Dangerous Pilgrims

Dangerous Pilgrims

by Lawrence Swaim


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781785354748
Publisher: Roundfire Books
Publication date: 10/28/2016
Pages: 344
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Lawrence Swaim is the Executive Director of the Interfaith Freedom Foundation, a public-interest nonprofit advocating civil rights for religious minorities and religious liberty for all. He lives in California.

Read an Excerpt

Dangerous Pilgrims

By Lawrence Swaim

John Hunt Publishing Ltd.

Copyright © 2015 Lawrence Swaim
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78535-475-5


In 1982 I drifted south into Mexico, bound for the regions of war and revolution.

I went to Mexico City first, taking a job with an American wire service. It was there that I began to hear the stories about Guatemala. What made these stories special was that they were about a place that was extraordinarily beautiful, by all accounts, but also extraordinarily dangerous — there was a brutal civil war under way there, which had been going on for a decade or so.

I asked my editor if I could travel to Guatemala as a stringer, a journalist who is not on regular salary.

"I know I'll get paid only for the stories you use, and that you may not even use my stuff very often," I said. "But I really want to write about the civil war and the political situation in Guatemala and everything else going on there."

He looked at me as though I was mad.

"People don't want to read about civil war in Guatemala," he said. "Most North Americans don't even know there is a civil war in Guatemala, and they probably don't want to find out. Trust me on that."

"There are plenty of other things I can write about."

"Maybe, if they're colorful and reasonably interesting, and have a good human-interest angle," he said. "Not using your stories won't be any problem for me, pal. It's just that I can't pay you very much for the stories I do use."

"That's okay."

"How's your Spanish?"


"Can you live off what you make?"

"Probably not."

"Probably not." He looked at me. "Do you have money?"

"I don't have a trust fund."

"Any money saved up?"


"And you still want to do it?"

I shrugged.

Something about my shrug irritated him. "What's that for?" he demanded. "What the hell is that supposed to mean? I ask you if you want to do something, and you shrug your shoulders?"

"You don't like the shrug?"

"Fuckin' aye, I don't like it. It's disrespectful — disrespectful of me, disrespectful of the situation."

"I'm saying yes. That's my way of saying yes."

A strange look came into his face, a look that contained contempt, but also some sympathy. It was the kind of sympathy one might have for a sick dog, but the very fact that I had inspired any feeling at all in such a rude substance-abusing nihilist greatly impressed me.

"This thing, it's a little crazy, what you're doing," he said. "I mean, it's my responsibility to tell you that. Anybody who goes to Guatemala now as a stringer is either crazy or suicidal."

"Would you say I'm clinically insane?"

"Certifiably so."

"Sanity is highly overrated," I said.

"Guatemala's pretty rough territory right now," he continued, as though repeating a memorized speech word-for-word. "It's just a very dangerous place, man, especially for somebody going there alone; a stringer who isn't going to get paid that much."

"I know."

"I mean, if you value your life —"

"I know."

He was still looking at me. "Do you have some contacts in country?"

"A few."

"Okay," he said, sighing, "I'm gonna ask you again, and then I'm gonna give up. Are you sure about this?"

"Sure," I said.

His eyes narrowed.

"You're not just saying this for some kind of stupid effect?"

"I don't think so."

"I don't think so," he said contemptuously.

Then he looked away from me.

As he did so, a kind of distance came into his eyes, as though he were in an entirely different place, one that no longer included me. I had seen that look once before, when my wife told me she was leaving. He'd edited me right out of his copy, clean out of whatever story his life was telling him. To him, I was already dead — I no longer existed. It was then I knew that I really had to go to Guatemala.

Once in Guatemala City, I took up residence on a leafy side street in a fashionable neighborhood, not far from an office of the same wire service I'd worked for in Mexico. Most of the embassies were located in this neighborhood, including the American embassy. I boarded with a family of civil servants named Santos, who rented me a room in the back of their cavernous apartment and allowed me to put my food in their refrigerator.

Each night I joined the Santos for a dinner prepared by the matriarch of the family, a grizzled woman in her fifties. The family consisted of her and her husband, three aunts, and several children of widely varying ages. The Santos had lost a son in the demonstrations prior to the Olympics in Mexico City in the late 1960s; the son had been studying art at the university, they said, and had been shot dead at the Plaza de Tlatelolco while trying to shield his girlfriend from the bullets of soldiers firing automatic weapons.

