The Guatemalan Silence


Silence on the Mountain Review

Early one evening in 1993,  Daniel Wilkinson, a Harvard postgrad researcher, was finishing an interview in a remote Guatemalan village when he began hearing gunshots on the mountain above him.

Though at first, the sound seemed to be little more than a discordant series of unconnected reports, it soon became clear that he was hearing a battle between leftist guerrillas and the Guatemalan military. Wilkinson’s interviewee, an indigenous man and former hand on a coffee plantation, insisted on account of the danger that his guest spend the night at his house, an offer which, machine guns rattling in the distance, the fearful Ivy-leaguer was eager to accept.

The Central American country was at the tail end of one of the Americas’ bloodiest internal conflicts. But government reports now insisted that the guerrillas were virtually non-existent, convincing Wilkinson he had little to fear as he traveled the coffee plantations of the country’s rural southern piedmont. The cacophony of gunshots suggested otherwise, hinting at a far darker reality of violence. What perplexed the human rights worker the most was not the sound of the battle, but his hosts evasive refusal to directly discuss it, or even acknowledge it was happening in the first place. As the pop-pop-pop of rifle fire continued interminably into the night, Wilkinson gave up on trying to ask what was happening, and instead listened to his guest’s quiet lecture on the apolitical virtues of Evangelical Christianity.

Silence, and its attendant culture of fear, lays at the core of this powerful book, a testament to the crippling psychological effects that four-decades of state-sanctioned terror can wreak upon an innocent population.

Silence on the Mountain, a story of Guatemala’s civil war as seen through the lens of one community, grew out of an incident Wilkinson heard of when he was researching the aborted movement for Agrarian Reform in the early 1950s. A plantation house, he heard, was burned down in 1983. Out of curiosity, he made an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the mysterious arson, but was confronted by a wall of silence on the part of his interviewees, who refused to talk not only about the burning of the patron’shouse but about anything historical from the past thirty years. (Saber— “Who Knows?”—was a common refrain whenever he asked people about past events) War? Never affected us. Massacres? Not here. Disappearances? Pues, saber—who knows? For Wilkinson, history was almost nonexistent in Guatemala.

After several years of repeated visits and the 1996 peace agreement that brought the thirty-six-year conflict to a close, Wilkinson, having finally found people willing to talk, discovered a tapestry of stories behind the veil of silence whose terrifying impressions of violence helped him understand their reticence in ways that were previously impossible.

“My confidence,” he writes, “was itself the product of ignorance—the misjudgment of a person who had never known real terror and had not yet earned how to listen to silence.”

Silence, for the people of Guatemala, was both weapon and a survival mechanism.

Distilled into this book, the result of his several years spent trailing interviews in the Guatemalan countryside on his motorcycle, is a polyphonic collection of voices that recounts how one of the poorest populations in the hemisphere, as punishment for attempting to improve their lives, fell victim to to some of its most savage displays of brutality.

The long night of Guatemala’s bloodshed began in 1954, when the United States and CIA, caught in the wind of paranoid anticommunism and eager to protect US corporations, orchestrated a coup that replaced a fragile ten-year experiment in democracy with three decades of overt military rule. Military rule sparked a Marxist insurgency which, after two decades of military stalemate, led to a vicious scorched earth campaign—later deemed a genocide—against the indigenous Maya population of the Western highlands, followed by another decade of guerrilla warfare.

The spark for the ‘54 CIA coup had been the Agrarian Reform, an experimental law spearheaded by movements of landless campesinos, who after a century of living through slave-like conditions sought to redistribute land in a more just, equitable manner. And though the violence began with the US backed coup, the discontent which laid the groundwork for war goes further back in history, to the extreme inequality created by Spanish conquest and then exacerbated by the era of economic liberalization in the late 1800s.

Absurdity abounds in Wilkinson’s depiction of this early era.

He writes of how Manuel Estrada Cabrera, an early prototype of the flamboyant, egotistical Latin American dictator, was so eager to polish his country’s image in the eyes of foreign businesses that he went as far as denying the explosion of Santa María Volcano, even as the massive eruption was happening.

