Silence on the Mountain: Stories of Terror, Betrayal, and Forgetting in Guatemala

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Overview


new in paperback
Silence on the Mountain
is a virtuoso work of reporting and a masterfully plotted narrative tracing the history of Guatemala’s thirty-six-year internal war, a conflict that claimed the lives of some 200,000 people, the vast majority of whom died (or were “disappeared”) at the hands of the U.S.-backed military government. Written by Daniel Wilkinson, a young human rights worker, the story begins in 1993, when the author decides to investigate the arson of a coffee plantation’s manor house by a band of guerrillas. The questions surrounding this incident soon broaden into a complex mystery whose solution requires Wilkinson to dig up the largely unwritten history of the country’s recent civil war, following its roots back to a land reform movement that was derailed by a U.S.-sponsored military coup in 1954 and to the origins of a plantation system that put Guatemala’s Mayan Indians to work picking coffee beans for the American and European markets.

Decades of terror-inspired fear have led the Guatemalans to adopt a survival strategy of silence so complete it verges on collective amnesia. The author’s great triumph is that he finds a way for people to tell their stories, and it is through these stories—dramatic, intimate, heartbreaking—that we are shown the anatomy of a thwarted revolution that has relevance not only to Guatemala but also to countless places around the world where terror has been used as a political tool.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Silence on the Mountain has the seductive allure and vivid characters of the finest fiction and the penetration of the most elegant journalism. Mr. Wilkinson’s painstaking work has crucial lessons for our government’s future role not only in Latin America but in the entire world. Above all, his book serves literature’s deepest impulse: to bring forth truth out of silence.”—The 2003 pen/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction citation

“This is an extraordinary tale, and an extremely well-told one. Written like a modern explorer’s journal, Silence on the Mountain is the account of Daniel Wilkinson’s self-appointed mission to uncover dark secrets in a shady corner of Guatemala. With humility, humor, honesty . . . he has given us a rare and intimate understanding of how this achingly beautiful country became one of the Western Hemisphere’s most brutalized places.”— Jon Lee Anderson, author of Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life

“Wilkinson sets out to tell the story of Guatemala’s recently ended thirty-six-year internal war through the secret history of one venerable coffee plantation. The result reads like a novel, narrated by a disarmingly funny, perceptive, deeply humane young American who knows how to wear his courage lightly. You feel as if you are riding with Wilkinson on his beat-up motorcycle up muddy, dangerous jungle trails into the heart of a secretive country just waking up from a long nightmare. . . . A brilliant and important book.”— Francisco Goldman, author of The Long Night of White Chickens

The New Yorker
In 1993, Wilkinson, a recent Harvard graduate traveling in Guatemala, befriended the heiress of a coffee plantation there. Her family had abandoned the land in 1983, after guerrillas burned down the main house. Wilkinson's frustrated attempts to discover what prompted the arson became an extensive investigation, and as the author interviewed a cross section of Guatemalans -- from the former defense minister General Gramajo to eighty-year-old peasant farmers -- his friend's plantation emerged as a microcosm of Guatemala's hidden and terrible history. The author's style is taut and precise, but it is the Guatemalans themselves who speak with the greatest eloquence. After a massacre in the village of Sacuchum, where forty-four peasants had their throats slit by the Army for allegedly aiding the guerrillas, a witness describes a peasant pleading for his life before a military official: "Please, señor, God does not permit this," he cried, to which the captain replied, "Here there is no God! Here there is only the Devil."
Publishers Weekly
Written in the vein of a Robert Kaplan travel journal, this profound book traces the history of Guatemala's 36-year internal struggle through personal interviews that recount the heart-wrenching stories of plantation owners, army officials, guerrillas and the wretchedly poor peasants stuck in the middle. Wilkinson's narrative unfolds gradually, beginning with his quest to unlock the mysteries of the short-lived 1952 Law of Agrarian Reform, which saw the redistribution of land to the working class. He goes on to explain many of the causes and consequences of the country's political and social problems. At one point, Wilkinson vividly describes how the entire town of Sacuchum uncharacteristically gathered to recount for him and thus record for the outside world how the army raped, tortured and massacred members of the community because they were believed to have supported the guerrillas. Much of what's revealed in Wilkinson's account of the country's trials is hard to stomach, especially his description of CIA involvement in Guatemala. In many instances, Wilkinson's personal story gets in the way of the larger account he is trying to tell, and the book becomes more about him (he was just out of college in 1993, when he made the trip) than about events in Guatemala. However, this book is both easy to read and compelling, and Wilkinson's little self-indulgences are easily forgivable given the powerful subject matter and how well it is told by Wilkinson, now a lawyer with Human Rights Watch. B&w photos. Agent, Tina Bennett. (Sept. 26) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
A member of Human Rights Watch, Wilkinson considers Guatemala's 36-year civil war and the 200,000 lives it has cost. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

Meet the Author

Daniel Wilkinson, a graduate of Harvard College and Yale Law School, works with Human Rights Watch and lives in New York City.

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Read an Excerpt

PART I

A HOUSE BURNED

THE OWNER

All I knew when I began was that a house had burned down. And not just any
house. This was the house of the patrón — the casa patronal — on a coffee
plantation named La Patria.

I knew it had been an old house with walls of mahogany and a tin
roof painted burgundy red — the same color as the processing plant on the
ridge behind it, the color of the berries harvested every year from the
surrounding mountainside. While not as large as the houses of patrones in
some of the neighboring plantations, it had possessed a special charm,
a "gracious" and "pretty" design, and a spectacular view of the Pacific coast.
Stepping up to the porch on a sunny day, looking in through the front door,
down the hallway and through the living room, you could see the glittering
blue of the distant ocean out the back window. Time had taken its toll: a half-
century of rainy seasons had softened the outer walls; termites had
colonized the inner ones. Yet the structure had endured. And for the eighty-
year-old patrón and his wife, it had still been home, the place where they
intended to live out their days. I knew that it was just after Christmas in 1983
that the fire had consumed the house. And I knew it had been set by a group
of guerrillas who called themselves the Revolutionary Organization of the
People in Arms — and who were called, by my own government, terrorists.

