The photographs in this selection were culled from my books Guatemala: Eternal Spring, Eternal Tyranny (WW Norton, 1988) and the subsequent Spanish edition, Guatemala: eterna primavera, eterna tiranía (2010). They depict the height of internal armed conflict in the 1980s when military repression was so intense that Amnesty International denounced Guatemala as “a government program of political murder.”
The photographs reflect all sides of the war: government death squads, the armed opposition, beleaguered internal human rights groups, and a civilian population for whom opposition meant death or exile. Some images hold a particular meaning: Guatemala’s current president elect, a retired Army general, directing rural scorched earth policy; a Green Beret training elite troops in 1982 despite a ban on U.S. military aid to Guatemala; and an Israeli arms dealer who later became a person of interest to the U.S. Department of State. However, I was keener to include a number of photos of daily life that would go beyond the “good guy-bad guy” cliché of war in order to underscore the extent to which Guatemalan society, especially in the Mayan highlands, was cleaved by government-instigated repression.
B. Behind the Images
I was twenty-six years old when I traveled to Guatemala. By 1980 Guatemala had become the third locale in a regional triptych of events. In 1979 Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza had fled the country, paving the way for a Sandinista victory. In El Salvador the conflict was prolonged and surprisingly transparent: a murderous Army, a well-trained insurgency, and the assassination of four U.S. religious workers and an Archbishop ensured a permanent international presence there for almost a decade.
By contrast, Guatemala was different and equivocal. At first blush the atmosphere in the capital appeared normal: daily flights to Miami, raucous street markets, pre-dawn birthday firecrackers, and French restaurants dotting luxury neighborhoods. At the same time, however, Guatemala was riven by State repression, one which years later some observers would call "genocide" for the Army's targeting of Mayan peasants. In truth, normalcy in Guatemala was skin-deep because its citizens lived in the midst of an undeclared state of siege. Planes arrived from Miami, but soldiers patrolled the tarmac and Army intelligence controlled customs lines. Movie theatres were full, but films of a leftist hue were de facto prohibited. Birthday fireworks were confused with machine gun fire and urban leaders, playing ultimate cat-and-mouse, bought Jeeps with tinted windows in order to be indistinguishable from the death squad Jeeps with darkened windows that often hunted them.
In addition people became accustomed to terror. One’s colleagues had pseudonyms, and it was a subtle insult if your phone was not tapped. Guatemalans interpreted the news either by the tone of the radio broadcaster's voice or by the code of newspaper jargon: a delinquent was a guerrilla and a disappearance was a kidnapping. The only news related to massive abductions consisted of paid announcements placed by victims' families containing a blurry black and white thumbnail photo next to a plea averring that the victim was “apolitical.“ The State was never mentioned as the perpetrator. Worse, even Guatemala's own beleaguered citizens became half convinced that the student plucked off the street at mid-day was a subversive, or that the secretary thrown into a Jeep must have committed a crime. "Who knows what they were involved in" was that era's mantra. In Guatemala, "to disappear" became a transitive verb: "They disappeared him,” people remarked.
A military coup in 1982 replaced one dictator with another. The new Junta dissolved Congress and the Constitution and imposed a state of Siege followed by states of Emergency. Star Chamber courts authorized the Army to capture citizens without an arrest warrant who were later tried before hooded judges without the right to a defense attorney, or even to know the charges against them.
In the countryside, Guatemala was a de facto battlefield. The Pan American highway became no man's land punctuated by hundreds of sandbagged roadblocks controlled by soldiers. And where there was no military garrison, a guerrilla unit could unexpectedly materialize off the side of the road. In small towns wave upon wave of killings left thousands dead, and by 1981 many villages metamorphosed into ghost towns as inhabitants fled for the mountains or Mexico. None of this was reported in the local press, although even in a pre-Internet and cell phone era the news eventually reached the capital. Most notably, in May 1982, in an unprecedented show of candor the conservative editor of a daily newspaper asked rhetorically how it was possible to behead young children and pregnant women. Eleven years later he was gunned down in the tourist town of Chichicastenango.