It boiled down to the fact that, as a small, potentially irrelevant tropical nation struggling to acquire capital from European financial centers, the government treated Guatemala less as a nation than a business, an investment, an unrealized and untapped pool of labor. To attract investors, Guatemala needed not only to specialize in a few niche cash-crops for export—in this case, coffee—but to cultivate its image as a capitalist fantasyland, where inconvenient problems that could pose a threat to business—labor rights, environmental challenges; exploding volcanos, for that matter—simply ceased to exist.

“The prosperity of the coffee nation,” he writes, “depended on the inflow of outside capital. It depended therefore on the confidence of international creditors. And this confidence depended largely on the country’s public image abroad.”

Because Estrada Cabrera had scheduled an international expo of Guatemala’s modernizing educational system for international business leaders at the same time as the volcano’s eruption, he did what any dictator might do—deny it as it was happening. Wilkinson writes how Estrada’s “P.R. efforts would never be enough to overcome Guatemala’s basic problem investment depended ultimately on the profitability of coffee, and profitability depended on prices in the world market over which Guatemala had control.”

Burdened with the “Resource Curse” that befell countless rising nation-states in the global south, the Guatemalan government spent much of the late 19thand early 20thcenturies carving an ever-more enticing business environment for prospective European plantation owners, often through the forcible conscription of Mayan workers via the military and by sanctioning their abuse with lax, business-friendly labor regulations.

“Capital always seeks a return,” he writes. “In the coffee economy, this return was guaranteed by a chain of debt: the worker was indebted to the land-owner, the landowner to the exporter, the exporter to the importer… In order to guarantee capital’s return, the debts had to be enforced. And in Guatemala the enforcer was the state. It militarized the countryside, posting militia units throughout the highlands, where they could make sure workers went to the plantations to fulfill their labor obligations.”

As it so happened, a large population of German settlers would establish plantations in turn-of-the-century Guatemala, drawn by the capital friendly environment and vast indigenous labor force, which had been whipped into shape by ruthless government militias. It is in this milieu that Friedrich Endler, owner of the La Patria coffee plantation and one of the books early protagonists (or antagonists) first emerges.

Friedrich Endler was a German sailor who, through a bizarre succession of circumstances, was personally granted ownership by the President of Guatemala of the La Patriacoffee plantation, on the country’s southern Pacific Coast, in 1892.

The descriptions Endler left in his journals from his initial time in La Patria are as vivid as they are revealing: in his eyes, the Mayan workers, brought by government militias from the highlands to the north, were “savage, ragged creatures performing their fantastic dances under the electric light… small, dumpy figures who occupy the lowest rung on the plantation.” Racism towards indigenous people pervaded early plantation life as much as it would in later decades: in 1899, he sired a son with an indigenous woman, “but after taking one look at that dark-skinned child he declared, ‘Friedrich Endler, you get your ass back to Germany and get yourself a white wife. There aren’t going to be any brown babies in the Endler family.’”

A microcosm of his country’s trajectory, Endler’s bastard indigenous son, outcasted from birth by the dark melanin in his skin, would be executed by a death squad in the wake of the coup for working to help the plantation workers unionize.

In interviewing numerous people from the Endler family, Wilkinson noticed how, in retelling the story of Endler family’s rise to wealth, a saga which retrospectively attained a mythological aura, they almost always excluded mention of systemic inequality, government intervention, or racism towards the indigenous workers, upon whose labor their immense wealth had been built.

“It didn’t surprise me,” he writes, “that they would omit the government (and its procurement of forced labor) from the stories they told of their past. They were merely doing what most prosperous people do when explaining their prosperity: highlight personal effort and downplay privilege.”

What Wilkinson suspected—in spite of the stories the landowners told him—and what he later discovered to be true—despite the workers’ unyielding silence—was that the dynamic between patron and worker was, in the end, a zero-sum game of power and powerlessness.

Some patrónes would treat their workers with respect, giving them supplies for their homes, medicine for their children and gifts on holidays (a beneficence that was by no means universal).