I knew all this because I had met the owner of La Patria in one of those
chance encounters that begin the detours that become your life. It was 1993.
Ihad just finished college and come to Guatemala with what the people at
Harvard called a "traveling fellowship" — money to go see the world and
possibly do a little good in it. I had spent some weeks working in a Mayan
Indian town and begun research for an article on the community's efforts to
reclaim its ancestral lands. On a visit to Guatemala City, the friend of a friend
gave me the phone number of an American professor whose published works
on Guatemala dated back to the 1950s. I called him one evening to get tips
for my research, and before I'd even finished introducing myself he invited me
to dinner at his home in an affluent neighborhood in the outskirts of the city.
His wife greeted me at the door. With her hazel eyes, snow-white
hair, light complexion, and perfect English, I figured that Sara Endler was
also from the United States, an academic spouse who had followed her
husband to a foreign land. It was only when we had moved on to dessert and
a second bottle of wine that I learned otherwise. I was saying something
about the disparities between Guatemala's agricultural elite and the workers
who generate their wealth when she cleared her throat and said, "I must
confess, I own a farm."
"A farm?" I wasn't sure what she meant.
"A coffee plantation."
She told me then how she had recently inherited La Patria from
her aging father, Franz Endler, who had abandoned the plantation after the
casa patronal was burned down in the 1980s. As she spoke, my mind raced
back over the evening's conversation, searching for any comments I'd made
about plantation owners that could have offended my host. When she
paused, I asked a question, hardly suspecting that it would be the first of
thousands: "Why was the house burned down?"

The war in Guatemala had been one of the most brutal conflicts in the
hemisphere in the twentieth century. By the end of 1983, it had been raging
for two decades, with a military government allied with the United States
battling a guerrilla movement that was backed by Cuba. The burning of the
Endler house was just one of countless acts of destruction in a conflict
whose history — at the time I met Sara Endler a decade later — remained
largely unwritten.
The army had occupied La Patria, she told me, because it
suspected that the owners were collaborating with the guerrillas — an absurd
suspicion given how much her parents abhorred the guerrillas' "communistic"
ideas. What was true was that they themselves had never been the target of
guerrilla violence. In fact, the one time a small party of guerrillas had visited
them in La Patria, the Endlers had been surprised, even touched, by the
respectful behavior of their uninvited guests. When Sara's mother offered the
group coffee and cookies, one of the guerrillas — a young indigenous
woman — put aside her machine gun and politely insisted on serving them
herself. Before leaving, this same young guerrilla gently patted Sara's father
on his knee and said, "Don't be scared, patroncito. We will build the new
nation together."
Apparently the army was aware that the guerrillas hadn't bothered
the Endlers. And so, in the ensuing months, it chose to bother them itself.
Troops occupied the plantation, turning it into a temporary military base,
building sentry posts, and digging trenches wherever they thought necessary.
They even dug a trench through the garden by the house. The Endlers were
not pleased by the intrusion, but there was nothing they could do to stop it.
When the shooting began, Sara told me, the couple sat in their living room
and watched the bullets fly. They didn't scare very easily, she laughed, they
never had.
Then a note arrived at the plantation: "We have suffered great
losses here due to your collaborating with the army," it said. "When the army
leaves, we will burn you down."
And sure enough, less than two weeks after the army pulled out of
the plantation, the guerrillas arrived to fulfill their promise. The Endlers had
not waited around to see that happen, and only afterward did they learn —
from their plantation administrator — what had occurred that day. The first
attempt to burn the plantation had failed, he told them. A group of women
workers had begged the guerrillas not to harm La Patria: the plantation was
their only job, and the patrón was a good man, and he should be left alone.
At first, the guerrillas ignored the entreaties, but the women persisted,
pleading so insistently that the guerrillas finally gave up and left.
Two weeks later, they were back. This time they entered with a lot
of gunfire and went straight to the house, broke open the patrón's liquor
cabinet, and passed the booze around to the men who were working in the
processing plant. "All the stuff in this house belongs to you," they announced
when they had gotten the men good and drunk. "All of it was bought with the
sweat off your brows. Have at it!" The workers looted the house, taking pots
and pans and other utensils, anything they could make off with. When the
cupboards were bare, the fire began.
And when Sara's father heard the news, he swore he would never
return to La Patria. He did not want to see his home reduced to ashes.

As Sara recounted the burning, I wondered about her earlier choice of
words: "I must confess, I own a farm." I hadn't detected any guilt in that
confession, just the same hesitancy that appeared in her voice when we had
discussed Guatemalan politics during dinner. Why the hesitancy? Could be a
sign of timidity, I guessed.
I guessed wrong. This was a woman who in her twenties had
learned how to fly airplanes and in her sixties was learning how to run a
coffee plantation — a woman who, during the intervening years, had figured
out how to hold together a family that included a grandfather who was an
ardent anticommunist, a daughter who was a leftist intellectual, and a
husband who was denounced as a CIA agent by the Guatemalan left and
blacklisted by the right. Sara Endler had managed to maintain a home
straddling the fault lines of a country at war, and to build her own life shuttling
between two worlds — the United States, where she was a liberal Democrat,
and Guatemala, where she was a member of an embattled economic and
racial elite.
If she hesitated when she spoke, it wasn't because she was
unsure of herself, but because she was confronting a minefield of politically
charged meanings. The "confession" that evening was, I realized, a tactic to
defuse the revelation about who she was. It was really more like a
concession: she conceded there was reason to be critical of Guatemalan
landowners so that her views would not be written off. She was ready to
discuss the world she had inherited with her plantation. She was inviting me
to do so.
Why? The answer she gave the landowner friends who questioned
her judgment was simple: she had nothing to hide.

