I was sitting there listening to this self-important, American-educated Minister of Foreign Affairs and thinking how easy it would be for me to suddenly spring out of my chair and slice his throat. But I wasn’t there to kill him. I was there to interview him, although the bastard deserved to die for all the death and suffering he and his ilk had caused the Guatemalan people over the years.
Ironically, moments before I had entered his office at the National Palace in Guatemala City, I was subjected to a metal detector and physical pat down. But for some reason, the alarm didn’t go off, and the search-weary guards missed the knife I had hidden in my back pocket. To be fair to the guards, this was the early 1980s, and they were on the lookout for so-called Marxist guerrillas, not non-threatening freelance American journalists dressed in blue jeans. So they probably were a little lax when they frisked me, but that didn’t explain why the metal detector didn’t go off. Maybe it was just fate, or dumb luck.
“You claim the Soviet Union is responsible for the civil war in your country because they support the guerrilla opposition to your government,” I said to the minister, smiling inwardly as I envisioned the blood pumping out of his neck as he plunged to the floor, gagging and bug-eyed.
“We have proof of it,” the minister said confidently.
He was dressed in a three-piece Italian suit, had dark hair with a neatly trimmed goatee, and was sitting at a vintage mahogany desk looking very officious. Behind the desk was a large arched window that offered an impressive view of the palace steps and front courtyard. There were also a couple of large tapestries and oil paintings hanging on the walls, but they looked old and a bit shopworn. One of the tapestries was even a little crooked, and despite the freshly cut flowers sitting in a porcelain vase on top of a marble pedestal beside his desk, the overall impression of the room—neo-classical design notwithstanding—was one of decay rather than opulence.
“But isn’t it true,” I continued, “that most of the guerrillas don’t know Karl Marx from Groucho Marx, and they just want your government to break up the big land monopolies so they can share in the wealth more and escape from poverty?”
“If you think the Soviet Union is not working behind the scenes here, you are being naïve,” he replied.
“What about the CIA? Aren’t they doing the same thing?”
“I can’t comment on that, but in any case, they represent the forces of democracy.”
“What about the term ‘disappear’?” I pressed him. “A lot of people in Guatemala have been killed and thrown into unmarked graves. Isn’t that what is meant when someone who opposes the government disappears?”
He gave me a cold stare and said, “While it is true that there has been a lot of violence recently, our government does not have a policy that encourages random acts of killing or revenge. You must remember that the guerrillas are also quite ruthless and do a lot of kidnapping and killing.”
“That may be true, but there have been many press reports about thousands of innocent people disappearing just for speaking out against the government.”
“You cannot believe everything you read in the American press about the civil war in our country,” the minister admonished me as he stroked his silky goatee.
“I agree with you there,” I replied, although not in the way he intended it. After a few more questions, I wrapped up the interview. It was clear he was only going to give me his well-rehearsed boilerplate answers and not admit the truth about anything. He had learned his craft well from his North American masters.
After I left the minister’s office, I headed to Prensa Libre, one of the main newspapers in the city, and interviewed an editor I had previously contacted while I was still in Los Angeles. He was a friendly sort and quite willing to answer my questions forthrightly about the civil war, even though he admitted he could only go so far in his own paper when it came to criticizing government and military officials. We spent a couple of hours together, and I took copious notes on his insights and opinions on the war, which were decidedly sympathetic to the rebels. After the interview I had dinner and a few drinks at a restaurant near the National Palace, then I returned to my hotel room, did a little reading and went to sleep.
The next day I rented a car and drove out of Guatemala City on the Pan American Highway. My destination was Panajachel, a little town about eighty miles west of the capital that was influenced by leftover American hippies from the 1960s. The newspaper editor told me the town was a unique mix of locals and U.S. expatriates and I might be able to get an interview with one of the rebels there. He also mentioned that the road that led to Panajachel could be a little dangerous. A few days before my arrival, an American was shot and killed on the same road, but it was unclear who did the killing.
At that time in Guatemala, there were three groups that roamed the countryside—the national army, the guerrillas, and the bandits—and they all wore combat fatigues and carried submachine guns, so it was difficult to tell them apart. Also, most of them were in their late teens or early twenties, not very well educated, and, shall we say, a little lacking in critical thinking skills. Then again, I wasn’t expecting the Harvard debate team.
