Anyone wondering what happened to the 1960s might visit Lake Atitlán in Guatemala. Surrounded by majestic volcanoes and emerald hills, with a calm surface forever changing color, the lake is one of Latin America’s most spectacular sights, and it has become a mecca for foreign travelers. From Berkeley and Boulder, Paris and Milan, the sandaled tourists come, most of them crowding into the small picturesque town of Panajachel on the lake’s northern shore.

No stay at Panajachel is complete without a boat ride across the lake. Passengers are dropped off in Santiago Atitlán, a small pueblo on the lake’s southern rim. The contrast with Panajachel could not be more striking. Poor and densely populated, with narrow rutted streets and crumbling houses, Santiago is a typical Mayan village. Most of its residents wear traditional Indian clothes—the women, intricately woven scarlet dresses; the men, striped embroidered pants extending to mid-calf. Santiago’s woven textiles are popular with tourists, and by day the town is filled with American and European bargain-hunters.

At night, however, Santiago Atitlán becomes a far more menacing place. Guerrilla activity has grown lately along the lake’s southern shore, and the sound of armed clashes can be heard from the surrounding hills. More frightening are the bands of masked men who prey on the town. “There are attacks here all the time,” says Juan (not his real name), a seventeen-year-old seminary student. One night earlier this year, Juan’s father, a campesino working part-time as a public health aide for the Catholic Church, was walking with a friend on the outskirts of town when they were set upon by a group of men wielding machetes. The friend was killed, and Juan’s father was badly wounded. No one knows who carried out the attack or why, but the connection with the Church probably played a part. “Many of those who are attacked here are working with the Church,” Juan said. He has had to interrupt his studies to help support his family. “Anyone who works with the Church is seen as working with the people.” And that, he said, was enough to make one suspect.

Guatemala seems to be simultaneously moving forward into a new era of tolerance and sliding backward into the Dark Ages. President Marco Vinicio Cerezo Arévalo—“Vinicio” to both friend and foe—is about to complete five years in the National Palace. Barring some last minute upheaval, he will be only the third civilian president this century to finish his term—a step forward for Guatemala’s democratic system, which was installed only with the election of Cerezo in 1985. Guatemalans vote on November 11 for a new president, who will take office on January 15.

On the other hand, Cerezo’s performance has given democracy a bad name. In Guatemala I heard many stories about his wild parties, his affairs with women, his sudden, extraordinary wealth. On weekends, which can last as long as four days, Cerezo retreats to the luxurious presidential country house not far from Guatemala City, where he swims and plays tennis. Meanwhile crime is soaring, corruption is spreading, and the inflation rate is rising at a record 40 percent a year. Thanks largely to Vinicio, only one third of those surveyed in a recent poll cited democracy as the best system for their country; about the same number chose military rule.

It’s no surprise, then, that the most popular candidate to succeed Cerezo is a former dictator. General Efraín Ríos Montt has shaken the Guatemalan political establishment with his apocalyptic pronouncements and overheated campaign style. A fundamentalist preacher affiliated with a California-based religious group called The Word, Ríos Montt has promised a moral crusade to rescue the country, and many Guatemalans, fed up with crime and corruption, are supporting him. It is true that, as the country’s strongman in 1982 and 1983, he sent criminals before firing squads, torched villages, and forced peasants into Guatemalan-style strategic hamlets. But after Cerezo, many voters long for a man of “firmness.” They might not get the chance to vote for him, however. According to the 1985 constitution, anyone who previously took power by force cannot become president, and in August a court disqualified Ríos Montt from running. The general has since appealed the decision, and some observers predict there will be street protests if he is denied.

In the countryside, meanwhile, Guatemala’s guerrillas are becoming more active. As recently as a year ago, the insurgency—the oldest in Latin America—seemed defeated. The number of guerrillas under arms—between seven thousand and eight thousand in the early 1980s—had dwindled to no more than perhaps eight hundred. But the rebels have painstakingly rebuilt their rural organization, especially in the western highlands, where most of Guatemala’s Indians live. These Indians typically earn only a few hundred dollars a year. As the price of food and other necessities has risen, so has Indian dissatisfaction, and the guerrillas have proved adept at exploiting it.