THE STUDENT

She's got plenty to hide, even if she doesn't know it." That was the view of
César Sánchez, who had grown up on a plantation two miles west of La
Patria.
I had met César shortly before the dinner at Sara Endler's home.
The journalist who introduced us was enamored of him, and it was easy to
see why. He was our age, handsome, with a dark complexion and curly
black hair. He had a warm smile, which he usually kept hidden behind an
ironic grin, and penetrating eyes, which could turn icy in an instant when he
talked politics. He was as quick with a structural analysis as with a sarcastic
crack, and though he was trained to hide uncertainty, he knew the world still
held many secrets from him. He wore glasses and always carried a book or
newspaper in one hand, the way the boys where he grew up carried
slingshots and the men carried machetes.
César was the son of the plantation bookkeeper, which meant that
he had a slightly bigger house and ate better than his friends whose families
worked in the fields. It also meant that his parents could afford to send him to
a secondary school in the provincial capital and then to the regional branch of
the national university. It was there that he came of age as a student in
agronomy, the program that had a long tradition of producing political
activists. The most celebrated of these was Willy Miranda, the president of
the student association who in 1980 stood on a chair in the university lecture
hall and exhorted his classmates (César could recite by memory): "We who
receive an education paid for by the people have a debt to the people! We
who have the power to analyze have the responsibility to criticize! An
agronomist should carry, in one hand, a machete — and, in the other, a
machine gun!"
Within weeks, Miranda was dead. As was the most popular
agronomy professor at the university, gunned down as he stood at the
blackboard teaching a class. As would be dozens of people in agronomy over
the coming years. By the time César joined the student association in 1988,
the violence had taken its toll, severing the connection between the university
and the guerrillas and eroding the optimism that had inspired risk taking
among the students. "We weren't as tough as the ones before us," César told
me. "We were scared." Which isn't to say they stopped protesting the
government, but only that their activities were tame in comparison with those
of their predecessors, who had collaborated directly with the Volcancitos,
or "Little Volcanoes," as they referred, in code, to the guerrillas who operated
in the region. "If I had been just a few years older in, say 1982, the guerrillas
would have recruited me, and I would have joined," César mused. "And right
now I'd probably be a cadaver — just one more anonymous corpse in the sad
history of this country."
Instead, he had applied himself to his studies, doing his
coursework and developing a proposal for a thesis on the Agrarian Reform of
1952. The Agrarian Reform had been — students like César would tell you —
what provoked the United States to overthrow Guatemala's only democratic
government and replace it with the military regime that had ruled the country
(in various guises) until the 1990s. And agrarian reform remained — they
would also tell you — the only viable solution to Guatemala's problems:
peace required greater equality, and greater equality required a redistribution
of land in the countryside.
Yet for all its importance, not many people in the university knew
much about what actually happened in the 1950s. So César proposed to
investigate how the reform had affected the coffee-producing region where he
had grown up. It was an unorthodox proposal, and when it was rejected,
César grew disillusioned with a faculty that, he felt, had been reduced to
mediocrity by the repression. But he retained a stubborn attachment to his
project: "To understand the war in this country," he told foreigners like
me, "you've got to understand what happened during the Agrarian Reform."
César knew a lot about coffee. He had grown up on a plantation,
studied the technical aspects of farming in the university, and spent
countless hours thinking about how the plantation system should be
reformed. Yet in all these years, he had never spoken to a plantation owner —
at least not about anything that had political ramifications, certainly not
about the Agrarian Reform or any other controversial aspect of the country's
history. Nor had any of his friends from agronomy, not even the ones who had
landed jobs on plantations. Such communication was not something they
would have even thought to attempt.
"She would never talk to me," he said when I told him about Sara
and how she had invited me to visit her plantation and learn more about its
history. He was a little bitter that the gringo could open doors that were shut
to him. But more than that, he was curious to hear what she had told me. He
listened attentively as I repeated the story of the burning house. "Of course
the guerrillas served the coffee themselves," he interjected. "That's how they
make sure the landowners don't poison them!" And later he said, "You don't
really believe that the señoras in the plantation tried to stop a group of armed
guerrillas?" Clearly, he did not.
What he had no trouble believing was that the workers had
ransacked the Endlers' house. "Go see the difference between the house of a
patrón and the houses of his workers, and you'll understand the resentment
people feel," he said. "Go find out what happened with their lands after the
Agrarian Reform and you'll understand the frustration that fueled the war."
He repeated this challenge whenever I saw him until I realized it
was more than a challenge. It was an entreaty. He wanted me to do the
study he couldn't do himself.
I had other plans at the time. Yes, I would try writing about
Guatemala, but it would be about current events — Mayan communities
seeking to reclaim their ancestral lands, young men migrating to the United
States — things that mattered to people today. César's war seemed to be
yesterday's news; his Agrarian Reform, ancient history. The country's civil
war was still going on. But you wouldn't know it from what you saw in the
cities or in the tourist spots. There were news reports of peace talks —
indefinitely stalled at the time — but no reports of actual fighting. The only
guerrillas still around were the aging commanders who wanted to resume
negotiations in Mexico City. This war had basically ended — not with a bang,
but with a bunch of balding men waiting around for someone to talk to them.
César laughed when I told him this. And then he set about setting
me straight. The army had been working for years to minimize reports of
guerrilla activity — he explained — covering up its casualties, treating its
wounded in hidden hospitals. The aim was to undermine the guerrillas' claim
that they were still a force to be reckoned with. "We beat them," the generals
insisted, "why should we negotiate?" My own misperception was a testament
to the power of their propaganda machine. There was still fighting in the
coffee region. And, more important, there were still many people there who
cared about the war's outcome.
Then one morning I picked up the paper and found Sara's
plantation on the front page. There had actually been a battle. The fighting
had begun in the woods outside a municipality named La Igualdad, and
spilled over into La Patria and a neighboring plantation named El Progreso.
The names on this battle.eld — La Igualdad, El Progreso, La Patria — could
have come from one of Willy Miranda's
speeches: "Equality," "Progress," "Nation." Only here they had lost their
meanings, the way that bombed-out houses cease to be homes. La Patria
had become a battlefield. Bullets were flying in El Progreso. People were
killing each other in La Igualdad. It was as though the propaganda machine
had gone haywire.
When I saw César again, we talked more about the violence in the
plantations. I had tried to read up on the subject on my own, only to find
there was basically nothing to read. There were accounts of the Agrarian
Reform (written by foreigners), but these dealt with the rise and fall of the
reform government at the national level, not with how the reforms played out
in the countryside. And there were accounts of the war in the 1980s, but they
focused on how the violence affected Indian communities in the country's
highlands to the north. Coffee had been the backbone of the Guatemalan
economy, and the plantations had been where millions of people had lived
through the major political upheavals of the century. Yet, in the history
books, the country's vast coffee region remained a blank space on the map.
César insisted I would find remarkable things there. And I figured I shouldn't
pass on the opportunity at least to pay a visit.
And so it was that Sara Endler and César Sánchez, two
Guatemalans who had never met, together led me to La Igualdad.

