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.”
But although Endler grants him permission to use the rebuilt plantation house, the wall of silence that surrounds local events proves initially impenetrable. Even after the guerrillas attack the nearest town–La Igualdad–with enough force to make the regional newspapers, people still react to Wilkinson’s questions with shrugs and disavowals: Guerrillas? What guerrillas? Combat? What combat? “Si pues, saber“–Who knows? But by traveling to an archive in Guatemala City (which, the librarians tell him, he’s the third researcher ever to have entered), he eventually gets the scent of the story and learns the names of a group of workers who, in 1952, had formed an Arbenz-era plantation workers’ union that sought land in La Patria and other plantations in the vicinity of La Igualdad. Many of these former union leaders are dead now, but chasing down the survivors Wilkinson runs into a second wall. After learning that the Arbenz-era mayor of La Igualdad was one of the land-reform partisans, he looks up the mayor’s son–the principal of the local school–and is met with icy hostility. Only later does he discover that some years before the son had been picked up by the army, tortured and then dropped, along with the floating corpses of other detainees, in a vat of water that rose to the level of his nose. The principal does give Wilkinson his father’s history of La Igualdad, but it proves to be a painfully encyclopedic document that, while it lists everything from “first marimba” to “first radio,” entirely omits the Arbenz years.
Another 1952 organizer greets Wilkinson at the door of his decrepit, exile’s shack, a machete clasped defensively in his hand. “Look here,” the former organizer tells him, “I’m an Evangelical. So I don’t get involved in political things. According to the Bible, we have to respect the laws, whatever they may be.” Wilkinson later learns that this man’s son had been tortured and killed by the army after being found with a truckload of supplies destined for the guerrillas. A third possible informant, Wilkinson is warned, may be secretly working for G-2, military intelligence. It doesn’t take long for the army to start asking about Wilkinson, which leads him to present himself to the local commander. The commander turns out to be an instructor of the feared Guatemalan special forces, the Kaibiles, whose recruits are, in Guatemalan lore, said to have had to raise a puppy during their training and then strangle it with their bare hands upon graduation. The commander, however, surprises Wilkinson by telling him that “the landowners around here are largely to blame for this war. If they treated their workers decently, we wouldn’t have to be here.”
Such encounters make Wilkinson’s book a delight to read, and the surprising quality of the captain’s observation is echoed in a story told to Wilkinson by Sara Endler of an early visit by the guerrillas to La Patria. After Endler’s mother had produced coffee and cookies for their unexpected guests, one of the guerrillas–an indigenous woman–put down her machine gun and insisted on passing the cookies herself. Afterwards, she’d patted Endler’s father on the knee and said, “Don’t be scared patroncito. We will build the new nation together.”
But the war itself, Wilkinson finds, was far from pretty. The San Marcos region, the coffee country of Guatemala’s western highlands, was in the territory of the Revolutionary Organization of the People in Arms (ORPA), one of four guerrilla groups that fought a series of mostly military governments. ORPA was founded in 1979 by Rodrigo Asturias, known by the nom de guerre of Gaspar Ilom, for the Indian rebel leader in the novel Men of Maize, written by Asturias’s Nobel Prize-winning father, Miguel Angel Asturias. After Wilkinson develops his contacts and begins to win the trust of the surviving Arbenz-era rebels, they begin to share with him testimony about the runaway popularity of ORPA among plantation workers, especially during the early 1980s. “There was a lot of support,” a plantation worker tells him. “When the cuates [guerrillas] came through, a la gran puta, it was a party! Everybody was happy to see them.” But he also begins to hear repeated references to how all that changed with Sacuchum.
Sacuchum is an Indian town in the high mountains above La Patria. Before the violence, the residents were long established as cusheros, producers of Guatemala’s widespread but illegal moonshine. When the guerrillas began to move into the cushero zone among the peaks above the coffee plantations, they were shown the mountain springs, the secret paths and the caves by their cushero fellow outlaws. In fact, Wilkinson subsequently learns, in the early 1980s the relationship had become close enough that the guerrillas had put a camp just below Sacuchum. But nothing prepared either the guerrillas or the residents for what happened just after New Year’s Day, 1982. On that day, the army suddenly descended on Sacuchum, looted the houses, raped the women, removed forty-four men and stabbed or choked them all to death–many after cutting out their tongues. Wilkinson finds this out when he asks a few of the right questions; soon he finds himself as Sacuchum’s honored guest, the first outsider ever to come to hear testimony about the massacre, an outsider whose presence, to his considerable dismay, is advertised around Sacuchum with an automobile-mounted loudspeaker.
Inquiries such as the one at Sacuchum, however, took a toll on Wilkinson’s nerves. The war was still going on, and he writes of a fear that flooded “the channels of human interaction like the charge of an electrical storm.” Wilkinson is a Harvard graduate, and to allay this fear he boldly explains himself to another newly minted Harvard alumnus: Gen. Héctor Gramajo Morales. General Morales had been Guatemala’s defense minister during much of the 1980s (and was one of the directors of the army’s counterinsurgency policy during the period covering the Sacuchum massacre). After retiring, he’d received a fellowship to study at Harvard. While at Harvard, however, Gramajo was indicted in a civil suit brought by eight indigenous Guatemelans whose families had been tortured and killed in 1982. When he returned to Guatemala without answering the court’s summons, a US district court issued two default judgments and ordered him to pay $47 million. Wilkinson nevertheless finds in Gramajo an affable and approachable man who is in no way apologetic for the tens of thousands who were massacred during his tenure in the defense ministry.
