today, despite these good intentions, few of the measures have been carried out and Guatemala is a shambles. Kidnapping, bank robbery and murder are rampant. Human rights activists are being threatened and in some cases assassinated, and large-scale cocaine smuggling has created a “Colombianization” of the country in which, as the journalist Ana Arana has noted, the line between criminal and political violence has become blurred.
Essentially, the peace accords asked Guatemala to rise to a new level of political inclusion, to act with a spirit of tolerance that would represent a break from its long tradition of settling its differences through violence. So far, the country has failed to make the transition. The reasons are many, but it’s safe to say that they’re strongly rooted in the 1954 coup, the last time the United States became explicitly and overtly involved in regime change in Guatemala.
All this is why Daniel Wilkinson’s new book, Silence on the Mountain: Stories of Terror, Betrayal, and Forgetting in Guatemala, is so timely. Guatemala’s recent history is as little known as any in Central America–the massacres, the torched towns, the betrayals, the ambushes, the flight of refugees into the mountains, remain to this day cloaked in secrecy–largely because of the ever-present possibility of renewed violence. But Wilkinson, who arrived in Guatemala in 1993 and is currently a researcher at Human Rights Watch, quickly stumbled on a key to the country’s clouded past. This came in the form of a charge from a Guatemalan agronomist friend–the son of plantation accountants from the coffee-growing region of San Marcos department in the Pacific cordillera–to investigate what the agronomist’s own faculty had refused to let him probe: his thesis that the root of the violence both in the San Marcos region and in Guatemala more generally lies in the two-year period before the Arbenz coup, when a land-reform program designed by Arbenz’s principal adviser, José Manuel Fortuny, had begun distributing unused land to plantation workers. Fortuny was the head of the Partido Guatemalteco de Trabajadores, the Guatemalan Labor Party, and his land reform (as well as his reputation as a Communist) was what more than anything else led the United States to instigate the 1954 coup.
The Arbenz land reform has been written about before–notably in Piero Gleijeses’s Shattered Hope and in Jim Handy’s Revolution in the Countryside–and in other hands, this kind of thesis might have resulted in a simplistic polemic; but Wilkinson, who is blessed with not just considerable courage but also a strong moral compass, seemed determined to understand how it all played out through real people and real events. Guatemala clearly got under his skin. He wound up staying for the better part of five years, and the resulting book, in which he combines the probity of a serious historian with the literary instincts of a crime writer, winds up peeling back layers of silence and deceit in ways that are reminiscent of what Marcel Ophüls’s film The Sorrow and the Pity did for Vichy France.
Wilkinson’s narrative begins at a dinner party outside Guatemala City at which he meets Sara Endler, a Guatemalan coffee plantation owner of German descent married to an American academic. She explains to Wilkinson that the main house of her plantation was burned down by guerrillas in 1983 and, over the course of the evening, apparently takes enough of a liking to him to invite him to try to reconstruct the events that led to the conflagration. The Endler plantation, known as La Patria, lies in the same San Marcos region that Wilkinson’s agronomist friend had already described to him. La Patria thus provides a locale in which Wilkinson can test his friend’s thesis. Wilkinson describes the dinner “as one of those chance encounters that begin the detours that become your life.”