THE BATTLEFIELD

La Igualdad was a two-road town on the side of a mountain in the volcanic
chain that ran the length of Guatemala's southern coast. One dirt road
climbed up from the coastal city of Coatepeque; the other crawled down from
the mountain city of San Marcos. Beginning in very different worlds — the
sti.ing heat of the coast and the cool air of the highlands — the roads
plunged into what looked like a tropical forest.
It was a peculiar forest: the canopy had been pruned back and the
undergrowth was all of a kind — plants the same size and shape, with the
same shiny, dark-green leaves. Beginning at any one plant at the roadside,
you could enter the forest and find an identical plant a meter away. Continue
in any direction and you would reach another plant, and then another and
another. Heading westward, you could travel plant by plant — occasionally
hopping a stream or crossing another road, skirting a mill or a cluster of
shacks, stopping at the edge of a ravine and continuing where the ground
levels off — until you reached Mexico and traveled into the heart of Chiapas.
Or you could head eastward — plant by plant — hugging the base of the
volcanic chain more or less continuously until you came within sight of the
Salvadoran border. And you could pick up again — traveling plant by plant,
mile after mile — in large stretches of El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua,
Costa Rica, and again in Colombia, Venezuela, and Brazil. The plant was
coffee, and the beans it produced were, after petroleum, the most valuable
commodity on the world market.
The two roads converged on a ridge one thousand meters above
sea level. They became paved streets and ran parallel thirty meters apart. Six
cross streets connected the two, making five blocks. This was the town of La
Igualdad, the urban center of the municipality of the same name.
Entering the town from the highland road, you came upon a bust
of Justo Rufino Barrios. In 1871, General Barrios had led a band of insurgents
down this route as he crisscrossed the coffee piedmont on his way to the
capital. Once in power, Barrios began a political revolution, consisting of
legislation and decrees known collectively as the Liberal Reforms, which
opened up these lands for cultivation, prompted the migration of peasants
from highland communities, and led to the formation of municipalities like La
Igualdad throughout the piedmont.
The second street had been paved in 1952 during the second
major reform period in modern Guatemalan history. Had the reforms of this
era endured, many things might have been different in Guatemala today. For
one thing, there might have been a bust of Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán in the
entrance to town. Colonel Arbenz was the charismatic army officer who had
helped lead the 1944 revolution establishing a democratic government and
who had then won the presidential election of 1950. Once in office, Arbenz
surrounded himself with Guatemala's best and brightest and set about the
task of transforming the world that the Liberal Reforms had created. Four
years later, he was stripped of his office, his power, and even his clothes; he
left Guatemala in his underwear, exiled to a life of oblivion. He returned four
decades later in a casket.
There was no bust of Arbenz in La Igualdad. And no one seemed
to remember that the street on the left, as you go uphill, had once been
called the Street of the Revolution.
The south end of town began abruptly: the dirt road became a
paved street, lined on both sides by wooden and stucco homes, which were
painted green, red, and pale blue, and were packed together tightly at odd
angles — the adherence to right-angled architecture relaxed so as not to
waste space. The street climbed some two hundred yards, passing a bakery,
an inn, a mechanic's shop, the cross streets on the right, and a turnoff on the
left to a road that dropped into a gully. It continued climbing past several
general stores and a pharmacy, and then leveled off at the town's park. The
park consisted of a gazebo surrounded by concrete benches. There was an
electronics store with video games on the corner: the sound of Mario
Brothers echoed through the park all day and well into the night. The street
then climbed again, another hundred yards, passing more shops, the
municipal hall, the Catholic church, and came to an abrupt halt at the
northern edge of the ridge. A dirt path dropped to a line of houses and banana
trees on the slope running down to a ravine below.
And there, straight ahead, rising out of the ravine and climbing half
a mile up the mountainside and into the clouds, was a plantation. Twelve
hundred acres of coffee. On a promontory directly across the ravine was a
cluster of large yellow buildings: the processing mill, the offices, and the
casa patronal. Its name was El Progreso, but the workers in the region called
it El Infierno, which means "Hell." The street continued, veering around La
Igualdad's elementary school and then merging with the other street just
below the bust of Barrios.