The family had been in endless litigation about it ever since; and I was led to believe that one faction in the Mexican government had actually decided, for whatever murky political reasons, to pay reparations. But just four months before I arrived, the Santos' attorney had skipped out to Zurich with assets belonging to several of his clients, including the family's settlement money.

The various members of the Santos family were in shock.

It had taken them years to accept the death of the son, who was by all accounts an aesthete and nothing even remotely like a political activist; the loss of the money that would have gotten their younger children through university, and perhaps into the professions, had the effect of causing them to feel the loss of their martyred son all over again — this time unmitigated by even the prospect of compensation.

"Que lastima," they would say softly, shaking their heads, "y que talento. What talent he had."

"Lo siento," I would say. "I'm really sorry."

Later on, I discovered from contacts in the American Embassy that the son's death had been nothing like the family said it was. Far from sheltering his girlfriend from the bullets of Mexican cavalry, he was a compulsive gambler who had been murdered by gangsters in Guatemala City. Furthermore, it had been the government of Guatemala that the family had sued, since the gangsters were on the payroll of the Treasury Department; and the family's prospects for compensation, it was suggested to me, existed mainly in their own minds.

The tale of the Plaza de Tlatelolco martyrdom in Mexico was a benign fiction invented to protect the mother and the younger children from the truth, apparently. Their attorney had indeed absconded with money belonging to the family, but it was mainly from the sale of real estate and had nothing to do with compensation for any wrongful death — except, again, in the minds of certain family members.

The family lived in threadbare gentility (the government was sometimes more than a year late paying their salaries), and the evening meals were tense, silent affairs — except for Saturday night, when dinner was served quite late and always ended with everyone getting completely smashed. On Saturday night, anything could happen.

One of the things that happened regularly on Saturday night was that I was challenged and teased because I was from the United States. The United States seemed to be disliked by everybody across the political spectrum in Guatemala, from the far left to the murderous far right. "Soy Canadiense" had saved the lives of many an Estadounidense in a threatening situation, according to the journalists that I talked to; but with the Santos family, I refused to pretend that I was a Canadian.

"What are you doing in Guatemala?" family members would ask me.

The tone was playful, but the question was always the same and the tone challenging, which made it seem both more and less than a joke.

"I'm here to write about Guatemala and the things that are important to the Guatemalan people," I would usually answer.

"What kinds of things?"

"You know, the way people live their lives."

The family members would smile. "This country is full of poor people. How can you make money down here?"

"Ah," I would say, "but you are Ladino people, people of the upper classes, people of quality. You're not poor."

"Do you think we will give you money for saying that?"

"I don't need money. I am a poet. The spiritual things are important to me."

The family would roar with laughter. "Yes, of course — spiritual things! ... Cosas espirituales!"

The idea of a North American concerned with spiritual things was so amusing that it would usually take several moments for them to calm down. It did not correspond with any of the images that the family had assimilated from American television, American movies, and certain Americans they had encountered.

"Truly. De veras. It's only the higher things that interest me."

"Like the prostitutes and the drugs," one of the sons said daringly, but already the family was too drunk to care.

"I see women only as creatures of beauty, like the beautiful nudes that one sees in the great paintings of history."

"And the drugs."

"Never. I will strike every person trafficking in drugs — I will strike them in the face."

Since only one son spoke good English, we always spoke in Spanish. My accent — and the outrageous things I said — made them laugh.

On one particular Saturday night, they started speculating loudly about why I — an Estadounidense who was probably secretly rich — had come to Guatemala; and then proceeded to argue among themselves about the relative verisimilitude of the stories they had concocted.

"He is a hippie," one of the daughters insisted. "Why else would someone from his country come here? They like to travel. They come here to have an exciting educational experience."

"No, no, no," her mother drunkenly protested. "Look at him. Where is the long hair? And he doesn't even like drugs."

"That's what he says."

"He is a turista. Surely he is a turista, not a hippie."

"No, he is a businessman. Someday he will set up the headquarters of his business, and he will be rich and famous. He'll give us all jobs, and pay us on time."

They laughed.

"I think he is a missionary from a North American church. Soon he will get up on the table and preach."

There was a slight pause, and then the mother said crankily, "You should respect all religious people if they are sincere, even if they do unusual things."

"But he is not religious."