The most successful rural counterinsurgency tactic of the 1980s was the creation of the "PAC," the civil defense patrols that ostensibly ferreted out guerrillas and their sympathizers. In fact, however, the PAC allowed the Army to control a male population that it believed still aided the Left. By mid 1983, virtually every male peasant between the age of twelve and eighty was incorporated into the PAC; refusal to patrol was tantamount to a death sentence. To control remaining villagers, the Army engaged in scorched earth by burning towns and then re-building them with sheet metal, forcing survivors to subsist without protection and at the mercy of their captors. By August 1983, when a second military coup installed another military strongman, rural control was complete.
Nineteen eighty-four and 1985 were distinguished by two intrinsically linked events. The first was the wave of urban kidnappings of unionists, students and young leaders, which reached its nadir in late 1984. In response, the second phenomenon was the formation of a group of relatives of the disappeared, the Mutual Support Group, or "GAM." In an event of terrible irony, during Holy Week 1985 two GAM founders were kidnapped, tortured and killed, one together with her two-year-old son.
To end an era if not the war, in 1986 the Christian Democrat Vinicio Cerezo took office, becoming the first freely elected civilian president since 1951.
In 2011, after seven successive civilian governments there has been inevitable if minimal progress. One can protest without fear of being shot down in the street. In the countryside the Army controlled model villages that once housed widows and orphans have been dismantled. Seeing a soldier inspires curiosity instead of panic. Hooded judges no longer exist, and those responsible for the killing of a unionist, a Bishop and the Christmas 1982 massacre of three hundred villagers have been imprisoned.
On the other hand, over two decades later, there no been no investigation or conviction of those responsible for most political crimes. In addition Guatemala suffers from another kind of terrorism, one where violence and drug trafficking are pandemic evils; according to the Washington Post ninety percent of all cocaine purchased in the U.S. comes through Guatemala. And in the midst of this new violence, poverty and corruption, two intrinsically linked realities, continue to dominate the national landscape.
C. A Lost Era and Lost Photographs
Fifteen years after the signing of the Peace Accords, Guatemala’s war is a lost memory for the under-thirty generation that today constitutes seventy percent of its population. The reasons for this yawning gap in historical memory are self-evident: a high illiteracy rate, an under-funded and uninspired educational system, and seven civilian governments invested in inertia and corruption have resulted in a country bereft of affordable and user-friendly resources that visually document this crucial period. Indeed there is more information on Guatemala’s ancient Mayan culture than there is on the civil war that claimed over 100,000 lives in under a decade.
I had worked in Guatemala from 1980 until 1988 as a freelance photographer and as a report writer for Human Rights Watch in New York. In 1988 WW Norton had published my book, Guatemala: Eternal Spring, Eternal Tyranny. It did well, selling almost 20,000 copies in three printings. However, I believed that the nightmare of war was something that Guatemalans would prefer to forget rather than to re-live through the images of a foreigner. I decided to “lose” the photographs by putting that period behind me, and in 1988 I left Guatemala and returned to the U.S. Most of my photographs ended up in shoeboxes while others eventually were lost, casualties of seven moves in ten years.
In 2008, however, a Guatemalan daily, elPeriódico, found some of my photographs on a CD and published them. People wrote letters to the editor commenting on the images; I was surprised to learn that a new generation of Guatemalans sought information about that period. More surprisingly, I realized that there were few substantial collections of photographs from the 1980s: local photographers had not covered the conflict because doing so meant death, while most foreign photographers in the region were committed to El Salvador where the situation was just as intense.
In June 2010, I published Guatemala: eterna primavera, eternal tiranía, the Spanish language version of the original edition. When it sold out, we reinvested the proceeds in a third popular edition due out in January 2012 with a commitment to distribute thirty percent of the four thousand print run to public schools and universities in Guatemala. Happily, we were able to add new images to this latest edition; earlier this year my former photo editor came across the "lost photographs" in the back of his closet, and my thirty-year-old Kodachromes and I were reunited.
The photographs I took in Guatemala between 1980 and 1988 reflect the events described above. They provide no wisdom with respect to the past or solutions to the problems that Guatemala confronts today. At the same time, however, they offer the opportunity for Guatemalans to reflect on the war and its effects and to use the photographs as a means of remembering the past, honoring its victims, and ensuring that these horrific events never be repeated.
November 23, 2011