My first trip to La Igualdad was on the road up from the coast. Several weeks
had passed since the battle, and Sara assured me that there would be no
danger now if I paid the plantation a visit. She arranged for me to meet the
plantation's administrator, Carlos Rodríguez, in Coatepeque, and together we
rode up the mountain on the back of the plantation's pickup truck. Carlos
was a relatively recent arrival in La Patria, hired by Sara after the burning to
resuscitate the plantation and turn it into a more productive and profitable
operation than it had been in her father's day. Carlos was tall and fit and
carried himself with the relaxed and confident air of a corporate executive on
vacation. He didn't really look like a farmer. Even when he stood in the fields,
his boots caked with mud, he managed to keep his clothes neat and trim, his
manner urbane. He didn't wear a sombrero, not even a cap. Like César, he
had studied agronomy in the national university. And like him, he had been a
student activist in his day. But that day had been back in the 1960s, and
those politics had been more a stage of youthful rebelliousness than a
lifelong commitment. "The university student who's not a Marxist is a fool," he
liked to say. "The adult who remains a Marxist is even more of a fool." Carlos
spent two or three days a week in La Patria and the rest running a consulting
business in the capital and managing his own property.
After two hours, we reached the town, turning off below the park
onto a dirt road that dipped into a gully and then climbed for another twenty
minutes up into La Patria. We unloaded in front of the processing plant and
carried our bags to the casa patronal. The house was a no-frills replacement
for what had been destroyed: a concrete floor supporting four adjacent rooms
that opened onto a porch. Like all the buildings on the plantation, its walls
were painted white, and the roof burgundy red. Carlos handed me a beer from
the refrigerator and headed over to the plantation office.
Out on the porch, I sipped the beer and took in the view of
Guatemala's Pacific coast, four thousand feet below. Squinting, I could make
out the faint outline of the water's edge fifty kilometers southward and, above
it, a blurred horizon where ocean blue melded into sky blue. To my left, some
hundred kilometers eastward, it was the dark blue of dusk. Westward, the
ocean-sky brightened and gave way to a reddish haze where the sun was
beginning its descent over Mexico. The view was much too large to take in
with one glance. My eyes wandered about the coastal plain: over there, a
plume of smoke rose from a sugar refinery; over there, a patch of darkness, a
rain shower, made its way inland; over there, a ray of sunlight glinted from a
car or truck moving near the border.
Down below, the foothills cast long shadows. In Spanish, they call
these hills la falda, "the skirt," of the mountain. To me they looked more like
long bony fingers clawing at the coastal plain — a death grip frozen in some
moment of geo-continental violence long ago and left buckled and broken by
centuries of seismic aftershock.

Over dinner, Carlos told me about the battle that had made the news. He had
not been in the plantation at the time, but he recounted what his employees
had told him. How several hundred troops marched up past the house one
morning. How land mines planted in the upper reaches of El Progreso
prevented them from attacking the guerrillas who had dug into the
mountainside there. How bleeding soldiers were carried back down the hill.
How the military set up a mortar that night in La Patria and shelled the
guerrilla encampment until dawn. How the soldiers marched up again, this
time over a thousand strong, and flushed the guerrillas out. How some of the
guerrillas fled down through La Patria and had a gun battle near the house
before disappearing into the community where the workers live at the foot of
the hill. How the administrator of El Progreso decided not to risk harvesting
the coffee in the plantation's upper corner where the land mines were
discovered, and how a peasant who decided to risk collecting the berries for
himself had his leg blown off.
I awoke the next morning and watched the sunrise on the porch
and tried to imagine the events Carlos had described. But there was
something about the place — the crisp mountain air, the spirited singing of
the birds, the sumptuous colors of the surrounding fields — infusing the
hillside with a beauty so intense that it saturated my senses, dulled my
imagination. Try as I might, I could not populate the meadow below with
soldiers, or fill the air with bullets and screams. Last night's story seemed as
fantastic by daylight as something I might have dreamed in my sleep.
Carlos joined me on the porch and — as if reading my thoughts —
pointed out a hole that a bullet had blown out of the wall of the processing
plant twenty meters away.

After breakfast, Carlos introduced me to the plantation's field master and
asked him to show me around the property. The field master was a slight
man with a nervous smile and a deferential manner that made me
uncomfortable. Our tour began with the processing mill, where he showed me
the machines that clean, dry, and sort the coffee beans during the harvest
season. Then we mounted horses and set off on a path that climbed through
the coffee groves up the hill above the plantation buildings.
When I asked the field master why there were no workers about,
he explained that the plantation had to wait for the first rains before starting
the next task in the annual cycle. The rains were several weeks late.
As we approached the upper reaches of the plantation, I asked
him if this was where the battle occurred. "The battle?" He looked as though
he didn't know what I was talking about.
"Yeah, the battle that was in the news, didn't it take place around
here?"
"That was in El Progreso."
"But I thought it was here too."
"No. Nothing happened here."
"But Carlos told me . . ." I started to say but decided to let it go.
After an hour making our way through the groves, we came to the
cemetery, a clearing on a ridge a few hundred meters below the plantation
buildings, a colorful oasis in the sea of green, with a line of palm trees
running the perimeter. At the entrance stood a cement cross and below it,
inscribed in stone, were the words:

HIER RUHT
FRIEDRICH ENDLER
GEB AM 5 OKTOBER 1869
IN LEHIN
GEST I S 15 MAI 1941

Behind this tombstone was a field of crosses with names like Fuentes, Yoc,
Tojil, and Bautista.
As we climbed the ridge above the cemetery, I said to the field
master, "I heard that the casa patronal was burned down."
"Sí pues," he answered.
"The house did burn down, didn't it?"
"Sí pues."
"And it was the guerrillas who did the burning?"
"Pues, that's what they say."
Leading questions wouldn't get me far with this man. "Why was it
burned?"
He shrugged and said, "Saber."
Saber is a favorite Guatemalan expression, one that I was to hear
time and time again in the coming weeks. It is the infinitive of the verb "to
know," but works like the rhetorical question in English "Who knows?"
"Has there been a lot of fighting here in La Igualdad?"
"No." He shook his head and, putting a bit more distance between
our horses, added over his shoulder, "Not much happened around here."

