To Save Her Life: Disappearance, Deliverance, and the United States in Guatemala / Edition 1

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Part human rights drama, part political thriller, part love story, this riveting narrative chronicles the disappearance of one woman as it tells the larger story of the past fifty years of violence and struggle for social justice and democracy, and U.S. intervention in Guatemala. Maritza Urrutia was abducted from a middle-class neighborhood while taking her son to school in 1992. To Save Her Life tells the story of her ordeal which included being interrogated in secret by army intelligence officers about her activities as part of a political opposition group. Chained to a bed, blindfolded, and deprived of sleep, Maritza was ultimately spared because her family was able to contact influential intermediaries, including author Dan Saxon, who was in Guatemala working for the Catholic Church's Human Rights Office. Here Saxon brings to life the web of players who achieved her release: the Church, the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Congress, numerous NGOs, guerrilla groups, politicians, students, and the media. Reaching back to 1954, when Maritza's grandparents were activists, the book is a study of the complex and often cruel politics of human rights, and its themes reverberate from Guatemala to Guantánamo to Iraq.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520252455
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 5/21/2007
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 328
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

Dan Saxon is a prosecutor at the United Nations
International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

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Read an Excerpt

To Save Her Life

Disappearance, Deliverance, and The United States in Guatemala
By Dan Saxon

University of California Press

Copyright © 2007 Daniel R. Saxon
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-520-24597-6

Chapter One


July 23, 1992


Maritza did not look like a revolutionary. She was just one of the young mothers walking their children to school in the morning. Her organización, the Guerrilla Army of the Poor-an insurgent group commonly known by its Spanish acronym EGP and referred to here as the Organización-had trained Maritza about the importance of blending in with the crowd so as to avoid detection by the Guatemalan army. She wore no uniform and carried no weapon. A white sweater protected Maritza from the early morning chill and underneath she wore a T-shirt from Albuquerque, New Mexico, where her brother, Edmundo René, had studied political science. Maritza had loafers on her feet and in the pockets of her green pants only her house keys and the thirty cents she would need to make a telephone call after dropping off Sebastián. She carried nothing that could fall into the hands of el enemigo.

Perhaps the most striking physical characteristic of this petite woman was her hair: a mass of long, unruly coffee-colored curls that flowed past Maritza's shoulders, with a streak of gray above her forehead. Sebastián, a precocious four-year-old with dark hair and his mother's large dark eyes, liked nothing better than to play with his toy cars and trucks or to color with crayons. That morning he was dressed in his school uniform of red pants, white shirt, and red sweater.

As they neared Boulevard de Liberación, the broad avenue that separates zone eight from zone thirteen of Guatemala City, just a few blocks from Sebastián's school, another mother waved to Maritza. She had already dropped off her daughter and was returning to her home in zone eight, not far from where Maritza lived with her parents. Would Maritza like to come by her house that afternoon? The woman sold jewelry from her home and had some earrings she wanted to show to Maritza. Of course! Maritza promised to drop by later that day.

Mother and son crossed the broad boulevard just after 8:00 A.M., and as they walked up Fifth Avenue toward Third Street, dozens of people filled the muddy thoroughfare. Men and women left their homes for work; mothers walked their children to school; young maids stood in the doorways of their employers' homes; shopkeepers hung out in front of their stores, chatting with the passersby. The sounds of planes taking off from the nearby airport and the heavy morning traffic filled the air.

Maritza was alert as she walked down Third Street with her little boy and neared Walt Disney Nursery School. Just outside the school on the previous day, Maritza had spotted the men who kept her under surveillance. The first man followed Maritza for almost four blocks after she said good-bye to Sebastián. Then he stopped and spoke to another man. A third man observed Maritza as she arrived at her bus stop. He stayed on the corner when Maritza boarded the number forty bus. Maritza didn't know at the time that her house was also under surveillance.

Later that day Maritza spoke with her superiors in the Organización. They agreed that Maritza should start to change her daily routine and move out of her parents' house. But there was no need to panic. Maritza could make these changes gradually over the next month.