About half of Guatemala’s nine million people are Mayan in origin. (The rest, called ladinos, are of mixed blood.) The Indians speak native dialects, wear traditional dress, and work tiny plots of land, called milpas. Until now, they have rarely mixed in national politics. Now, however, indigenous Guatemalans, taking advantage of opportunities afforded by civilian rule, are beginning to form their own autonomous institutions. The largest of these is the Council of Ethnic Communities Runujuel Junam, or CERJ. (Runujuel Junam means “Everybody is Equal” in Quiché, one of the country’s four main language groups.) CERJ was set up two years ago to see to it that the new constitution—an impressive document thick with promises of political and human rights—was enforced in Indian communities. Today, the organization has six thousand members, most of them semiliterate peasants living in remote villages. CERJ’s leader, an elementary school teacher named Amilcar Méndez, is himself a Quiché Indian.

I met Méndez one August evening in a room on the top floor of the Ritz-Continental, a bustling, garish hotel in downtown Guatemala City. The occasion was the first National Forum on Human Rights to be held in Guatemala, and more than one hundred people showed up for the event. Elsewhere, such a meeting might seem common-place, but in Guatemala, which has one of the worst human rights records in Latin America, it was momentous. For two days the delegates met without incident, pledging at the end to redouble their efforts to protect human rights. “Here, the political parties assume that democracy means only voting,” Méndez, an intense and forceful man, told me. “But democracy goes far beyond that. The Mayan people have become marginal. Their human rights are constantly being violated.”

Méndez’s group is the first human rights organization to be set up in the countryside. When Vinicio Cerezo took office five years ago, Guatemala had only one human rights organization; today, it has half a dozen. Earlier this year, the Catholic Church, after several false starts, opened its own human rights office. In political circles, Americas Watch and Amnesty International are now well-known, and presidential candidates and army colonels can cite their reports.

In reality, however, respect for human rights is as tenuous as ever. After declining during the first two years of Cerezo’s term, political violence has since soared. Teachers, students, labor leaders, and peasant activists have been abducted, murdered, disappeared. Human rights monitors have been attacked, and CERJ alone has lost nine of its members. Bodies bearing signs of severe torture—severed hands, gougedout eyes, smashed skulls—are turning up on roadsides and river banks, much as they did during the early 1980s, when Guatemala was shunned for its brutality and violence.

Between 1970 and 1986, Guatemala suffered an estimated 100,000 political killings and 40,000 disappearances.1 It was in Guatemala in the 1960s that the word desaparecido—disappeared one—was first used as a noun. During the regime of Major General Fernando Romeo Lucas García (1978–1982), hundreds of people were killed every month, most of them by officially sanctioned death squads. Today in Guatemala, it’s hard to find anyone in his thirties or forties who can talk incisively about politics; most are dead, disappeared, or in exile.

Growing fears that Guatemala may be reverting to its grisly past have prompted protests from a number of foreign governments, the United States among them. In February, Ambassador Thomas Stroock, addressing a Rotary Club meeting in Guatemala City, declared:

It appears exceeding strange to us that in none of these [human rights] cases have the authorities been able to capture the vile and cowardly criminals. It is impossible for the United States to maintain strong, stable, and firm relations with governments that violate or fail to effectively protect human rights.

President Cerezo responded by criticizing Stroock for his remarks, and the State Department, in a show of support for its envoy, recalled him to Washington for consultations.

The US turned up the pressure in September regarding the case of Michael Devine, an American who for many years ran a tourist ranch in northern Guatemala. In June, Devine’s body was discovered, his head partially severed and his hands tied behind his back. The motive for the killing remains uncertain, but all signs point to involvement by the Guatemalan military. On September 20, President Cerezo announced that he had ordered the arrest of three suspects, including members of the security forces, but as of late September it was not clear if the arrests had been made or whether prosecution would take place. The Bush administration has threatened to cut off all military aid to Guatemala—$3.3 million in 1990—if the Cerezo government fails fully to pursue the case.


Such firmness represents a dramatic change in US policy. The Reagan administration viewed Guatemala as an emergent democracy requiring constant support, and so it remained mute on human rights. Not so the Bush administration, which Americas Watch, long accustomed to criticizing US policy toward Guatemala, has even begun to praise. “Stroock’s outspokenness and willingness to go on record criticizing the government and military institutions is a welcome change from the past,” says Anne Manuel of Americas Watch. “It has given the issue of human rights a higher profile in official and military circles than it otherwise would have.”