Ironically, the reason I was in Guatemala to begin with was because of my dysthymia. Don’t worry, I never heard the term either until my doctor sprang it on me. It means periodic depression or what is commonly known as “the blues.” He told me a lot of people have dysthymia without knowing it. I mean, who doesn’t get depressed from time to time? Clinical depression, however, is another thing; it’s more severe, and people suffering from clinical depression feel hopeless or suicidal most of the time. Dysthymia is more benign. You only feel hopeless or suicidal some of the time, and you can achieve a “normal state” of mind by taking drugs like Prozac or Zoloft. You can also achieve the same thing with meditation and exercise. Or you can accomplish it another way—by doing something foolhardy or dangerous, which forces you to forget about your current state of depression and focus on the potentially perilous situation you have created for yourself.
Now that I’m older, I don’t suffer from dysthymia as often. Now I suffer from a variety of physical ailments, like high blood pressure, enlarged prostate, and asthma, to name a few. But the time of which I speak I was much younger, and I was suffering from a protracted period of dysthymia due to an unfortunate event in my life that I won’t go into here. So it seemed like a good idea to go off to Guatemala on spec to do a story about the civil war in that country. And since I was going alone, with no contacts or news team or anyone else to bail me out, I knew there would be a certain amount of risk and danger involved.
These suspicions were confirmed as soon as I got into Guatemala City and saw that the streets were filled with soldiers on patrol brandishing submachine guns. They were dressed in camouflage fatigues, and it seemed like there were a couple on every corner. In fact, after I checked into my hotel room—I couldn’t have been in there more than ten minutes—I heard a few bursts of gun fire coming from outside my window. I quickly looked outside, but all I could see was an army Jeep racing down the street with a few soldiers running behind it.
At that point the reality of my decision to come to Guatemala suddenly hit me with full force, and I remember getting that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, you know, the one that makes you ask yourself the question: “What the fuck was I thinking when I came up with this idea?” Of course it was too late to do anything about it. The good news—my dysthymia was gone; the bad news—my paranoia level was one step below panic. As a result, as soon as I left my hotel room, I rushed to the nearest outdoor market and bought a knife.
The knife was one of those nasty little numbers with a razor sharp, four-inch blade that could be opened with a flick of the wrist—perfect for self-defense or a street fight. Actually, it was more a psychological crutch than anything else since it wouldn’t have done much good against submachine guns. But at least it was something, and it felt good hugging the handkerchief in my back pocket. So good, in fact, that I had forgotten all about it when I entered the National Palace to do my pre-arranged interview with the minister. If the guards had found it on me, I’m not sure what would have happened, but it probably wouldn’t have been very pleasant.
As I headed west to Panajachel, I noticed there were very few cars on the highway, which was divided by dry arid land, a variety of cacti, and rolling hills. About halfway to my destination, I heard machine gun fire coming from the hills. Apparently the army and the rebels were having at it, and without warning, about a dozen or more armed soldiers suddenly swooped down on the highway and blocked the road. I quickly applied the brakes to my rental car and came to a full stop. The troop leader walked over to the driver’s side window as several of his men surrounded the car and trained their guns on me. I had been in some dangerous situations before in my life, but nothing like this, nothing where I was in a foreign country, totally isolated, and at the mercy of a bunch of young guys with itchy trigger fingers.
The troop leader, who represented himself as an official of the national army, was wearing camouflage fatigues and dark sunglasses, and he asked to see identification. I took out my passport and car rental paperwork and handed it to him. I also handed him a folded up sheet of notebook paper that contained a message written in Spanish that stated I was a freelance journalist and did not represent any political group or viewpoint. I had heard stories about Americans disappearing in Guatemala, so I had written the message before I left the States as a safety precaution.
In reality, I was completely against the Reagan Administration’s policies, not only in Guatemala but also in El Salvador and Nicaragua, and the idea that the Soviet Union was fomenting revolution and social unrest in Central America was pure propaganda. In fact, anyone who had spent any time in the region or studied its history knew it was the countries’ own greedy and ruthless oligarchic governments propped up by North American Big Business interests and the CIA that caused the social upheavals and revolutions, not the “godless communists,” as Reagan was so fond of saying.