But the moment workers began organizing to demand minimum-wage and acquire ownership of uncultivated lands, allowing them to have a say in politics and sell their own crops on the side, the landowner would cast them out. They would be fired and blacklisted as a communist, leaving them bereft of employment in neighboring plantations. They would be ejected from their homes, which, because landowners kept them in a constant cycle of debt, rarely belonged to them in the first place (in one case, a peasant woman was evicted as she was going into labor). Or they would end up like the first union leader of La Patria, whose body was found underneath a bridge after the coup, his skull blown apart by a shotgun.

It was in this ferment of violently suppressed collective yearning that civil war began, with hardly a murmur or even a shot fired, in 1960. Frustrated young plantation workers, many of whom watched as their unionized fathers were tortured and killed in the coup’s aftermath, went to the mountains alongside urban intellectuals to establish guerrilla fronts, building networks of civilians who would serve as their support base for the next two decades.

Javier had been one of those young men. A demobilized guerrilla Wilkinson stumbled across in Quetzaltenango following the ’96 peace accord, the muscular man had a pride and sense of confident self-worth that stood in stark contrast to the deferential submissiveness of many indigenous plantation workers, who tended to cap off exchanges with foreigners by saying Para Servirle— “Here to serve.”

“There was the way he himself looked at people,” Wilkinson writes of Javier. “His gaze was steady. His eyes expressive… (he) didn’t nod unless he agreed with what was said. He didn’t laugh unless he was amused. You could tell that, if challenged, he would stand his ground—and, if necessary, push back. It wasn’t that he was belligerent, or even unfriendly. It was just that he had stopped being para servirlea long time ago.”

Javier, unlike countless other, wasn’t afraid to tell his story. As a teenager, he was a hard worker who avoided politics and maintained a close rapport with the patrón. But he grew disillusioned with his family’s poverty and inability to rise up, a disillusionment made more acute by his parents’ stories about how once, before 1954, there had been hope for a better life, and how that hope had been buried. By the time he stumbled on clandestine recruiters for the guerrillas, in his mid-20s, he enlisted himself into the armed struggle with glee.

Javier’s first experience of combat came early 1980, when he and two others ambushed a contingent of government soldiers.  “As he pulled the trigger, Javier felt an enormous release of tension,” Wilkinson writes of the intoxicating experience. “He was no longer scared.”

Until 1981, the guerrillas won almost all the battles they waged. They were gaining ground. Inflicting rapid casualties, the highly mobile units would strike like lightning before vanishing into the rugged mountain terrain, where they knew the land and fielded a broad range of civilian support.

What happened then, if the war had been going so well? How did the triumphant initial decades descend to genocide? Why, if they once eagerly supported the guerrillas (“Que viva ORPA!”—Long live ORPA!—they would yell as fighters passed through their villages) did the villagers refuse to acknowledge their existence fifteen years later?

By the time general Efraín Ríos Montt commandeered the trembling Guatemalan government in a March 1982 coup d’état, the armed forces adopted an extreme version of the counterinsurgency doctrine the United States pioneered in Vietnam before exporting it to countless Third World conflict zones. If guerrillas, as Mao once famously theorized, were the fish in the sea of peasants, then the solution to destroying them, according to US counterinsurgency theory, was simple, terrifying, and indiscriminate—eliminate the sea itself.

In July 1982, the de facto dictator, who asides from a soldier was a flamboyant evangelical convert, began “Operation Sofia,” a sweep designed to eliminate all “subversive elements” within the civilian population of Quiche and Huehuetenango, the mountainous western region home to a predominantly Mayan population.