Later, I talked with the cook in the casa patronal. I was sitting on the porch
when she came out to sweep. She wore a colorless skirt and blouse, had her
hair pulled back in a single braid, and showed no sign of adornment, not even
the gold-starred front tooth that seemed to be the fashion among women in
La Igualdad. When she smiled, I saw she had no front teeth at all. (Carlos
would later tell me why so many of the women had the same star on the
same tooth. It was common for breastfeeding and poorly nourished mothers
to lose front teeth; the "dentist" in La Igualdad only stocked four-tooth
prosthetics, with a star on one; when a woman came to him with a tooth
missing, he knocked out the others so the prosthetic would fit.)
I tried to strike up a conversation: "Is that the ocean I'm seeing out
there?" I pointed to the blue horizon.
She stopped sweeping, looked out at the coast, and shrugged. "It
could be."
"Do you go to the beach much?"
"Just once we went." She smiled at the memory. "That was years
ago."
We talked a little about the weather, about the rains being late,
and then she asked what I was doing here in the plantation. I took the
question as my cue. "Well, I was hoping to find out about the history of this
place," I explained. "Maybe you could help me a little?"
She didn't speak.
"I was wondering, for example, what happened here during the
Agrarian Reform?"
She looked blankly at her broom and said: "Pues, I don't know
anything about that."
"But was there ever some kind of dispute here over the land in the
plantation?"
She shrugged and began sweeping again: "Pues, I don't think
anything happened here."
Maybe she really didn't know. Maybe she was younger than her
toothless face made her look. I changed to a more recent topic, the battle in
the news. Again, the blank expression: "Pues, everything has been pretty
calm here." Her sweeping became more vigorous. My eyes found the bullet
hole in the wall.
"But isn't it true the house was burned down?"
"Pues, that was a long time ago."
"Why was it burned?"
"Saber."

Later I wandered into the plantation garage and struck up a conversation with
the driver who had driven us up from Coatepeque and another employee who
was helping him tinker with the car engine. They were talkative — about the
car's problems, about the rain being late. But when I asked them about the
war, they had no more to say than the field master and the cook: the house
was burned down, but otherwise the war had not had much impact in the
area, neither the army nor the guerrillas bothered people very much.

Later still, when the sun was setting — an orange fireball over Chiapas — I
heard singing coming from somewhere down below. I found the cook in the
kitchen and asked her what it was. "A procession," she said. "They're praying
for rain."
Together we climbed down the mountainside and joined the line of
two dozen peasants, mostly women, with candles in hand, as it wound its
way on a path through the coffee groves. A man with a megaphone prayed to
el Señor that he send rain so that the patrones could give the people work.
His entreaty was backed by a mumbled chorus of Hail Marys from the
women. When he finished praying, five men strummed guitars and the
women sang:

Te ofrezco este canto,
mezclado con llanto,
y mi corazón. . . .

The following day I left La Patria with Carlos. He agreed to drop me off in La
Soledad, the plantation where César's family lived. We drove into La Igualdad
and took the road that headed north toward San Marcos, passing the bust of
General Barrios as we left town. We came to a plantation named La
Independencia — "Independence" — and there, for the first time, I saw
soldiers. They were marching in a line at the side of the road, one soldier
every twenty feet. They were very young and looked very serious, with
machine guns ready in their hands. They were headed in the direction of El
Progreso.

EXHUMAT I O N

The houses in the plantation La Soledad lined a stretch of road that climbed
the spine of a ridge two miles to the west of La Igualdad. We stopped first at
the workers' quarters, a row of dismal wooden sheds with chipped and faded
white paint. Carlos asked a young man standing in one of the doorways if he
knew where César Sánchez lived. The man shook his head and said nothing.
We continued. The gravel road became cobblestone as it approached the
coffee patio. Carlos asked some men who stood there, dressed in faded
green soccer jerseys. They didn't know who he was talking about. We
continued past the patio and the processing plant and came to the casa
patronal: a two-story house, white with green latticed shutters, glass
windows, and French door, built to dimensions so much larger than the
workers' homes that it seemed designed for a different species. Farther up
the ridge was another row of houses, more modest than the patrón's, but not
so derelict as the others. Standing in one of the doorways was César.
"So what did you find out?" César asked as soon as the pickup
from LaPatria disappeared down the road.
"Well," I answered, following him into the house, "seems nothing
much happened there. At least, that's what the people told me."
The front part of the front room was a tienda, a small store with
snacks, soap, toothpaste, and drinks displayed on a shelf behind a counter.
The back part of the room had a large bed and an old wooden dresser. César
had me drop my bag on the bed. "Do you believe them?"
"No, not entirely. I mean, Sara told me there had been fighting.
But she wasn't actually around the plantation in the years leading up to the
burning. Her administrator showed me a bullet hole from a recent battle, but
he hadn't witnessed the fighting himself. Everyone who had been there said
nothing happened."
César brought me into the back room to meet his parents, who
smiled shyly and exchanged amused glances — the sort that might
accompany a question like, What will our son bring home next? César then
suggested we look for a friend of his who could tell me something about the
war. We headed out the door, and as we walked down the road toward the
coffee patio, he said, "So nothing happened, eh?"
"That's right. And it seems no one has heard of your Agrarian
Reform. They seemed evasive when I asked them about the war, but when it
came to the Agrarian Reform I really don't think they knew what the hell I was
talking about."
César nodded. "Well it's possible La Patria was one of the
plantations that wasn't affected by the reform. But there definitely was a lot of
fighting up there above La Patria and El Progreso in the early eighties. We
used to watch it from over here."
I followed his gaze across the patio, over the line of trees at the
other end, to the mountain above La Igualdad. When I had seen it on the way
up from Coatepeque, the summit had appeared to have the conical shape of
a volcano. From this angle, however, I wasn't so sure: it looked like just
another mountain. I wondered how much César was exaggerating.
"If you don't believe me, you know the house burned down. The
guerrillas wouldn't have done that without a reason."
We passed the men who hadn't known who César was. "Are you
playing today, César?" one of them asked.
Down by the workers' quarters, we climbed the embankment and
approached a house where an old man was sitting, his back against the wall,
methodically banging a stone tool against the bottom of a pot. "Buenos días,"
César greeted him. "Is the owner of that pot around?"
The man looked up from his work. "No, joven. He went to play
football."
We turned back up to the road. "There's a man who could tell you
some stories," César said when we were out of earshot. "He comes through
once a year to fix the pots. He's been doing that for as long as I can
remember. He travels all over San Marcos fixing pots. I bet he's repaired
every pot and pan in every plantation in the area. But," he grinned, "saber if
he'll talk to you."
"Saber if anyone will talk to me. Maybe it's just too soon to try to
find out what happened during the war."
César disagreed. "What about the forensic team? They're doing it."
He was referring to the team of forensic anthropologists that had
begun digging up the clandestine cemeteries that the army had left
throughout the highlands during the 1980s.
"That's different," I said.
"Why?"
"Corpses don't lie."
"Neither do memories," he said. "You just have to get people to
tell them."
I shook my head. Of course memories lie. People repress and
distort things, or simply forget them. "Well, even if I could find some people in
La Igualdad who would talk, I doubt I'd ever get the full story."
He thought a moment. "The forensics never get the full corpse, do
they?" He had a point. What they got was decayed. Sometimes, it had even
been mutilated beyond recognition. "But it still tells them something, right?"
We had caught up with the soccer players and walked with them
to the soccer field.