When the troop leader was satisfied I was just a non-threatening dumb-ass gringo and not some kind of rebel sympathizer, he let me pass. An hour later I reached Panajachel. The town is located near the shore of Lake Atitlan, the deepest lake in Central America, and on the other side of the lake are three inactive volcanoes surrounded by verdant foliage and a variety of shrubs and trees. I drove into the center of town and parked in front of a bar that offered a few age-worn outdoor wooden tables and chairs. The main street of the town was actually quite charming. The storefronts and bars were rustic and provincial and the natives were dressed in traditional peasant garb: white cotton shirts and pants with red or multi-colored neckerchiefs and wide-brimmed straw hats. At least this was the case a few decades ago when I was there. Since then, I understand the town has become more commercialized and tourist-oriented.
I sat down at one of the tables and ordered a beer from an attractive young waitress with dark hair, smooth olive skin, and a lingering smile. I watched her go inside and point me out to an older gringo standing behind the bar. He had a straggly beard and was wearing horn-rimmed glasses. He walked out with two bottles of beer in his hands and sat down at my table. He introduced himself as Mike, the owner of the bar, and asked me where I was from.
“L.A.,” I told him, “but I’m originally from Philadelphia.”
“Philadelphia?!!” He nearly fell out of his goddamn chair. “Philly is my hometown, for cryin’ out loud!”
I was a little taken aback myself. What was even more shocking was the guy told me he was a Catholic priest who had left the priesthood because he couldn’t handle the restricted lifestyle and vow of sexual abstinence. As a result, he handed in his collar and quit, which caused him to feel very guilty and tormented. In true Catholic tradition, he decided to punish himself and hope for redemption, like the character in Joseph Conrad’s novel, Lord Jim. So he took off from Philly in an old VW bug in the late 1960s, drove up through Montreal and the eastern side of Canada into Alaska, down the western side of Canada, through California and Mexico to Guatemala.
“Along the way, I slept on the road in a sleeping bag and I didn’t bathe,” the former priest told me, delighting in his remembrance of pain and suffering past. He lit a cigarette, coughed, and took a slug on his bottle of cerveza—can’t remember the brand. It was obvious he was an alcoholic and a little deranged, but in a non-threatening beatific way.
The early October sun was shining brightly and I felt quite content—languid even—as I sat there listening to this tortured soul’s story while I sipped my beer and lit a cigarette. Like many people of my generation, I don’t smoke any more. I miss it, too. I miss the whole ritual. When you have cigarettes, you always have something to do. I’ve tried cigars and pipes, but they don’t cut it. They’re the ugly girl in the room. The cigarettes are the sexy girl that keeps you on the hook.
“When I got to Guatemala and came over here to Panajachel,” the ex-priest explained in a raspy voice. “I knew my search was over. This was where I wanted to be.”
“So you found peace of mind here,” I said.
He let out a loud guffaw and shook his head undecidedly. We talked a little more about his life, and then we discussed my background. Finally, the subject of the civil war came up and I asked him his opinion of it.
“The rebels are right, of course.” he stated without hesitation. “All they want is a fair shake like anyone else. But it’s tough for them. They’re outgunned and outmatched. And the United States is on the side of the national government, which is totally corrupt. I try to stay out of it as much as possible, but sometimes I can’t help but get involved. The natives know me and trust me. My waitress’s brother used to fight with the rebels until he got hurt. Got shot in the back. He’s lucky to be alive.”
“Do you think I could interview him? I’ll keep his identity secret.”
“I’ll see what I can do. Come back here tonight around six.”
He walked back into the bar and left me alone with my thoughts. After I finished my beer, I checked into a cheap hotel near the bar and took a walk around town. At six I went back to the bar and hooked up with the ex-priest. He brought me into his back storage room and introduced me to a guy in his early twenties. He was short, squat, dark-skinned, and very unassuming. He didn’t speak any English, so Mike did all the translating. Everything he told me reinforced my belief that the United States was on the wrong side of this conflict and was responsible for allowing the military in Guatemala to brutally kill tens of thousands of innocent people with impunity. At one point, the kid showed me the scar on his back where he got shot, yet he seemed very stoic about it, adding that it could have been worse. A couple of his pals were killed on the same day he escaped with the wound.