The military categorized villages in the region according to three colors: white meant that the village was protestant and bore little influence from Liberation Theology, the Marxist-inflected, guerrilla-sympathetic offshoot of Catholicism. Because their religious stance was pro-government, or at least tacitly apolitical, these villages were spared the terror that befell hundreds of others—the strafings by helicopter gunships, the executions, the massacres. Pink, the second category, designated the limited presence of “subversive elements” in the village. To deal with them, the army would amass the villagers in a public square and single out, torture, and execute ten to twenty suspected guerrilla sympathizers, instilling a sense of fear that would keep them away from (but ironically drove many to join) the rebels. Red, the final category, meant the presence of large-scale guerrilla support, the only response to which would be total and indiscriminate extermination. No survivors were allowed in these villages: government soldiers, in turn, displayed levels of sadism and savagery matched perhaps only by the Islamic State thirty years later. Men and women were raped, beheaded, shot en masse; burned, buried, or skinned alive. 100,000 people perished in the 626 villages whose misfortune it was to receive this designation. Because it specifically targeted indigenous civilians—and because centuries-old, anti-indigenous racism propelled the campaigns as much as, if not more than, Cold War anti-communism—the UN, in its 1999 Truth Report, labeled the military sweeps under Rios Montt as acts that constituted not warfare, but genocide.

Operation Sofia was one of numerous scorched-earth campaigns directed at undercutting the rebels by slaughtering their civilian support in the early 1980s. Combined with the constant “disappearances” of activists and suspected sympathizers by death squads, the tide was turned in a crucial aspect: civilians grew too terrified to support the rebels any longer. Whereas they once withheld information about guerrillas from the government, the sight of the army slaughtering entire villages en massemade them go silent towards the revolutionaries as well. The guerrillas may not have lost militarily. But they were now mere fish flopping in an ocean gone dry. As former general Hector Gramajo cynically pointed out to Wilkinson, the previous broad base of civilian support the guerrillas experienced was large enough to qualify them as authentic revolutionaries. Yet with the previously-supportive population now too terrified to meddle in politics anymore—with their base swept from beneath their feet—the revolutionaries were transmogrified into mere terrorists, capable of inflicting violence but bereft of the means to affect political change.

As he untangles the dark trajectory of how agrarian reform turned to coup, coup to insurgency and insurgency to genocide, Wilkinson is confronted by the wildly contradictory narraties of the few voices willing to resurrect the past.

A former administrator for the La Patria plantation, Erich Becker, now a wealthy businessman, confidently informs Wilkinson that Rafael Zamora—the bastard indigenous son of Friedrich Endler who spearheaded the workers’ unionization in the 1950s and was later executed via shotgun—was a power-mongering rapist.

“Rafael had been messing with the women of the workers,” Becker told him. “He was taking the worker’s women to bed, or worse yet, in the coffee fields, he’d rape them.” He went on to say how Zamora’s efforts to lead the worker’s unionization was in fact a Trojan horse for his grand plan to “take control of the plantation.”

Yet later interviews revealed Zamora the “rapist” was in fact seen as a hero to the workers, described as a man of principle who never lied and fought to empower the poor and downtrodden of his community.

Wilkinson deftly navigates past and present as he delineates the trajectory of Guatemala’s civil war, illuminating how criminal violence of the present grew out of the political injustice of the past. Recollections of past events are juxtaposed with present panoramas of instability: bands of Maras, or MS-13—a gang that flourished when Salvadoran war refugees in California were deported to a conflict-destroyed Central America—terrorizing the streets of the capital. Or roadblocks of burning tires in the capital as the country’s poor residents protest IMF-imposed austerity, a continuation of the economic liberalization begun a century prior by Estrada Cabrera.

Some of the best books are written by people who are ostensibly non-writers. The critic George Steiner once said he’d prefer any passage of Levi-Strauss or Sigmund Freud to some easily forgettable, “literary” poet or novelist. Wilkinson, now the director for the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch, is a perfect example of that. It’s a shame, given his propensity for crystalline prose and his gift for discerning the poetic ironies of life—of seeing, as Oscar Wilde would have it, the ways life imitates art—that he hasn’t written another book. But his dispatches for Human Rights Watches, delineating the way power structures engender human suffering in places like Mexico, Brazil, Venezuela, are as eloquently scribed as they are well-researched and courageous.