"How do you know?"

On this night everyone was quite drunk, and one of the sons said something careless.

"He is a subversivo," the son said at one point, his face red with drink. "He's looking for the ghost of Che Guevara. He wants to study el proceso revolutionario."

The table got quiet.

"Is that what you are?" the drunken son asked softly. They all sat waiting to hear what I would say.

I had also had a great deal to drink, and I decided to make them as uncomfortable as they had occasionally made me — to pay them back for all the silly taunting things they had said to me and teased me about during the drunken dinners on Saturday night. I knew they were Catholics, so I decided to use that.

"I am exceedingly interested in the new liberation theology," I said. "I want to meet priests who are preaching social justice to the people. I want to meet nuns who teach the people to question the authority of the government in comunidades de base in the highlands. I want to meet delagados de la palabra who teach the people to fight for the Kingdom of God on earth. Only by doing that, and only by living with the Indians in their impoverished homes in the poorest parts of the mountains, can I truly understand el proceso revolutionario, and look deep into the hearts of those who have taken up arms to fight injustice in the government."

There was a very uncomfortable silence.

"Could you introduce me to any subversives?"

I looked from one horrified face to another with a big smile on my face.

"Could you?" I asked again. I turned to Alejandro, the son who had started the whole thing. "Surely you, of all people, realize how important it is to understand the rebels' side of the story."

His father crossed himself and cleared his throat.

One of the daughters was shaking her head. "You shouldn't talk that way," she said, her voice almost a whisper. "No digas nadie. It's not a joke."

Her eyes were frightened.

By this time the family had begun to realize that I was deliberately needling them; but I had done it in such an alarming way that they were in no hurry to laugh. Instead, the mother at once began to talk animatedly about something else. The others followed her lead; but after that night they never teased me again, probably to eliminate the possibility that I might again speak so lubriciously about so delicate a topic at the dinner table. Even drunkenness was not, I noted with a certain satisfaction, a sufficient prophylactic against the fear and disorientation inspired by a stranger speaking so openly about the civil war in their country.

The office where I worked in Guatemala City was even more relaxed than its affiliate in Mexico City. I could walk to the office from my room with the Santos, and I was able to set up a schedule on a weekly basis. I was particularly good at rewriting certain kinds of copy, so I was put to work on stories submitted by my employer's sizable stable of stringers. Stringers, I should explain again at this point, are simply freelance journalists. Since they are not on salary, they receive no benefits — not even a free burial if they are killed.

They are often in harm's way, at least in a war zone; and since they are paid only for those stories that are actually used, their pay is minimal. Yet there has probably never been a war or revolution in modern times that has not attracted a sizable contingent of these amazing people. Apparently there is something about death, destruction and organized mayhem that they cannot resist — or perhaps they simply enjoy writing about it, subjecting its unruly violence to the discipline of something as impersonal as daily journalism.

Since I was good at rewriting, I was greatly beloved by the stringers in the field. My specialty was piecing together a story from various pieces of information and making a coherent whole out of it. Many stories went out under the bylines of stringers that were in reality almost entirely written by me. For this reason the management of the wire service was open to my idea of taking a turn at field reporting.

So I began to write the occasional Guatemala story.

The bureau chief was a fallen Mormon who was extraordinarily sensitive to any story that questioned or focused on American support of the dictatorships then flourishing in Latin America. These kinds of stories he labeled "advocacy journalism;" as far as I could tell, that meant any kind of reportage that raised questions about American foreign policy in Latin America.

Once a wire service got a reputation for "advocacy journalism," he told me, daily journalism in America would drop it like a hot potato. Responsible North American news agencies did not go out of their way to do that kind of investigative reporting, not when the subject being investigated was American foreign policy in the Third World. Latin American governments supported by the US might indeed engage in torture, murder, imprisonment of dissenters, and systematic sexual abuse of females; but it engaged in them only as useful adjuncts to the winning of the Cold War.

Not only did my boss dislike stories about North American influence in Latin American politics, this same bureau chief did not like stories about Latin American politics at all. What he did like were stories about futbol, which he featured early and often in his dispatches — the more violent the story, the better. The assorted drunks, journalists and maniacs who assisted him referred to him as the "soccer editor."

He did not seem to mind.


Excerpted from Dangerous Pilgrims by Lawrence Swaim. Copyright © 2015 Lawrence Swaim. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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