Stroock seems an unlikely candidate for such a mission. A political appointee, he has known George Bush since college. (Both graduated from Yale in 1948.) A former Marine and a Wyoming oil man, Stroock has the hearty confidence of a sunbelt Republican. In his comments on human rights, though, he sounds like a liberal Democrat. To understand this, one must take into account the changing political land-scape in Central America. As a high US official described it,

Not long ago, it looked as if a Soviet Union satellite/client was going to control Nicaragua through an election. It looked as if the FMLN, another Soviet client, might very well overthrow the government of El Salvador. A drug trafficker was actively running things in Panama. All of this has changed…. The Soviet Union is dramatically no longer involved—in fact, it is dramatically uninvolved—in trying to foment trouble and devote energy and time and money to create unpleasant diversions for the United States in Central America, which was clearly its policy…. That opens up a whole new range of opportunities to the United States for its diplomacy in the region. Whereas before, there were an awful lot of things going on that we had to overlook because our main emphasis was trying to contain the influence of the Soviet Union, now we don’t have to take that stuff anymore.

Nevertheless, Guatemala, despite its abysmal human rights record, is receiving $115.9 million in US aid this year, making it one of the largest aid recipients. What is more, the US is renewing its ties to the Guatemalan military. From 1977, when Congress cut off military aid to Guatemala, until 1986, when Cerezo became president, Washington withheld support from Guatemala’s generals, citing their brutal human rights record. Army officers are still responsible for major human rights offenses, but the US is now courting them. Green Beret advisers have come to train Guatemalan soldiers, US Army engineers to build roads, and American aviation specialists to repair helicopters.

During my visit, a fifty-person medical unit from the Illinois National Guard came to Guatemala to carry out a civic action program, the fourth such mission in the last year. For two weeks, the Americans examined babies, extracted teeth, and handed out medicine—all with the cooperation of the Guatemalan military. “We’re not making the same mistakes as in Vietnam,” I was told by one of the guardsmen, a former marine pilot in Vietnam. “In Vietnam, we pushed the local soldiers out of the way and treated them as know-nothings. Here, we make sure that the local army is out front.” That way, he said, the Guatemalans got the credit.

Bold denunciations of political violence accompanied by strengthening ties with the Guatemalan military—in a country filled with contradictions, US policy seems among the more perplexing. Yet, on closer examination, our activities in Guatemala have a very clear logic. Here, in the most populous nation in Central America, the US is mapping out a new policy for the region, one reflecting the new post–cold-war era.


The Center of Strategic Studies for National Stability, known as Centro ESTNA, occupies a Disney-like castle on Avenida Reforma, Guatemala City’s most fashionable boulevard. The old fort has many turrets and parapets, and its flat gray surface is set off by white trim. Inside there are brightly lit seminar rooms, advanced video equipment, and a sleek conference hall with polished cedar tables and consoles offering simultaneous translation in four languages. Centro ESTNA offers symposia, conferences, and special courses for Guatemalan opinion-makers. Since it was established two years ago, it has become Guatemala’s leading think tank.

Centro ESTNA was set up by the Guatemalan defense ministry. The building it occupies used to house Guatemala’s military academy and still serves as a conference center for the armed forces. Many of the students at the center are army officers, and the military takes an important part in shaping its programs. The founder and director of the institute, General Héctor Alejandro Gramajo Morales, served as Guatemala’s minister of defense until he retired in May.

Gramajo is something new in Central American military circles. Garrulous, charming, and self-effacing, the general speaks enthusiastically about democracy and human rights. A graduate of programs for foreign officers at Forts Benning and Leavenworth, he speaks fluent English and gets along well with Americans. During his term as defense minister, he traveled frequently to Capitol Hill, pressing his case for American support with liberal congressmen like Tom Harkin and Ted Weiss. To represent him in the capital, Gramajo hired the lawyer Paul Reichler, who was the Sandinistas’ adviser in Washington and had good relations with congressional Democrats. The general has testified before Congress and even visited the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a lobbying organization considered by many South American officials to be in the enemy’s camp because of its criticisms of human rights offenses and US policy.

As defense minister, Gramajo worked hard to modernize Guatemala’s armed forces. He toured the country’s thirty-two military bases, lecturing on the importance of democracy and civilian rule. He overhauled the military curriculum, introducing courses on politics, economics. and the rule or law. He sent promising young captains and majors to study in the United States. And, finally, he created Centro ESTNA, a place where soldiers could hear the views of civilians.

“Gramajo is as responsible as anybody for pushing the army into becoming more professional,” one US official told me. “He’s tried to form an apolitical officer corps and tried to inculcate a deference to civilian rule in the top leadership.”

Gramajo’s close relationship with the United States was confirmed on May 11, 1988, the day a group of hard-line colonels tried to overthrow the Cerezo government. They blamed the “communist” president for letting popular organizations flourish while keeping the military under tight control. But Gramajo declared his loyalty to the constitution, and the plotters were forced to surrender.