“Another way to tell the history of Guatemala’s war,” he writes, “is this: it took four decades of violence to stamp out what the agrarian reform had created—the commitment to the future that those men had shared, the belief that they could transform their nation.”

Terrorism, Wilkinson writes—terrorism by massacres, terrorism by disappearance—succeeded in Guatemala, at least temporarily so.

Silence on the Mountain was published in 2002. In that paranoid, post-9/11 context, he implores the reader to imagine an America in which the terrorists—in our case, al-Qaeda—actually held the country in thrall, where the terrorists were supported by an all-powerful government armed and financed by external bodies, as had been the case for poor Guatemalans:

“…if we stop to imagine how it actually would have been—recall those moments of raw fear when our buildings or subway stops were evacuated, recall dreading what we might hear on the evening news, recall what it was like to be staring out an office window or riding an elevator or reading a newspaper and feel a sudden urge to cry, and then imagine the danger being so immediate that we couldn’t even talk about it, and imagine that the people doing this to us were proclaiming their own righteousness to the world, and imagine living like this day after day, year after year, until the most we could hope for was to be left alone. If we do this, we may begin to grasp what hundred of thousands of Guatemalans experienced during their war. For Guatemala was a place where terrorism did, in fact, win.”

Why the silence? Though it took him several years to understand, he ultimately found that it wasn’t because they didn’t know anything, but because they were terrified.

Back to the evening in 1993 when, listening to the gunshots on the mountain, his guest refused to discuss the obvious as it was happening. Rather than ask why he refused to acknowledge the shooting, Wilkinson learned that the silence was an answer unto itself. How many decades of sheer terror did it take for him to not openly recognize reality? His guest said little, but his message was clear: If I say anything, they may well kill me.

The roots of internal conflict still exist in Guatemala today, compounded further by the problems of militarization and collective fear that the war left behind. Government corruption and the dispossession of indigenous peoples continues alongside gang-warfare, poverty and drug violence. Little wonder, then, that so many Guatemalans have cast in the towel to migrate in search of better lives in the great white cities of the north.  

The United Nations, following the 1996 Peace Accord, sponsored the Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico, or Commission for Historical Clarification, which between 1997 and 1999 dispatched investigators throughout the Guatemalan countryside to gather testimonials about the decades of massacres and disappearances that’d been visited upon the poor, mostly indigenous victims of violence, many of them children. Told to ask questions such as “Why were civilians, particularly Mayans, targeted?” and “Why did defenseless children suffer?”, the Commission, 269 strong at its height, struggled with the same dilemma that faced Wilkinson in 1993—no one wanted to talk. To talk meant to be singled out, and to be singled out meant getting killed.

Over two years, having visited 2,000 villages and interviewed roughly 20,000 people, the CEH, as it is referred to, finally managed in coaxing to light the stories which laid bare Guatemala’s violent history of repression—the same stories which compose Wilkinson’s brilliant Silence on the Mountain.

Though deep, systemic problems continue to haunt Guatemala, the constant fear of being disappeared, at least, has greatly abated in the twenty-three years since the war ended. Though danger persists, Guatemalans feel a greater power to acknowledge and denounce the truth.

“Poverty would continue to consume the country’s poor,” he writes. “Violence would continue to haunt its political life. But, at the very least, there was reason to hope that the silence of the last century would remain a thing of the past.”

Author: jared8796

I'm a multi-award-winning writer and independent journalist whose essays and reportage have been published in The Nation, Vice News, the Los Angeles Review of Books, El Faro, and NACLA, among others. As an investigator, my focus is on violence, environmental conflict, political and social struggle in Central America, particularly Honduras. As a writer and essayist, my wider concern is understanding the historical dynamics of social struggle and interrogating fundamental presuppositions concerning humans relation with one another and the planet. I've spent two and a half years as a reporter covering social and environmental strife in Mexico and Central America. In 2018, I was a grantee for the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, for whom I covered the continued existence of the Zapatista movement 25 years following their uprising. Since then, I've reported on MS-13 gang violence; indigenous radios in Guatemala; anti-government resistance in Honduras; and deadly environmental conflicts.

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