Plantation men take soccer seriously, or at least they used to. The game I
saw that afternoon wasn't much: graceless hustle, hard tackles, missed
shots. But the talk I heard later was of greatness. A group of players
gathered in front of the Sánchez house after the game and, with César's
prodding, told me about a glorious past. A time when people had cared about
their teams. When plantations had hired coaches, provided their men with
uniforms and cleats, and given light work to the key players the week before
the important games. Some even put professionals on the payroll to beef up
the roster. La Soledad had boasted some great teams, and there were plenty
of trophies in the casa patronal to prove it. When a truck carrying the team
back from a tournament in La Igualdad rolled off a bridge, killing two players
and crippling several others, the patrón visited his men in the hospital and
wept at the sight of their broken bodies.
But things had changed since, they told me. Players had aged;
some had succumbed to alcohol; some had joined Evangelical churches that
prohibited alcohol and sports. The pool of new talent had shrunk as young
people moved to the city. And the patrones just didn't care what went on in
the plantation the way they once had.
Jorge Fuentes was a veteran of that era. As evening settled on the
mountainside, we continued the talk of soccer with him, until we were alone
and César, lowering his voice a notch, changed the topic. "Vos, Jorge," he
said. "I was hoping you could tell Daniel a little about the war and what it's
been like around here."
Jorge's voice also dropped. "What does he want to know?"
César looked at me. What did I want to know? Whether it was
real, I thought. Not just the bullets and the burning house, but the popular
sentiment that the guerrillas claimed to represent. "Well, for starters," I
said, "I'm curious if there's been much support for the guerrillas in these
parts."
Jorge thought a moment. "Pues, right now, direct support, not so
much. But sympathy, yes. I mean, before, a few years ago, there was a lot of
support. When the cuates came through, a la gran puta, it was a party!
Everybody was happy to see them. You remember, César?"
"Sí pues. There were a lot of them back then. I remember sitting in
my parents' store and counting the cuates as they went by up the road.
There were more than eighty, and that's counting just the ones we could see."
"What did they do when they came?" I asked.
"They would hold a meeting on the patio, and everyone would
come out. They'd talk about the revolution and the Agrarian Reform. They'd
find out how the plantation was treating people. Invite people to join them."
"They'd also stock up on food from the stores here," César
added. "I remember the first time they came to my parents' store. It was that
commander, Chano."
"Ah, that Chano was one tough bastard!" Jorge shook his head
with admiration.
"He was my idol growing up. You'd always hear stories about him.
He was like our own Che Guevara."
Jorge nodded in agreement but said nothing. Someone was
approaching up the road. It was a young boy. We watched him pass, and
when we were alone again, I asked Jorge about the house burning in La
Patria. He didn't know much about what had happened, but he had heard that
the owners had been collaborating with the army, and so the guerrillas
punished them.
"The people I talked to in La Patria said there was never much
fighting around there."
Jorge chuckled. "They're lying. There was lots of fighting in that
part of La Igualdad. Those plantations are closer to the woods where the
guerrillas had their camps. The army went after them many times."
"Was there fighting around here too?"
"Not as much. Some shootouts now and then. There was one in
the plantation San Miguel where a commander got killed."
"It wasn't Chano, was it?" César asked.
"No, Chano fell somewhere else. This was somebody else, a
doctor, they say, from Xela." I detected another change in Jorge's voice, as if
he were shifting gears back into the story-telling mode he had used when we
talked about the soccer teams. "The tío arrived in the plantation one day with
three others, two of them women. They say one of them was his compañera.
So they arrived, and two of them went to the office and made the bookkeeper
show them the books —"
César interjected: "The guerrillas used to visit all plantations to
check the books and make sure the workers were being paid."
"The other two went to scout out the plantation. They walked out
of the office and turned the corner to the patio and, puta 'mano, the patio was
full of soldiers! Seems they'd arrived at the same time as the guerrillas, but
from the other direction. So the canches ran back and told the others and
they took off. The commander told the bookkeeper not to say anything till
they got away. But the bastard got scared, and he immediately went and told
the soldiers. The cuates got down the ravine and were climbing the other side
when the soldiers arrived and started firing on them. The commander's
woman was hit. So he ordered the others to carry her, and he stayed to hold
off the soldiers while they got away. He held them off for a few minutes. Just
him against the whole platoon of soldiers."
Jorge held an imaginary machine gun in his hands and fired.
"But while he was firing, some of the soldiers got around behind
him. They got closer and closer and then — pow! — they nailed him in the
back. The captain ordered the rest to stop shooting. He wanted the
commander alive. But before they could capture him, the cuate took a pill
from his pocket — they always carried pills so they wouldn't be captured —
and he swallowed it. The captain grabbed him, 'Don't die, you piece of shit!'
But it was too late. So they carried the corpse up to the patio and made all
the workers come look at it. The captain yelled at them: 'This is what
happens to communists!' Real abusive, that bastard. And then he had the
soldiers line up and walk past the corpse. Each one cursed it and kicked it
and hacked at it with their machete until it was all cut to pieces."
Jorge paused, letting the image sink in. "The captain was going to
burn the body. But the administrator begged him not to. 'Why do you care?'
the captain said to him. 'Are you a communist too?' 'No,' the administrator
said. 'It's just that we don't want the guerrillas to come back and punish us
after you leave.' The captain finally agreed, and when the army left, the
administrator had the body buried in the plantation cemetery."
"Did the guerrillas come back?"
"Yes, or at least one of them did. Every year, on the anniversary of
his death, flowers appeared on the grave. Not flowers like you find around
here, but those nice flowers they sell in the market in Xela."
It was dark now. A starless night. Clouds must have rolled in while
we were talking. There was no movement on the street, but a lantern across
the way revealed that the air was full of life: insects of all shapes and
sizes .uttered about, and occasionally a bat darted into the light.
"If the guerrillas had so much support, why didn't they win?"
"Things changed," Jorge said. "When the army did what it did in
Sacuchum, everything changed."
"Sacuchum Dolores is a community up on top of the mountain,"
César explained. "Tell him what happened there."
"The army showed up one day and found the women washing
green uniforms. And none of the men were home. So the soldiers had the
families go inside their houses. They closed the doors and they set the
houses on fire. The women and the children and the old people were inside,
and they burned with the houses. 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."