The next day, I drove back to Guatemala City without incident. It was my last day in town, so I decided to spend the rest of my time sightseeing, buying souvenirs, and playing the merry tourist. Later that evening, I picked up a hooker on the street near my hotel. She looked quite different than most of the short and stocky peasant women I had seen in town. She was tall and slender, and had refined features—more Spanish than Mayan. She spoke English, too, and was very professional in the approach to her job. I can’t remember how many quetzals she charged, but it was quite reasonable for the time—maybe fifteen, twenty bucks.
We went back to my room and I offered her a cigarette. She took the cigarette, looked at the filter with amusement, then she bit off the filter, removed it from her mouth with her long sleek fingers, and dropped it unceremoniously into the ashtray. She took note of my surprise and smiled, a big devilish smile that revealed a gold incisor tooth that stood out like a shiny coin in the sand. It was at once primitive and alluring.
“So what do you think of the way the people in charge of the government are handling the civil war in your country?” I asked her.
She lit her cigarette sans filter and looked at me cynically. “It doesn’t matter who runs the government,” she said, spitting a piece of tobacco from her tongue onto the floor. “Things always stay the same.”
I tried to engage her in more conversation, but I could tell she wasn’t interested in discussing politics, or anything else, for that matter. So we proceeded with our business, then we got dressed and headed to the door. I followed her outside to the front of the hotel. It was late and the street was empty and not very well lit. She waved goodbye and started walking. I lit a cigarette and followed her ass down the street.
As she passed a side street, I saw this young kid suddenly dart out of the shadows and try to grab her pocketbook. She hung onto it with one hand and began to strike him with the other. I quickly ran down the street, sizing up the situation as I approached. The kid looked like he was about thirteen or fourteen and did not appear to be very menacing. The hooker was a lot taller than he was, and so was I.
As soon as I reached them, I grabbed the kid around the neck and put a chokehold on him from behind. He immediately released her pocketbook and began to squirm and struggle with me, grabbing at my arms and frantically shifting his body from side to side. When I was convinced he was no longer a threat, I loosened my grip and threw him to the ground. He looked at me with a combination of shock and anger, then he scrambled to his feet, pulled a knife from his back pocket, and flicked it open.
From what I could tell, the knife looked like the same one I had in my back pocket. He probably bought it (or stole it) at the same outdoor market where I had bought mine. The hooker told him in Spanish not to be stupid and put the knife away. He told her to go to hell and pointed the knife at me in a threatening manner, but with some trepidation. I figured he just wanted to save face so I stood there and tried to calm him down. Surprisingly, he was having none of it. He took a step toward me and made a couple of quick slashing motions in the air with his blade. I didn’t know whether he was posturing or had serious intentions, but my instincts took over, and without hesitation I went for the knife in my back pocket, quickly flicked open the blade, and assumed a fighting stance.
This maneuver caught the kid off guard and he looked at me nervously, his eyes bugging out as if he were doing an impression of Peter Lorre pleading for his life in the classic film M. While still holding his knife in a threatening manner, he licked his lips and looked at the hooker, then back at me, and realized it wasn’t worth it. He said something in a hateful voice that translated roughly to me having intercourse with my mother and took off down the side street.
The hooker thanked me for helping her, but she seemed less upset than I thought she would be. “These kinds of things happen all the time,” she said impassively. “People are poor and they need to survive.”
When she said that it stuck in my mind, and the next day when I was on the plane back to the States, I realized how lucky I was to be able to travel and have plenty to eat and drink. I wasn’t rich by any means, but in comparison to the peasants I encountered along the way, I must have seemed rich. I also realized that coming to this country and putting myself in harm’s way had very little to do with courage, as some of my friends had suggested when I initially told them of my plans.
Real courage comes with living day to day not knowing where your next meal is coming from, or whether you can take care of your kids, or whether the political thugs that run your country are going to kidnap you in the middle of the night and make you disappear. Try living with that on a daily basis to test your mettle, as the poor peasants in Guatemala did in those days, especially the ones who stood up against the government. Would I have had that kind of courage? Perhaps, if I had been raised in that environment. But who knows? Because the truth is, going off to Guatemala and covering the civil war at that point in my life had less to do with courage and more to do with seeking a temporary release from the blues.
(Photo fact: The author in the 1980s, the time in which this story was set.)