As Maritza and Sebastián walked the final few blocks to the school, she was relieved to see that the men were not there. Maritza did not want to accept the fact the she had been identified, and so she minimized the significance of the surveillance. The men were gone. She could relax. And so, like every morning, Maritza kissed Sebastián's cheek at the nursery school entrance and told him that she would take him home again at noon.

But the men were not gone. There were nearly ten of them that day, hidden in three separate cars parked some distance from the nursery school. One of the vehicles, parked among other automobiles outside a nearby factory, had a clear view of the entrance to Walt Disney School. As Maritza bade her son farewell and started back toward her home, the men inside this vehicle radioed her position to their commander, "Don Chando." He sat in a Toyota Corolla with tinted windows that was parked around the corner on Fifth Avenue, just up the street from the route that Maritza would take on her way home.

Maritza was still alert as she walked away from the school up Third Street to the corner of Fifth Avenue, and then down the slope toward Boulevard de Liberación. Older children were walking to school and more men and women hurried off to catch the bus to work. After crossing Second Street, Maritza passed "Diana," who was walking her daughter to Walt Disney School. From another automobile, "El Chino" radioed to Don Chando that Maritza was coming toward them now.

As Maritza approached First Street, she was surprised to see the jewelry vendor walking toward her, the same woman she had spoken to earlier that morning. But now the woman was on the opposite side of the street. Strange, because the jewelry vendor had already left her child at the school. The woman hailed Maritza again and spoke to her from across the street, briefly distracting Maritza as she continued to walk toward her home.

Perhaps that explains why Maritza never saw the large man who fell on her and covered her mouth with his hand and held her arms against her ribs. Or why she never noticed the second man, who almost simultaneously rushed up behind her and grabbed her arms.

Maritza screamed and tried in vain to free herself. "Oh no!" Her scream was a realization rather than a protest. She'd come to her end. There was no return. A white car with darkened windows pulled up and the back door flew open. The two men who held Maritza threw her onto the backseat, knocking one of her shoes off into the road. The men climbed in after her as the car rolled forward. A third man, his skin very pale, sat in the passenger seat next to the driver. The fair-skinned man glanced at Maritza and spoke into a radio: "We've got her. Go for the other." Maritza was terrified. Later she realized that he was the same man who had followed her the day before.


February 1954 Two sisters stood by the side of the dusty airstrip, waiting to board the plane that would take them to a secret destination. Sonia Orellana was eighteen and Sara just one year older. Full of adolescent passion, the girls knew a great quest lay ahead of them that morning, although they didn't know specifically what it was. They were going to save Guatemala from the claws of Communism.

A slender man with a mustache and dark skin approached them and the sisters recognized him instantly. He was Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas, a Guatemalan army officer living in exile in Honduras, and the CIA's chosen leader of the "liberation movement" to oust the government of Jacobo Árbenz.

"Are you calm?"

"Yes, Colonel."

"You're not sad?"

"No," they replied, although the two girls had no idea where they were going or why. But they would do anything to help the "liberation movement." "You're going to be well cared for and you're going to do a good job," Castillo Armas reassured them. "You're going to write a page in the country's history."

Sonia and Sara flew first to San Salvador, and then on to Miami. Waiting for them at the Miami airport was a "Mr. López," who had visited their father many times in their home-in-exile in Tegucigalpa. Mr. López was a North American who spoke bad Spanish and whose real name was Davis. Mr. López brought the girls to a palatial estate in Florida where they would spend the next few months. There was a recording studio on the grounds of the estate, and every morning beginning at 9:00 a.m. and working into the evening, Sonia, Sara, and a small group of other young Guatemalans prepared their escrips and produced radio programs attacking the Árbenz government:

This is the voice of Clandestine Radio-the radio of liberation.... The heroic people of Guatemala, who for more than ten years have endured the savage oppression of international Communism, have lost their patience and are preparing for the final battle.... And Jacobo Árbenz and his ruffians will see that patriots know how to defend their ideal: god, country, liberty.... GUATEMALANS, THE HOUR IS NEAR. WE WILL KNOW HOW TO GIVE YOU THE WORD, BUT MEANWHILE, DON'T LET YOURSELVES BE FOOLED. THE COMMUNIST PULP WILL BE CRUSHED, AND WITH IT, ALL OF ITS HIRED GUNS. THE HOURS OF COMMUNISM ARE NUMBERED ...