Civilian rule was saved, but at a price. According to reports published at the time, Gramajo was able to put down the rebellious officers only by accepting many of their demands. In particular, he had to promise to take a tougher line with popular organizations and to allow the military more freedom to suppress them. Soon after, political violence began to spread.

On May 9, 1989, a second coup attempt was launched. This time, the officers surrounded Gramajo’s house and kidnapped his wife and three of his children. Gramajo refused to give in, and once more the insurgents were foiled when most of the army leaders turned out to be loyal to Gramajo. More than twenty officers were discharged, and seven were brought before a military tribunal and sentenced to two to ten years in prison. Gramajo’s reputation for respecting civilian rule was strengthened.

But human rights violations again increased. By last summer, an average of four bodies of teen-age males were being found daily in Guatemala City, each of them bound and shot in the back of the head. Some of the violence was carried out by vigilantes and other right-wing “freelance” elements. Some was committed by the guerrillas. Many of the abuses, though, can be traced to the security forces. The State Department’s report on human rights in Guatemala for 1989 cites “credible reports of security forces personnel and political extremists engaging in extrajudicial killings, disappearances, and other serious abuses.”

Rarely has anyone been brought to justice for these crimes. During Gramajo’s more than three years as defense minister, not a single military officer was prosecuted, must less convicted, for political violence. “The army is a brotherhood,” a prominent Guatemalan politician told me. “Even if a member of the brotherhood is believed to have committed abuses, the view is, ‘He’s done bad, but he’s one of us.”‘ Gramajo, being one of the brotherhood, he says, “would not commit himself to stop these things.”

Gramajo is now fifty years old and has spent his entire adult life in the military. In 1980–1981, he served as Guatemala’s minister counselor for political affairs in Washington. General Lucas García was president and the death squads were running wild, killing an estimated 25,000 people during his term. But Gramajo—Lucas’s personal representative in Washington—defended his regime to the end.

After Ríos Montt came to power in March 1982, Gramajo was placed in charge of all military operations in the country’s western highlands. At the time, the army was conducting a campaign of terror in the countryside, and much of the killing took place in the region under Gramajo’s control. “Gramajo acted ruthlessly,” says Fernando Andrade Díaz-Durán, who served as foreign minister under General Oscar Humberto Mejía Víctores, Ríos Montt’s successor. “Villages were bombed, and a lot of civilians got killed.”

As defense minister, Gramajo sometimes went to absurd lengths to defend the army. In November 1989, for instance, an American nun, Diana Ortiz, was kidnapped by a police officer and held in a secret detention center, where she was tortured and sexually molested. She managed to escape, and after returning to the US she went into seclusion. When asked about the incident, Gramajo told human rights groups that Ortiz had not been kidnapped at all but had made up the story to cover up her involvement in a lesbian love affair. He offered no evidence for this assertion. An Americas Watch report calls it “pure invention.”

The most notorious case to occur during Gramajo’s tenure as defense minister took place last year at the University of San Carlos. This state-run institution, located on a shady tract of land on the outskirts of Guatemala City, has long been a center of radical political activity, and a target of military violence. In the summer of 1989, the campus was swept by a new wave of activism, culminating in a takeover of the rector’s office on August 2. In subsequent weeks, fourteen students—many of them political activists—disappeared. Six were later found dead, their bodies badly mutilated. Three were eventually released. The rest remain missing.

When asked about the case, Gramajo claimed that the murders had been committed by other San Carlos students as part of a campus feud. Few found this credible. The US embassy, making its own inquiries, concluded that the military was to blame. Ambassador Stroock took a strong interest in the case. He met repeatedly with Gramajo, Cerezo, and several cabinet ministers, urging them to investigate what took place. Months passed, and nothing happened.

Many other cases followed the same pattern. Time and again, the US approached Gramajo about human rights abuses, asking that he investigate. He never did. The Americans publicly criticized the lack of action by President Cerezo but not by Gramajo. In fact, the US has given Gramajo considerable support. It has, for example, been a generous backer of Centro ESTNA (or “Gramajo U,” as US officials informally call it). Many Guatemalans remain wary of the center, seeing it as an institution being used by the military to meddle in national affairs. Some students and priests have boycotted its activities for fear of ending up on a hit list. But the US Agency for International Development (AID) has pledged a contribution of 775,000 quetzales (about $170,000) to the center for the coming year—nearly a third of its total budget.

In May, Gramajo traveled to Washington for a dinner in his honor at American University’s School for International Service. About one hundred people attended, including officials from the State Department and AID. Shortly afterward Gramajo moved to Cambridge to begin a master’s program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and he is studying there this autumn. The US helped Gramajo to get admitted to the school, and AID is helping to pay his way.