When Wilkinson asks him why he insists on referring to the guerrillas as terrorists, Gramajo answers with telling logic. “What is a guerrilla?” he asks rhetorically, before answering his own question:
The quality that makes me a guerrilla is that I’m sustained by the population. But if the guerrillas are isolated from the population, forced to hide themselves away, they drop down a category and become terrorists. The food [no longer comes] from the village. Now they send the food in trucks, or rob it on the highway…. Now it’s just terrorism.
In the area of La Patria, the Sacuchum massacre effectively dropped the guerrillas down a category. “When the army did what it did in Sacuchum,” a plantation worker explains to Wilkinson, “everything changed…. That was the new law of the land. If the government hadn’t done that, the guerrillas would have kept growing. But that was too much. You come home and find nothing–no family, no house, just ashes. That was too much.” Sacuchum so raised the stakes for supporting the guerrillas that the cost became too high for all but the most committed supporters–and these supporters were continually in danger of being rooted out by government death squads. Wilkinson eventually documents seventy-four death-squad victims around La Igualdad alone.
By 1983 the army’s brutalization of the population had effectively marginalized the guerrillas. The government couldn’t defeat them militarily, but neither could the guerrillas defend their supporters, and the army won a forced acquiescence from the local population. When, late in 1983, the guerrillas again invaded La Patria, the workers begged them to spare the plantation house–it was, after all, their only source of income. But the guerrillas went ahead and burned it anyway.
The misery of the pre-Arbenz workers is convincingly delineated by Wilkinson: the expropriation of Indian lands that forced the Indians onto the plantations to begin with, the mandatory identity cards, the forced labor drafts, the brutal punishments, the starvation wages, the fact that farm animals were often treated better than workers. He also makes clear that the Arbenz land reform laws were intended to leave the plantations themselves intact, just to turn over unused plantation land to the workers and to guarantee them certain rights. He learns that after the 1954 coup, in the region of La Igualdad, any worker who had participated in the land reform effort was both dispossessed and blackballed. One of the reasons he had such difficulty in finding the leaders of the Arbenz land reform is that those who survived became an impoverished and embittered diaspora. Not surprisingly, he finds strong connections between the Arbenz exiles and ORPA.
But the ultimate irony, in Wilkinson’s eyes, is what happened after the 1996 peace accords: Population growth, new employment patterns and global competition quickly brought the old plantation patronage system to an end. Workers who had once spent their whole lives as wards of a given plantation were fired from their plantation jobs, given small plots of land and then rehired as seasonal laborers. The land allocations encompassed much of what the Arbenz partisans originally set out to accomplish. “It was,” Wilkinson observes, “as if the Agrarian Reform were happening all over again.”
Wilkinson argues that the ideal that both the guerrillas and the plantation workers fought so long to obtain had ceased, somewhere along the line, to be a possibility. In the new order of things, plantation workers still face poverty, but they also now face chronic unemployment. What’s different is that they no longer look to the plantations to satisfy their desires. Like the rest of the world, he notes, “they set out to expand their horizons in the sweatshops and burgeoning shantytowns of Guatemala City, while the more ambitious among them head off to carry the bricks, vacuum the offices, and mow the lawns of the great White Cities to the north.”
There is no question that the Arbenz-era land reform system put great strains on the fabric of Guatemalan civil life. There were serious abuses from the left as well as from the right. But you cannot read Wilkinson’s book without understanding that change was necessary; that not only was the existing system impossibly unjust, but that socially and economically Guatemala wouldn’t have been able to grow without change. This was in fact part of the concept of the land-reform program. One of the people Wilkinson hunts down, in his indefatigable way, is José Manuel Fortuny, the architect of Arbenz’s land reform. Fortuny is in his 70s, still living in exile in Mexico City, still apoplectic, after all these years, about the 1954 coup. The land reform program, Fortuny rages at Wilkinson, “was a bourgeois law, do you understand? A bourgeois law!” It was designed, he insists, to reinforce the principle of private property.
The larger tragedy, however, is that by launching a coup against Arbenz’s elected government, by refusing to let the Guatemalans work out their own problems (however difficult that may have been), the United States established a pattern of lawlessness that to this day provides the template for Guatemalan politics. Within a decade, death squads made their first significant appearance in Latin America. In 1966, a clandestine meeting of some thirty members of the nonviolent opposition were rounded up by police (who had just come back from training in the United States), tortured and then dropped from a transport plane into the Pacific. “Regime change” is the wrong foundation on which to build a democracy. Ever since the coup, Guatemala’s rulers have seemed to find it easier to solve their political problems through kidnapping, torture and extrajudicial killing than through the far more difficult process of democratic change. The present, post-accords situation is of course no exception.
When Wilkinson goes to see General Gramajo, he is contemplating a run for president. After Wilkinson leaves Gramajo’s office, he canvasses a number of ordinary Guatemalans about how they would feel about a Gramajo candidacy: “No one believes in the military,” a taxi driver tells him. An office worker adds something else: “No one believes in anyone anymore.”