A nice young North American man named Chuck taught the Guatemalans how to use the modern equipment. After each broadcast was recorded in Florida, the tapes were sent on Pan Am flights to Honduras, where the "liberationists" maintained their transmitter. The messages were beamed into Guatemala where, at night, behind closed doors, opponents of Jacobo Árbenz would pick up the signal.

After some months in Florida, the two sisters returned to Central America to continue the radio broadcasts. First they operated from a farm just inside Nicaragua near the Honduran border where Castillo Armas and his men were preparing for the invasion of Guatemala. Trying to increase popular sentiment for an uprising, Sonia and Sara would falsely declare that they were brazenly broadcasting from a secret location within Guatemala.

The voice of national liberation, transmitter of the free people, initiated its work in spite of the government, which, trembling even more, has dispatched all of its dogs in order to locate it. The movement of Guatemalan resistance isn't weak any more. On the contrary, it's now a gigantic force which the red government fears and ... trembles in terror.

From Nicaragua the sisters returned to Honduras, to the farm of their maternal grandparents, where they continued their broadcasts while the "liberation army" completed its final phase of training. Critical to the strategy of the CIA was the demoralization of the Guatemalan army:

With true stupor, we've been informed of the incident that occurred between the Defense Minister, Colonel José Ángel Sánchez, and one of the high-ranking commanders of the Air Force, when the latter returned to his home and found the dignified minister making love with his once honorable wife.... We in exile view the immorality that now reigns in some military commanders as a true threat to the dignity and security of the army since these acts of savagery denigrate the institution and upset the morale of the soldier. This is a fruit of Marxist doctrine, which favors free love.

Sonia and Sara Orellana were the daughters of Manuel Orellana, an anti-Communist leader working in exile with Colonel Castillo Armas. The exiles in Honduras were not acting alone, but in concert with the anti-Communist organizations inside Guatemala organized and encouraged by the CIA. "The basic key to all operational planning," explained one CIA memorandum at the time, "is the realization that the strength of our movement is going to be from within the target country rather than being in the nature of an 'invasion' from without."

Consequently, the Catholic Church and the media were active in the campaign to oust Árbenz. The Catholic clergy "worked like ants" to bring down the Árbenz government, and the stress caused stomach problems for Monsignor Mariano Rossell Arellano, the tall and distinguished archbishop. Several right-wing, anti-government newspapers were in circulation, such as La Opinión, whose masthead read "Newspaper of the poor, and also of the rich." And there were a number of fiercely anti-Communist journalists. But none of them was fiercer, tougher, more dogmatic and radical than a radio journalist named Oscar Conde.

Born of a union between a father of mixed Spanish blood and a mother who was part Mayan and part African, Conde was tall and dark, with wavy black hair and a black moustache. He was also quite thin, which sharpened his features and only added to his intensity. Conde was a leader of PUA, the Party of Anti-Communist Unity, and through his program called Radio Sucesos was by far the most widely listened to of the anti-Communist radio journalists of the Árbenz period.

Every day at lunchtime in this pretelevision era, families in thousands of homes around Guatemala City would cut short their conversation and tune in to Oscar Conde. Even his friends, who admired him, acknowledged that Conde was "violent, dogmatic, obnoxious if you will." Conde could not stand anyone who bore the slightest taint of left-wingism, and he relentlessly criticized the Árbenz regime and its members.