Why has the US been so solicitous in its treatment of Gramajo? Basically, US officials believe that Gramajo’s lack of cooperation on human rights is out-weighed by other qualities. “If it hadn’t been for Gramajo, you’d have a military dictatorship in Guatemala,” a US official says. He adds: “Gramajo understands how we function. He’s testified in front of Congress. He speaks good English. He’s at the Kennedy School now. And he’s going to be a force in this country.”

The idea of protecting civilian rule by embracing the military puzzles many Guatemalans. “The State Department has a tendency to grill the civilian government about human rights violations,” one Guatemalan diplomat said to me. “We only ask that they grill Gramajo as much.” By moving so close to the military, he added, the US “is sending the wrong signal to the Guatemalan people.”

Stability has always been an important American concern in Guatemala, and the military is best equipped to maintain it. Essentially the US is returning to its traditional policy toward Guatemala. Of late, however, a new element, the drug trade, has crept into US–Guatemalan relations, making the army a more valuable ally than ever.


Guatemala’s southern coastal plain stretches for several hundred kilometers along the Pacific Ocean. Year-round sunshine, abundant rainfall, and rich soil make the region remarkably fertile. The plain is covered by vast fincas, producing coffee, sugarcane, and cotton for export. For the most part, the owners of these estates live in Guatemala City; during the week they fly to their farms in small planes, landing on private dirt airstrips.

Recently, these runways have begun to receive a new type of traffic. Every night, small unregistered planes from outside Guatemala touch down on the strips, guided by strings of makeshift kerosene lamps. Once the planes come to a stop, crews rush forward to unload their cargo, transferring it to trucks and vans for transport to secret storage houses. Before long, the bundles are driven to a port or to La Aurora airport in Guatemala City. Then, by air or by sea, the cargo resumes its journey northward.

Guatemala has recently emerged as a major transshipment point for US-bound cocaine. Every month, an estimated four tons of the drug pass through the country. Opium, too, is becoming a big business in Guatemala, with hundreds of peasants growing poppy in the mountainous regions bordering Mexico. Converted into paste, the crop is sold to Mexican traffickers for processing into heroin. Three years ago, opium poppies grew on 600 hectares of land (1,300 acres); today, the figure is 2,000 hectares and rising.

The signs of drug trafficking are visible everywhere in Guatemala. Every week or so, newspapers carry accounts of execution-style murders—the result of drug deals gone bad. Immigration authorities report that there has been a sudden rise in the numbers of Colombian nationals entering the country. (The Colombian cartels control the local trade.) Drug money is financing a construction boom in Guatemala City and helping to fund the nation’s political parties. In the city of Cobán, 70 miles north of the capital, a recently chartered bank is reportedly doing a brisk business in money laundering.

Guatemala’s rise as a trafficking center is the result, ironically, of one of America’s rare triumphs in the drug war. In the early 1980s, the Colombian cartels shipped most of their cocaine to southern Florida, using the Caribbean as a transshipment point. But the Reagan administration strengthened its interdiction efforts there, and the drug traders had to find a different route. Today, the Mexican border is the chief gateway for cocaine entering the United States, and Guatemala is the principal transit point.

The country is ideally suited to drug smuggling. Large, rugged, and wild, it has long coastlines, craggy highlands, and porous borders. The hundreds of private airstrips offer plenty of places to land, and the country’s one radar station, located at La Aurora, extends barely 40 miles from the capital. The lax laws and the feeble judicial system make the prospect of successfully fighting drugs in Guatemala seem all the more bleak.

Nonetheless, the United States is determined to try. Drugs have replaced communism as our principal adversary in Guatemala. Already, Guatemala is host to the largest aerial eradication program in Latin America in which US planes are spraying local poppy fields with a herbicide called Round-Up. FBI agents are training Guatemalan detectives in investigation, and customs officials are conducting courses in maritime interdiction. The local DEA office has five agents on its staff and plans to add another one next year.

So far, none of this has had much effect. Seizures of drugs are increasing, but so is the volume passing through the country. A major obstacle is the Guatemalan Treasury Police. Designated the lead anti-drug agency by the Cerezo government, it is poorly trained, inadequately equipped, and notoriously corrupt—hardly a match for the Colombian drug bosses. In the end, there is only one institution in the country really capable of taking them on, and that is the military.

The military, though, has many reservations about doing so. Guatemalan soldiers are very poorly paid, making them highly susceptible to bribes. Already, there are many reports of Guatemalan military officers, some of them quite senior, getting rich off drugs. In addition, the military has its hands full fighting the guerrillas. Pressed for resources, Guatemala’s generals are reluctant to divert their energies to engage in another wounding conflict.