That night I had a strange dream: I was out on the soccer field with a group of
workers who turned out to be guerrillas. They selected me to be on their
team. I was flattered, though I tried not to show it. Then there was some
commotion. "Helicopter!" Everyone started running off the field, seeking cover,
and I woke up. It took me a moment to remember where I was — on a bed in
the front room of the Sánchez house. Somewhere outside, there was a
mechanical thumping sound, like a helicopter in the distance.
When I awoke again, the thumping noise was still there. And now
there was another sound: a metallic clink like a muffled bell. I got up, found
the front door ajar, and stepped outside. It was just before daybreak. The sky
was luminescent, but the world below remained in shadows. The pot-fixer sat
on the stoop of the neighbor's house, tapping a pot between his knees. That
accounted for one sound. The thumping, which seemed to come from a
house farther down the ridge, remained a mystery.
Someone approached on the street, a woman with a pot balanced
on her head. "Buenos días." It was César's mother. "Cómo amaneció?" she
asked, stopping in front of the door: how did you wake up?
"Good, thanks, and you?"
"Algo regularcito, gracias a Dios," she said smiling: not bad, thank
the Lord. She entered the house and returned a moment later with a cup of
coffee, then disappeared again inside.
I sat on the bench, sipped the coffee, and thought about what I
had learned in La Igualdad. My notes from several interviews consisted of just
a few lines, many of which said simply: "Nothing happened." Sara and her
administrator told a very different sort of story from César and his friend, but
they all agreed that a house had burned down. In light of that single fact, the
notes that said nothing seemed to speak volumes.
César was right. A mutilated body could tell a story — one in
which the mutilation was a central part. Even obliterated bodies have been
known to speak. Like the hollows in the rock of Pompeii, pockets of
nothingness, which, when filled with plaster, revealed human figures that the
volcano there had buried. Or the silhouettes found on the walls of Hiroshima,
pale shadows that had outlasted their human source, revealing the darkness
that the atomic bomb had cast upon the surrounding world. Memories, like
corpses, can be exhumed. If they come fragmented or incomplete, that is
part of their story.
Emptying the sugary remains of the coffee, I came to a decision. I
would return to La Patria. I would find out what had caused the house to be
burned. Maybe it was yesterday's news. But that news had never been told —
at least not in public. And I wanted to find out why not.
I got up from the bench and entered the house to get more coffee.
For a moment, the darkness inside reduced the world to its sounds — the
metallic tapping, the mechanical thumping. Once my eyes adjusted, I moved
slowly past the shadows of the room, opened the door at the other end, and
stepped into the kitchen and the warm glow of daylight. The morning sun had
just risen above the mountains to the east, and its light streamed in through
an open window, catching the curls of smoke that rose from the hearth stove
at the center of the room. César's mother stood by the fire, her hands at work
in the pot she had carried up the street. Now I knew the source of the
thumping sound: an electric mill grinding maize into a golden pulp. The
thump-thump was echoed here by the clap-clap of her hands slapping the
gold into tortillas. The work, like the day and the year, had a rhythm:
deliberate, unhurried, unrelenting.
The open window framed the southern face of the highlands, the
chain of volcanoes stretching out of sight to the east. The highest, Santa
María, climbed abruptly from the piedmont just a few miles away and
culminated in a perfect cone. The symmetry of the peak left no doubt about
the mountain's origins. At its base was the dark outline of an immense crater
where, not so long ago, the earth had blown open. A column of gray smoke
emerged from the crater. As it cleared the shoulder of the volcano, it caught
the morning sun and turned red.

Copyright © 2002 by Daniel Wilkinson. Reprinted by permission of Houghton
Mifflin Company.
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Table of Contents

I. A House Burned
The Owner 3
The Student 7
The Battlefield 11
Exhumation 19
II. Ashes Fell
Rumor 29
Travelogue 32
Natural History 42
Bildungsroman 48
Revelation 56
Decree 65
III. A Future Was Buried
A Dangerous Question 83
The Law That Would Change the World 157
Betrayal 168
Burials 180
IV. And They Were the Eruption
The Savages 193
Sacuchum 199
The Guerrillas 217
The Politicians 252
The Terrorists 307
The Defeated 337
The Storytellers 350
List of Names 361
Note on Sources 362
Selected Bibliography 367
Acknowledgments 372
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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 12, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Enlightening/ absorbing and stimulating

    If you care about what's happening in the world, this a good book. It kept my interest. Written like a detective novel, it explores the story of the burning of a plantation home. Over the course of the author's inquiries, he interviews a wide cast of characters including farm workers, wealthy elite, government officials, army officials, plantation superintendents, guerilla fighters, and former union officials. You get a sense of each individuals perspective and the daunting challenges facing anyone who cares to take on the inequities facing Guatemalas poor.

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