The defection of army personnel was another key component of the CIA's strategy for overthrowing Árbenz. The agency had infiltrated the armed forces and by late May 1954 the CIA's station chief in Guatemala City was reporting that the Guatemalan army would not resist their "liberation":

The army is reportedly divided into two groups: the older officers, and the younger officers. The older officers are determined to form a "junta" as soon as any action starts and then try to make a deal with Castillo Armas and the "Americans." The younger officers are reportedly decided not to fire a shot or else go over to Castillo Armas.

In early June, officials at the Guatemalan Embassy in Tegucigalpa picked up rumors indicating that the attack was imminent:

A group of exiles that eat in one of the downtown restaurants in Tegucigalpa came to eat supper on Sunday night after having a few drinks. Thus, it slipped out that the fifteenth of this month will be the date of the invasion.

But it would not be much of an invasion. CIA officials were aghast when Colonel Castillo Armas confessed that he only had one hundred and fifty men under his command. This news forced the agency to reevaluate its plans, but ultimately the agents in command decided to go forward. Castillo Armas's "movement" might become even weaker if they postponed the invasion, and the possibility of gathering sympathizers along the way kept the CIA's goal within reach. The Voice of Liberation broadcast a series of warnings to the Guatemalan people. Everyone should withdraw money from their bank accounts, buy food and durable goods, try to get valuables out of the country. Don't support the "outlaw regime." Fortuitously for Castillo Armas and the CIA, Guatemala's state-run radio required a new antenna in May. This problem knocked out power to the government's only broadcast medium for three weeks. So the largely illiterate populace turned to the Voice of Liberation for news, giving the liberationists a virtual propaganda monopoly.

When they finally entered Guatemala on June 18, 1954, Castillo Armas and his soldiers carried with them the Radio of Liberation's transmitter, accompanied by the only two women in the invading force, the young sisters Sonia and Sara Orellana. Radio broadcasts might still be needed to swing the Guatemalan army over to Castillo Armas's side. People came out into the streets of small towns to offer the liberators food and water. "It was a party," Sonia recalled many years later, "we weren't afraid." They camped in the town of Esquipulas, home of Guatemala's patron saint, and there the two girls made their last clandestine radio broadcast, exhorting the population to join the uprising.


Thursday morning, July 23, 1992 In the back of the car, Maritza struggled to free herself but the men began to beat her. They covered her mouth with their hands and forced her head down between her legs until Maritza began to feel dizzy. When they put a sweater over her head, Maritza thought that she would suffocate. Finally, they've taken me. It's finally happened.

Then the men began to speak. "We know that you're 'Ruth.' You have to do what we tell you, or else you know what will happen to you." They spoke of Sebastián. "Your son is very cute. We've seen the two of you together. You have a good relationship with him." Maritza began to feel even more terrified. What will they do to Sebastián?

The same voice spoke to her again. "Cooperate with us and nothing's going to happen to you. We know that you're Ruth." He seemed to be in charge. After fifteen or twenty minutes the car slowed and passed over some speed bumps. They passed through a wide gate and stopped in a large garage containing a red bus and many other vehicles. The men covered Maritza's face with a piece of newspaper.


Excerpted from To Save Her Life by Dan Saxon Copyright © 2007 by Daniel R. Saxon. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Map of Guatemala     xi
List of Abbreviations     xiii
Preface     xv
The Disappearance
Thursday, July 23, 1992     3
Thursday Morning and Afternoon     22
Friday, July 24, 1992     35
Saturday and Sunday, July 25-26, 1992     52
The Catholic Church in Guatemala, 1524-1992     65
Monday and Tuesday, July 27-28, 1992     80
Wednesday, July 29, 1992     94
Thursday, July 30, 1992     116
The Visa
Friday, July 31, 1992     135
Saturday, August 1, 1992     144
Sunday, August 2, 1992     154
Monday, August 3, 1992     166
Tuesday, August 4, 1992     178
Wednesday, August 5, 1992     190
Thursday, August 6, 1992     205
The Aftermath     227
Epilogue     238
Acknowledgments     245
Notes     249
Selected Bibliography and Further Reading     287
Index     295
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