During the last year, however, US officials have been strenuously lobbying Guatemala’s top officers to take on the drug traders. In this, the ties to Gramajo have proved quite useful. Last December, General Maxwell Thurman, commander of the US Southern Command in Panama, met with Gramajo and other high-ranking officers in Guatemala City, urging them to do more about drugs. Likewise, Ambassador Stroock has pressed the matter at every opportunity. Eventually Gramajo relented. Today, elite units of the Guatemalan armed forces are committed to fighting the Colombian narcos.

The big action, though, will come next year. Once a new president is installed in the National Palace, the US plans a major escalation in the Guatemalan drug war. Among other steps the US plans to:

—install a new radar station on Guatemala’s southern coast;

—train Guatemalan soldiers to analyze the data produced by that radar;

—form SWAT teams to swoop down on suspect aircraft while they’re on the ground;

—provide ten to twenty high-speed boats to the Guatemalan navy to improve its patrol abilities; and

—mount major sting operations against the local activities of the Medellín and Cali cartels.

Guatemala, in short, is about to become a major new front in the war on drugs. Unfortunately, this is bad news for human rights in the country.


Father Eduardo (as I shall call him) has spent the last ten years in a small, steamy town on Guatemala’s southern coast. Passing through the town one torrid morning, I found the padre in the kitchen, holding the mouth of a wide plastic pipe over the stove. Dressed in frayed jeans and a sweaty T-shirt, Father Eduardo looked decidedly unpriestly, but he spoke with such sweetness and intensity as to seem otherworldly. Rotating the tube in the flame, he explained that he was improvising a drainage pipe for a children’s infirmary that he was building next to his church. With the nearest hospital many miles away, the infirmary would provide a needed service to the community—one, he hoped, that would not prove too controversial.

He explained what he meant over lunch. In 1982, Father Eduardo told me, he had opened a new medical dispensary to serve the town’s residents. With 120 different types of medicine, it provided by far the best medical services the town had ever seen. Nonetheless, it quickly became a center of violent controversy. Ríos Montt had just come to power, and the army was running wild in the surrounding countryside. Protestant Evangelical sects were on the rise, too. Preaching respect for authority and love of the state, they formed a natural alliance with the army; Catholic activists like Father Eduardo came under intense scrutiny.

Envious of the new dispensary, local evangelicals told the military that it was distributing medicine to the guerrillas. Soon after, Father Eduardo was abducted by a group of armed men and taken to an isolated spot outside of town. He was warned to close the dispensary. The incident left the padre shaken, but he refused to give in. The army then turned its attention to his assistants, young Bible instructors who carried the gospel from town to town and were more vulnerable than the priest. On December 24, 1982, a military unit stopped by a village where the young men had recently been working. They searched the houses for weapons. None was found. The villagers were lucky, the soldiers told them; if they had found even one weapon, they had orders to kill everyone in sight. Word quickly reached Father Eduardo, and that same night—Christmas Eve—he closed the dispensary.

Today, the town is a much calmer place. “The soldiers are more educated,” Father Eduardo said. “When they enter the town, they’re careful not to act rudely. They don’t insult or hit people.” Still, he said, he had no plans to reopen the dispensary. The Protestant fundamentalists remained a powerful presence in the town, with no fewer than nine chapels. Pointing to one of them out his window, he recalled how the preacher there used to direct loudspeakers at his church and blast prayers late into the night. Father Eduardo eventually retaliated, and the two agreed on a truce. Still, tensions in the town remained high and reopening the dispensary could intensify them.

Meanwhile, the military, while more polite, was keeping tight control over the town. Like all Guatemalan communities, Father Eduardo’s town had its own military commissioner. Appointed by the armed forces, the comissioner kept a close watch on all the town’s comings and goings. Every month or so, he traveled to the provincial capital, where, with other local commissioners, he reported his findings to military intelligence, known as G-2.

G-2 is Guatemala’s most feared institution. The military’s nerve center, it maintains a network of informants extending into every barrio, hamlet, and finca in the country. G-2 taps tele phones, monitors passports, and infiltrates political organizations. The bureau also works closely with the civil patrol units that the military has set up in villages throughout the countryside. Ostensibly created to protect against guerrilla incursions, these units function primarily as organs of social control, feeding the military invaluable information about political activity at the grass roots.

G-2 is expert in psychological warfare. Its agents have traveled throughout the countryside, telling villagers that human rights are synonymous with communism, and playing videotapes showing the heads of Indian leaders superimposed on guerrilla bodies. G-2 teaches soldiers to recognize the country’s two hundred or so huipiles—traditional Indian garments with patterns that vary from village to village—the better to identify strangers as they pass through town.2

The primary purpose of all this is to identify and eliminate subversivos. “G-2 is actively involved in coordinating kidnapping cases as a way of staying on top of the eradication of leftist cell-building in the capital and parts of the countryside,” I was told by a university professor with close ties to the army. Sometimes the victims are people actually collaborating with the guerrillas. In many cases, though, the victims are labor organizers, student activists, peasant leaders, human rights monitors, and others deemed a threat to the status quo. The disappearances at San Carlos University had all the earmarks of a G-2 operation.

Around Father Eduardo’s town, the victims tend to be labor leaders. The coffee fincas in the region pay their workers five to seven quetzales a day—not quite $1.50 at current exchange rates. Working conditions are appalling, housing deplorable, and medical care all but unavailable—prime territory, it would seem, for labor unions. Sometimes organizing efforts do get underway, but they rarely advance very far before G-2 intervenes. Over the last decade, some ten labor organizers in the area have been killed or disappeared.

All in all, little takes place in Guatemala without G-2 members knowing about it. That includes drug trafficking. “Military intelligence is by far the best source of intelligence in the country,” a Western diplomat says, “so it’s the best at getting intelligence on drugs as well.” Already, the DEA is working closely with G-2 for data about local drug operations. So is the CIA, according to a recent article in The Los Angeles Times. The two agencies are fighting for control of the local drug war, the Times reported, with regular payments being made to G-2 for information.3

There are many risks here, as US officials are well aware. “After the election, we’re going to have to make a decision about the army and drug trafficking,” says one official. “We’re going to have to weigh the equities—on one side, their less-than-sterling record on human rights, and, on the other side, the fact that they’re the most efficient force available to help us interdict drug trafficking.” Clearly, in view of G-2’s record, the US can’t have it both ways.


Arriving back in Guatemala City from the coast, I went to a party given by an American businesswoman who has lived in the country for many years. It was an elegant occasion, with meat pies and bowls of guacamole laid out on a table and waiters bearing trays with mixed drinks. The guests—professors and politicians, ranchers and pilots—all spoke English and seemed well-to-do. Yes, there was malnutrition in Guatemala, I was told by the owner of a ten-thousand-acre finca. It was not for lack of money, though, he said, but lack of birth control. Couldn’t the Indians stop having so many children? The finquero was supporting Ríos Montt for president.

Not all of the guests were so hide-bound, however. They included a number of entrepreneurs and professionals, members of a new technocratic class that is slowly transforming elite politics in Guatemala. In the United States, these people would be considered right-wing Republicans; in Guatemala, they qualify as centrists. In the presidential campaign, most of them favor Jorge Carpio Nicolle of the Union of the National Center (UCN).

Carpio has emerged as the frontrunner in the race now that Ríos Montt has apparently been disqualified. The owner of El Gráfico, Guatemala’s second largest newspaper, Carpio suffers from a lack of charisma, but he has made up for it with unflagging energy (he’s been running nonstop for a decade), a well-organized campaign (advised by Roger Ailes’s company) and a vague message of moderation that strikes a chord with a war-weary public. It also strikes a chord with the US embassy, which is tacitly supporting Carpio’s candidacy.

“We are liberals in the European sense—neither of the extreme right nor the extreme left,” Carpio told me at his elegant Gráfico office, furnished with antique vases and modern paintings. “We support the market as the best instrument for creating wealth,” he said. “But we must also help the most marginal sectors of society.” The Indians, he noted, “are very good farmers, able to produce fruits and vegetables. We want to help them raise the quality of their products. We intend to support them with irrigation, technology, credits, education, and health. We want to help integrate them into modern society.”

Such remarks suggest how much the political atmosphere has changed in Guatemala. Ten years ago, talk about improving the lot of the poor could attract a visit from a death squad. Today, even middle-of-the-road politicians speak lovingly of the campesino. It’s not hard to see why: Three-quarters of all Guatemalans live in the countryside, and anyone wanting to get elected must appeal to them for their votes.

Yet the enlightenment extends only so far, as became clear when I asked Carpio how he intended to pay for all the rural programs he was proposing. At the time of our conversation, the government was nearly bankrupt, thanks in part to the upper class’s refusal to pay more than nominal taxes. Tax revenues in Guatemala amount to only 8 percent of GNP—one of the lowest rates in the world. Carpio, though, said he had no intention of raising taxes. “On the contrary,” he told me, leaning forward in his leather armchair, “we’re going to lower taxes.” The main problem in the country was tax evasion, Carpio explained; cutting rates would encourage more people to pay, thereby producing more revenue.

All in all, it sounded like a dotty Guatemalan version of supply-side economics. Carpio, like all of the current candidates, was dodging the central issue facing the country. “Nobody in Guatemala dares to mention the idea of redistributing wealth,” says Edmond Mulet, a lawyer who represents Carpio’s party in Congress. “Everybody knows it should be done, that more taxes should be levied in order to provide more social services to the poor. But if you say it too loudly, you scare the finqueros and the army.” He adds: “The gap between rich and poor remains. And so does the raison d’être for the guerrillas.”

The recent resurgence of the guerrillas has caught almost everyone by surprise. The ferocious pacification campaigns of the early 1980s, it was thought, had all but wiped them out. As with Ríos Montt, though, the country’s current crisis has opened the way for extremist politics, and the guerrillas now have an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 people in arms. They are reappearing in many areas for the first time in years, stopping buses, collecting war taxes, and ambushing the army. Marxism, in retreat throughout the rest of the world, is catching a second wind in Guatemala.

During the first wind, in the early 1980s, the guerrillas controlled much of the western highlands. In 1982, the four main guerrilla factions joined together to form the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Union (UNRG), and the prospect of a rebel victory seemed real indeed. Then came Ríos Montt and the army’s counterattack. The military struck at the rebels’ civilian base, razing more than four hundred villages and displacing tens of thousands of Indians. With the sea thus drained, the fish began dying.

The guerrillas compounded matters with their own political ineptitude. From the birth of the insurgency in 1962, the guerrillas have always been better at fighting than organizing. The rebel commanders—overwhelmingly ladino in composition—have had a hard time adapting their orthodox Marxist doctrine to the realities of life in the highlands. Indian recruits learned more about marksmanship than leadership, and when the army attacked, the rebels’ network collapsed.

The problem became particularly acute after the elections of 1985. With a civilian president in office, the old talk about vanguards and armed struggle seemed outmoded. The UNRG found it hard to adapt. “The ideological debate that has taken place within the Salvadoran guerrilla groups has been absent in Guatemala,” says a Salvadoran political scientist now working in Guatemala. Today, no more than 5 to 10 percent of the population supports the guerrillas, according to most estimates. The UNRG remains a potent military threat, but politically it seems already to have been defeated.

Today, everyone in Guatemala is talking about peace. A national reconciliation process, underway since 1987, has at long last begun to take hold. In late May, representatives of nine political parties traveled to Madrid to meet with the UNRG. The talks went far better than anyone had expected. Mario Sandoval Alarcón, the founder of the National Liberation Movement—an extreme right-wing group that calls itself the “party of organized violence”—tearfully embraced one of the guerrilla leaders, addressing him as brother.

An even more important session took place in early September, when representatives of CACIF—a group representing the country’s most powerful businessmen—met with the UNRG in Ottawa. CACIF has long been synonymous with reactionary politics in Guatemala, but an influx of young entrepreneurs has helped to make it a more modern organization, less concerned with preserving plantation profits than with building up local industry. The meeting in Ottawa marks the first time that the chieftains of Guatemalan capitalism have sat down with those seeking to overthrow it. The discussion went smoothly, raising hopes for a settlement.

That seems a long way off, though. Guatemala is Central America’s richest country, but also its most inequitable. The top 10 percent of the population controls about 40 percent of the nation’s wealth. The bottom 40 percent does not earn enough to provide a minimum diet. According to Guatemala’s Ministry of Health, 80 percent of all children under the age of five suffer from some degree of malnutrition. Thirteen of every hundred children die before they reach the age of five. Until something is done—until people like Father Eduardo feel free to open health clinics in the countryside—the country’s civil war seems certain to grind on.

Meanwhile, General Gramajo is at Harvard, taking courses in management, negotiations, and leadership. His stay at the Kennedy School is widely seen as preparation for a run at the presidency in 1995. “If my ideas about how to improve things in Guatemala would seem better accomplished from a higher position, then I have to do it,” Gramajo told me when I telephoned him in Cambridge. “But getting elected is not my main concern.” And what are his ideas for improving things? “What has made us so bad off in Guatemala is ideology,” he said. “Now that ideology isn’t much of a subject at the international level, we have a better chance. We must work for cooperation instead of confrontation.”

A worthy-sounding thought, and no doubt Gramajo’s time at the Kennedy School will help him refine it. Unfortunately, he is not taking any courses in human rights—the subject in which he’s weakest.

September 27, 1990

This Issue

October 25, 1990